Andrew Osmond on the genesis of Hayao Miyazaki’s first and greatest heroine
“There has come the advent of the angel of light, the one who will lead you to the pure land. She who loves the forest and talks with the insects… She who calls down the wind, and rides upon it like a bird. And that one shall come to you, garbed in raiment of blue, descending upon a field of gold, to forge anew our ties with the lost land.”
“I can’t help thinking you should have been a man.”
“Ha ha, my father says the very same thing!”
She could have been a man. Around 1980, Hayao Miyazaki, the future creator of Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke was sketching, doodling and daydreaming, looking for a story. He considered a boy in a period drama, but the historical setting kept getting gatecrashed in his head by aliens, tanks and flying machines. He wondered about a goblin hero, and even thought of adapting an indie US comic about a heroic dog-man. And then there was an old Japanese tale, of a strange “Lady” who loved insects. Suppose she lived in a future world, a world of giant bugs…
All this musing led to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki’s twice-told tale in anime and manga. Most people who know Nausicaa know it from the film. Released in Japan in 1984, it animated one of Miyazaki’s most famous images, the girl who flies. Nausicaa takes to the sky, not by magic, nor with the aid of impersonal technology. Rather she surfs the winds on a tiny jet-powered glider, an embodiment of dynamic grace. She lives on an alien future Earth, swathed in a towering jungle of fungi and spore-clouds, where humans cower from great sentient insects. Long before Buffy or Lara Croft, Nausicaa was an epic fantasy heroine and a pop-culture icon.
The film is readily available on DVD and Blu-ray, with a Disney-created dub featuring Alison Lohman as Nausicaa with Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman and Shia LaBeouf. (But we prefer the Japanese track, with its amazing voice-performance by actress Sumi Shimamoto, going from Disney cuteness to blazing feral warrior.) Nausicaa is an outstanding film, and rightly celebrated, but it’s not the definitive Nausicaa. That’s the thousand-page manga strip which Miyazaki both wrote and drew, available from comic and online stores in seven large-format paperbacks.
The Nausicaa strip started in 1982, but its origins were years before. In 1969, when Miyazaki was a young animator at Toei, he drew a strip called People in the Desert (Sabaku no Tami), serialised in Boys’ and Girls’ Newspaper. Despite the magazine’s name, People in the Desert is harsh, perhaps the harshest story Miyazaki ever drew. It’s set in central Asia in the eleventh century, where a shepherd boy becomes a warrior, defending a besieged city. He gains two perky friends, a girl and a boy, but loses both to the war.
Much of Nausicaa is there, in stark, primitive form: the hardy people whose lifestyle is geared to survival, living in stone city fortresses in the desert. The strip renders the medieval world in monochrome pencil sketches, with hatched shading (using sets of close parallel lines) and stippling (dots and specks). It’s the approach Miyazaki would reprise in Nausicaa.
In 1978, Miyazaki directed the TV anime serial Future Boy Conan (no relation to either the barbarian or the pint-sized Detective Conan). Again it was a survival story, though far warmer and funnier. It was also SF, set in a post-holocaust world. In an early scene, a group of people flee Earth in a rocket during World War III. But they crash back down to the planet, to an apparently barren island, and await death.
Then, a miracle; a pool of water wells up in the rocket cone from deep underground. Green shoots grow from the rock; nature revives. It’s Wall-E thirty years early; but it’s also the start of Miyazaki’s “eco-fantasy,” and a sense of wonder with nothing to do with outer space.
After Conan, Miyazaki cast about for another story. At one point, it was going to be based on Rowlf, an indy strip by the American artist Richard Corben, best known for his work on Heavy Metal. Rowlf is about a princess’s heroic dog. When his mistress is taken by monsters, Rowlf turns into a hairy humanoid and ends up driving a tank (!) and saving the girl. The dog didn’t get into Miyazaki’s story, but the tanks and the princess did.
Miyazaki became interested in the thought of a princess whose royal father is incapacitated. (In the Nausicaa, he’s bedridden by the world’s poisons.) “All the characters I’d created were completely free,” said Miyazaki. He wanted his Lady to struggle with her responsibilities. For her personality, Miyazaki was inspired by two bit-part literary players, one of whom gave Nausicaa her name.
The first Nausicaa is in Homer’s Odyssey. She’s a young princess of a small land, whom the gods guide to find the shipwrecked king Odysseus. He’s in a wild state, naked and filthy, but the fearless Nausicaa clothes and feeds him. Miyazaki met her not in Homer but in Gods, Demigods and Demons, a dictionary of Greek myth by the American classicist, Bernard Evslin. Evslin embellished Nausicaa, portraying her as a fleet-footed, fanciful girl who sings and roams her land.
The other inspirational character is famed in Japan. She’s the Lady who Loved Insects, from a medieval text called The Riverside Councillor’s Stories (Tsutsumi Chunagon Monogatari). She’s an eccentric court aristocrat who declares, “It is the person who wants the truth and inquires into the essence of things who has an interesting mind.” Her creed leads her to collect caterpillars and other bugs, watching them change. Intriguingly, a medieval story about what we’d see as the principles of science is presented as a vignette of female eccentricity.
Miyazaki, like many modern Japanese, shared the Lady’s passion for bugs. “Looking at the larvae of beetles, or the spaceshiplike shape of an ant, we feel like we’ve peeked into some of the secrets of the world,” Miyazaki said. “When I was at elementary school and learned from my teacher that spiders have eight eyes, I was so shocked that my world seemed to crumble.” In Nausicaa, the giant caterpillar-like Ohmu go better, with fourteen eyes.
As for Nausicaa’s world, Miyazaki said that at first, “All I had was the idea of a little country in a bleak desert.” But he suddenly envisioned a gigantic fantastical forest, with trees of fungi fifty metres high, giant bugs with great glowing eyes, and clouds of poisonous fog. “I don’t remember why the Sea of Corruption was filled with poisonous gas,” Miyazaki admitted. “I have a feeling I just wanted to draw gas masks.”
Miyazaki was partly inspired by an expanse of marshland south of the Ukraine, but SF may have played a role. He’d read Brian Aldiss’s novel Hothouse, where tiny humans struggle to survive the lush, carnivorous fauna of a massive tree. More broadly, Nausicaa invites comparison to Dune and – especially in the closing chapters – the Earthsea books. Miyazaki was a fan of the latter, and mentioned that the insect name Ohmu was partly derived from “sandworm” in Dune.
From all these cross-currents, from underground comics to Greek myth, Nausicaa emerged. It was pitched as an anime film, but turned down. The moneymen were deterred by the lack of a tie-in, a property (most obviously a comic) to piggyback on. Miyazaki then opted to write Nausicaa as a strip, but not one to be turned into a film. In his view, comics and animation were different media, and shouldn’t be turned into each other. His wily editor, though, had different ideas…
Nausicaa debuted in February 1982, in the Japanese magazine Animage. Like Future Boy Conan , Nausicaa is a post-holocaust story, set after “the seven days of fire.” Humans struggle to survive on the world’s margins, hemmed in by the fungal forest. “I thought it would be interesting to overturn the concept of defenceless plants always being destroyed,” said Miyazaki. “Within our historic memory, there was a period when the forest was overwhelmingly powerful.” Nausicaa is the courageous princess of the valley of wind, a tiny green kingdom drawing up water by windmills, protected from the forest poisons by sea breezes.
Miyazaki drew the strip for 300 pages, into 1983. Then he was approached by Animage’s editor, Toshio Suzuki. (Suzuki would later become president of Studio Ghibli, producing Spirited Away and other Miyazaki blockbusters.) Now there was an established Nausicaa manga, how about a film? Once Miyazaki was reluctantly persuaded, a studio was found – Top Craft, which had animated American cartoons of The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn for Rankin/Bass.
These days, Studio Ghibli has taken retrospective ownership of Nausicaa, and counts the film as its own. More accurately, Nausicaa is a seed Ghibli film, establishing a new standard of mainstream, standalone anime movie that doesn’t need the viewer to know a comic or TV show. Miyazaki skilfully scaled down Nausicaa for the screen. In the film story, Nausicaa’s valley is invaded and occupied by a ruthless woman general, Kushana. She uses the land to nurture a walking superweapon called a God Warrior, meaning to burn the forest. Initially a hostage, Nausicaa comes to learn the world’s secrets, while her valley people rebel and Kushana’s foes launch a ghastly counterattack.
The manga is different, and far more complex, a Lord of the Rings to the film’s Hobbit. Here, the Valley is a vassal state, and the peace-loving Nausicaa must fight under Kushana, who has a ferociously complex agenda. There’s a continent-spanning war between two superstates, the imperial Torumekia and the theocratic Dorok nation. Neither regime is much good, but the ordinary people are – Miyazaki’s vision is animist yet deeply humanist. Nausicaa has no clear goal; she improvises and does good where she can. For example, she makes Kushana free civilian hostages, in return for riding with her into pitched battle.
In both film and manga, the humans try to use the forces of the forest on the enemy, with cataclysmic results. The manga becomes a reflection on nature, human nature, and extinction, with Nausicaa – who loves the Ohmu – torn and tormented between the human and insect worlds. The manga turns mythic; there are plot turns from Joseph Campbell hero’s journey, including an amazing “Jonah” sequence where the despairing Nausicaa gets swallowed by an Ohmu. But that’s not the end, and fans still argue over the conclusion, which has shades of Watchmen and Genesis of the Daleks.
“I wrote something because I was facing a deadline, and I realised the meaning of it much later,” Miyazaki said. He stresses he worked out the story and themes on the fly, as an ongoing process. The manga ending is very different from the film’s, far more ambiguous and in some ways a refutation. The finish wasn’t reached until 1994, twelve years after it began, because Miyazaki kept stopping the manga to make another film: Laputa, Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Porco Rosso.
“I think I was able to make (the films) because I was writing Nausicaa,” Miyazaki reflected on ending the strip. Making an anime film is frazzlingly hard, but Miyazaki called it “worldly” compared to wrestling with the themes of the manga. Miyazaki’s films, especially Totoro, have characters and themes as deep as Nausicaa, but the manga had the “heaviest” story in Miyazaki’s canon. “If I hadn’t been writing Nausicaa, I think I would have struggled with putting heavier stuff into the movies,” said Miyazaki.
After Nausicaa, Miyazaki made Princess Mononoke, his heaviest anime. The 1997 film reprises Nausicaa’s themes in a medieval setting, with a boy hero. Considering Nausicaa’s history, it might be seen as taking things full circle. Mononoke was a record-breaker at the box-office, turning Miyazaki into a Japanese Disney and Spielberg rolled into one.
But for some fans, the real end to Nausicaa is a five-minute music video which Miyazaki directed in 1995, a year after the manga ended. Called On Your Mark, it features a beautiful girl-angel (complete with wings!), imprisoned in a polluted future city. In the last moments, she escapes, soaring joyfully upward until she’s just a white speck in a wide blue sky.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is showing as part of the BFI Southbank’s Studio Ghibli season on the 2nd, 3rd and 7th April.