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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Studio Ghibli is a cultural institution in its native Japan. It’s credited with the anime revival of the 1980’s and for popularizing the form in and outside of Japan. Many of its films have gone on to influence not just anime, but other works of animation as well with its characters even making cameos in Pixar films. Studio Ghibli was officially founded in 1985, but many consider its beginning to be with the film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Released in 1984, it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki and future Ghibli director Isao Takahata was named producer. The film’s success is essentially what founded Studio Ghibli with most of the crew joining the studio.

Nausicaä is a film that almost didn’t happen. Fresh off his well received directorial debut in Lupin III:  Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki was approached to direct another feature length anime picture by Animage. Miyazaki came up with the concept for Nausicaä then, but the studio wasn’t interested and the project was aborted. Miyazaki took Nausicaä to the manga form where he was able to build up a fanbase for the property leading to another opportunity to bring the story to the anime form.

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Nausicaä atop her glider.

It’s easy to see why Nausicaä is considered the spiritual beginning for Studio Ghibli. It goes beyond the fact that it’s a feature-length anime production featuring names that would become synonymous with Ghibli. The film, thematically, is very much in line with a great many of Ghibli’s films, most obviously the one’s directed by Miyazaki. The film contains a female protagonist with a Buddhist-like point of view towards nature and the people around her. The film can simply be described as an environmental picture that also strongly endorses pacifism, subject matter that would be covered in other Miyazaki works with the most obvious being Princess Mononoke. The film’s themes are clear and easy for any viewer, even the very young, to pick up on. The film’s themes are so obvious and central to the plot that it’s one of weaknesses as well as Miyazaki would become better skilled at relaying his message in future films with more skill and subtlety. The film’s directness sometimes leads to stilted dialogue and some uninteresting villains.

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In the path of an enraged Ohm is not someplace you want to be.

Beyond the film’s sometimes amateur story-telling, there aren’t a lot of negatives to be had. The film focuses on the princess Nausicaä, who lives in a small dessert village on the outskirts of the poisoned forest. Mankind is forced to live in a world dominated by insects with the most formidable being the massive, tank-like Ohm, following an apocalyptic event occurring a thousand years before the events of the film. These insects are hated and feared by most of humanity and the toxic forests they inhabit slowly kill the people who live close by. Warring factions of humanity eventually bring harm to Nausicaä’s home with her people becoming casualties of war when a prison ship crashes on the outskirts of the village. Nausicaä is able to rescue one of the passengers who instructs her to destroy the ship’s cargo: the remains of a Giant Warrior which brought about the apocalypse of a thousand years ago. The owners of the ship, the Tolmeki empire, come after the ship and its contents bring their war to Nausicaä’s doorstep. The princess is pressed into battle and even takes human life in the process, but it’s all for naught. The Tolmekians, lead by a princess of their own named Kushana, wish to revive the Giant Warrior to destroy the poisoned forest. The village priest deems this unwise as doing so would only incite the Ohm who’s massive stampedes have brought great destruction to humanity in the past.

The Tolmekians are also embroiled in conflict with the Pejite people. Kushana, taking Nausicaä as hostage to ensure the cooperation of her people, and her airships encounter the Pejite which allows Nausicaä to escape. Circumstance forces her into working with a Pejite pilot and the two discover an amazing secret beneath the toxic forest. Nausicaä’s journey becomes one of self-discovery for herself and her world. With few people even interested in understanding the Ohm and the forests they dwell in, she finds herself as the only one who can prevent a second cataclysmic event that would surely doom her people as well as others. The machinations of the film’s plot are easy to follow and easy to predict. Still, the end result is not particularly harmed by this as the film presents a satisfying climax and conclusion for the story.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

As a protagonist, Nausicaä (voices by Alison Lohman in the english dub) is easy to like and understand. Her sense of adventure is contagious and represented most by her mastery of a unique jet-propelled glider she often zips through the sky on. She has a special empathy with nature which is shown early in the film. She’s fearless and possesses a strong conviction for what is right. She kills early in the film out of rage and self-defense and is affected by it. Through her actions we can see she would make an excellent killer if that was her aim, but chooses a different and noble path. Her closest ally is the sword master Lupa (Patrick Stewart), who also seems to embody a form of pacifism as we don’t see him kill in his parts of the film, though we see him demonstrate his incredible talent with a blade in each hand. Asbel (Shia LaBeouf), the Pejite pilot Nausicaä befriends, is our set-in-his-ways character who learns to see the world through a new lens during his trials. He’s the character most affected by Nausicaä and her outlook on life.

The film is set with many suspenseful moments like daring escapes from doomed aircraft and stunning rescues. Much of the film takes place in the air as the most prevalent piece of technology in the film are the massive airships piloted by the Tolmekians and Pejite. Anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s works know he’s a lover of aviation so it’s not surprising to find it here. When the film is not in the air the setting either shifts to vast desserts or the wondrous toxic forests. The forests are portrayed in cool shades of green and blue with mostly imaginative looking flora, some of which looks like it belongs under the sea. The look of the film is a bit dated, which should be expected of a thirty-year old picture. Still, it’s not unpleasant to look at and it still has some wonderful moments. The audio is also a bit dated, mostly in the sound effects department, but the score (Joe Hisaishi) is easily the part of the film that best stands the test of time. The english dub is also handled well by Disney and the Blu Ray release contains the Japanese audio for purists.

Anime fans owe a great deal to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Not only did its popularity and success in Japan help to pave the way for future anime releases, but its butchered original western release helped to convince Miyazaki and others to oversea the localization of future films. Studio Ghibli’s famed “no cuts” policy is born from Nausicaä and I think all fans of animation can agree that’s something we’re all happy is in place. It’s hard to separate a film, or any work of art, from its legacy, but in doing so Nausicaä still holds up us a nice picture worthy to rest in the library of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli films. As a legacy piece, it’s a fascinating look at the beginnings of a great director and a fun piece of nostalgia for animation buffs around the world.


The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Hayao Miyazaki is the most celebrated director of Studio Ghibli, and one of the most celebrated directors of animation in the entire world. Lurking just behind him, however, is the immensely talented Isao Takahata. Takahata is the director of the delightful and underrated Pom Poko, as well as the heartbreaking and immensely affecting Grave of the Fireflies, one of the very best animated films of all time. When Miyazaki announced his retirement before the release of his final film, The Wind Rises, it reasoned to assume that Studio Ghibli would turn to Takahata to lead the company from the director’s chair. Apparently that is not to be, as the studio would end up announcing it was suspending development on all projects to revaluate its business strategy. Before that though, the company announced Takahata would be directing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, giving the world at least one last Studio Ghibli film directed by the immensely talented director.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an adaptation of an old Japanese folktale known as “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” The general premise of the tale is that an old bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot who grows into a princess. In the film, the bamboo cutter is voiced by James Caan for the english adaptation, who finds the tiny woman in the bamboo shoot. Upon removing her she immediately becomes a baby and grows in size. He takes her home to his wife (voiced by Mary Steenburgen, making this the second time Caan and Steenburgen have portrayed a married couple, with Elf being the first) and they simply refer to the baby as Princess (Chloe-Grace Moretz). She soon starts growing rapidly and reaches her teenage years much faster than she had any right to. Her father decides she must be an actual princess, and upon returning to the forest where he found her to discover gold in the bamboo shoots, has the funds to make it happen. Princess, often referred to as Little Bamboo by her friends in the forest, would much rather live a peasant’s life among the trees but is reluctant to disobey her father. They move to the city where the princess is dubbed Kaguya and counseled in the ways of nobility. The meekness she is expected to take on does not suit her and she is best described as a fish out of water amongst the other noble folk. Her father is blind to this and pushes her to choose a suitor and marry a prince, but as the film progresses it becomes clear to the viewer that this is the path that will bring about the most unhappiness for the main character.

An ordinary bamboo cutter makes an unbelievable discovery in the forest.

An ordinary bamboo cutter makes an unbelievable discovery in the forest.

The film does a good job of portraying the father as a well-meaning individual. It would be easy for the audience to turn on him completely given how miserable his actions make his daughter feel, but we can tell he truly believes he’s doing the right thing by forcing the noble lifestyle upon her. He views his daughter, as many fathers do, in a perfect light and wants only the best for her. He’s not acting out of any sense of selfishness. He’s not a gold-digging individual or in search of fame for his own name. Unfortunately, he is just completely blind to how he’s making his daughter feel and doesn’t realize he’s deprived her of the only thing she really wants. In this, the film is sort of an anti-princess movie in comparison to the old fairy tales popularized by Disney. For many of those, the lady in waiting yearns to be a princess and is forced to wait around for her prince to come save her and remove her from a life of poverty. Today’s movie-going audience values strength of character, especially from its female leads after years of weak ones, and in this Kaguya succeeds at crafting a modern princess tale.

The running scene, my pick for best visual sequence in the film.

The running scene, my pick for best visual sequence in the film.

Unfortunately, it isn’t successful in telling a truly compelling story. The character of the princess is the best thing going for it. She is easy to root for and also easy to empathize with. Aside from her, there are few other memorable characters. Her plight is so obvious and easy to grasp onto that the many scenes of the film that illustrate just how depressed she’s become are almost unneeded. The film is dreadfully slow and plodding (a bloated 137 minutes), so much so that I would be surprised if children would generally find it immersive. Often the time-consuming nature of animation production forces shorter runtimes upon directors. This can be frustrating for the truly captivating animated films out there, but at the same time, these limitations can also have a positive impact by forcing the director to focus on the story and the most important aspects of it. Such constraints apparently were not place on Takahata, but a persuasive voice in his ear would have benefitted this film tremendously.

Perhaps the reason for the film’s extended run time is the minimalist approach to animation it takes. The film adopts a sketchbook look thats low on color and detail. Sometimes backgrounds are dominated by emptiness with maybe a few shrubs or tall grass for the woodland scenes or simple textures in the village scenes. Whether you like it or not is a matter of taste, but I personally did not find it enjoyable to view. The only time I found the sketchbook visuals gave it a compelling look was during a scene where the princess is running through the countryside. There the undefined nature of the pencils imparts a sense of speed to the scene. Mostly though, the film looks messy or even bland. With the plot dragging and not every scene feeling important, the film has a hard time relying on the visuals to set the mood or carry a particular segment of the film.

The princess, in one of her few moments of happiness in the film.

The princess, in one of her few moments of happiness in the film.

All of these short-comings lead me to the conclusion that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya would have made a better short film than a feature. The visuals, if only on screen for a short time, would not be allowed to overstay their welcome and the plot could be resolved in a more expedient fashion. I’m the type of person who often enjoys a long composition, be it book, film, or song, but I just felt this film was hard to sit through. It was not a joyful experience for me, and though I found the ultimate resolution of the film to be interesting and appropriate, by the time I happened upon it the characters had lost all of their goodwill with me. I just wasn’t entertained, which was really frustrating to me because of the track record of Takahata and Studio Ghibli. Thankfully, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is just the penultimate film (for now) for Studio Ghibli, because it would be really unfortunate for it to go out on such a low note.


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