Friday, June 15, 2007

Movie Review: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Yet another review by the resident dragon.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli. Running time 117 minutes. Released by Disney Home Video. Rated PG.

See other reviews here.

Every once in a while I win the weekly arm-wrestle and the weekly movie is anime rather than kung fu (if D. G. D. wins) or a documentary (if Frederick wins).

This week's pick is an oldie but goodie, a Miyazaki movie that predates his most famous films. It's a title tossed around a bit on the Christian sf blogosphere, so when I suggested it, D. G. D. wrestled with less enthusiasm than usual.

Thematically and in its choice of mythic motifs, Nausicaä has much in common with other Miyazaki films. The tough, independent, and very likable female lead is there, as is the ecological concern, though Nausicaä lacks the thoughtfulness and nuance (and superior animation) of Princess Mononoke.

What makes it a popular mention on Christian spec fic blogs are its religious overtones, but we'll get to that at the end.

To sum up, Nausicaä is a post-apocalyptic story. The world after the nuclear and/or environmental holocaust is such a common setting in sf that the film has too many parallels to name, but some elements, such as the Poison Jungle, put me in mind of Harlan Ellison's short story, "The Death Bird."

In the future world, humans are few in number and isolated in small kingdoms. Almost covering the world and threatening the survival of the human race is the Poison Jungle, a vast land of fungus-like plants and gigantic, semi-intelligent insects. The plants, bugs, and the very air of the jungle are poisonous. The notion of such a menace encroaching on the world of man and threatening his existence also has plenty of parallels. The sudden appearance of a dangerous jungle covering Europe in Robert Charles Wilson's Darwinia is one example. Another parallel D. G. D. insists I mention is the deadly sea of human flesh threatening to cover Mars in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Synthetic Men of Mars. The Poison Jungle also reminds vaguely of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "Rappacini's Daughter." The giant bugs are common, too. They bear some affinity to the sandworms of Dune and maybe the giant ants of Them!

The Valley of the Winds is one of the isolated kingdoms of humanity. Though close to the jungle, it is protected by constant winds that keep poisonous spores from growing on the Valley's toxin-free plants. Whereas most of the kingdoms fight the jungle with fire, the people of the Valley have learned to live in a sort of tense harmony with nature. Wearing gas masks, they enter the jungle frequently to find needed resources. Such activities take their toll, however, for as the story begins, benevolent King Jihl is dying from slow, lifelong poisoning. His popular and beloved daughter, the virtuous yet tough Princess Nausicaä, is set to take his place as the valley's ruler.

But an airship from the warlike kingdom of Tolmekia comes crashing into the Valley with a mysterious and deadly cargo. Tolmekian warriors soon arrive, take over the Valley, and secure this cargo, which turns out to be an artifact from before the collapse of civilization.

According to the movie's backstory, civilization effectively ended with the creation of biotech monstrosities simply called Warrior Giants, creatures capable of emitting powerful energy beams much like the robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Tolmekians are bent on harnessing this devastating technology to destroy the Toxic Jungle. Nausicaä, however, knows that's a bad idea: destruction of the jungle enrages the giant insects, who then attack human communities in massive swarms. Besides that, as it turns out, the Jungle's complex ecosystem is slowly but surely purifying the earth of pollutants, so the very thing killing humanity may be humanity's only chance for long-term survival. There's a strong hint here of directional evolution: we are told that all the lifeforms of the jungle have evolved for the purpose of cleaning the Earth. No explanation is given for this (deity being the only explanation possible), and I'm sure it's given a few biologists fits.

Early in the story, Nausicaä becomes enraged enough with the Tolmekian invaders to take up a sword and do some serious kung fu-style butt-kicking. She can't single-handedly beat back the enemy, but she does leave behind a room full of corpses. So horrified is she at her own ability to kill that she becomes for the rest of the film a dedicated pacifist bent on saving every lifeform she encounters, even if it means risking her own life. In this she bears resemblance to another anime character, Vash the Stampede from Trigun. She also resembles Vash in that she's a christological figure, but I'm still getting to that.

The Warrior Giant that the Tolmekians are trying to resurrect is under-utilized (it has one good scene), but it does serve an important mythological function. The Giant calls to mind the Titans and similar giant monsters. Joseph Campbell tells us in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that the heroes of great stories are usually of the generation immediately proceeding that of the "Tyrant Holdfast," so for example the Titans were defeated by their children, as were a number of similar elder gods of the Mediterranean. In Nausicaä, too, the young princess is of the generation immediately proceeding the story's wrong-headed adult villains. The Warrior Giant those villains wish to use against the Jungle makes the mythic motif of youths defeating their sires more plain, though it serves little purpose otherwise.

Now I must discuss the movie's end. For that, I will give the standard spoiler alert, though the motif used at the end is standard enough you won't find it much of a shock if you don't know what it is already.

Early on in the movie, we learn of a prophecy regarding a figure clothed in blue and walking in a golden field who will one day come to free humanity. Anyone paying attention can figure out that Nausicaä is going to fulfill that. Twice in the film, Nausicaä deliberately holds her arms out in a cruciform position, and at the end of the film, in a harrowing attempt to save both the people of the Valley and the giant insects of the Jungle, Nausicaä succeeds, but dies. Shortly after that, the giant insects resurrect her and the ending is thoroughly happy.

I'm rather dissatisfied with the resurrection scene. It isn't wholly out-of-the blue, for Miyazaki is wise enough to imbue the insects with certain mystical qualities beforehand. Still, the resurrection is the movie's only out-and-out miracle, and it lacks good explanation. The resurrection scene contains the foreshadowed imagery: blue clothing and a golden field, but has Nausicaä really saved all humanity? She discovered the function of the Jungle, true, and saved the Valley for at least a time, but that doesn't mean mankind will necessarily survive the Earth's drastic self-cleaning process.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind:

Myth Level: High (titanomachy, death-and-resurrection, hero, all that good stuff)

Quality: Medium/High (not as polished as Miyazaki's later films)

Religion/Ethics: High (family-friendly, good message, respectful use of religious imagery)

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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