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Review: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
Starring Sumi Shimamoto, Mahito Tsujimura, Hisako Kyôda, Gorô Naya, Ichirô Nagai and Kôhei Miyauchi.

Most of the geeky kids of my generation were introduced to feature-length Japanese animation with Katsuhiro Otomo’s apocalyptic Akira, a stunning apocalyptic masterpiece. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my own introduction to it was when I was in the sixth grade or thereabouts. Lazing about the house one afternoon, I noticed that an animated feature called Warriors of the Wind was playing on HBO in a few minutes, so — budding animation buff that I was — I decided to give it a try. To put it mildly, it blew my little brain out the back of my skull.

I had never before seen anything even remotely like it. I couldn’t have. American cartoons were nothing like this. There were Disney cartoons, amusing fluff like Smurfs and embarrassing garbage like The Last Unicorn. Even action cartoons like Transformers (which I didn’t realize was also Japanese until many years later), G.I. Joe and the sadly short-lived Dungeons & Dragons were so kiddie-fied that even as I watched them, I knew they weren’t even remotely on the same level as Star Wars or other live-action films. Warriors of the Wind was on an entirely different level: it was an animated film for people with brains.

Some of the imagery from Warriors of the Wind stuck with me so strongly that several years later, rummaging through a dusty bin on the floor of a comics shop, I immediately recognized that film’s main character on the cover of a comic calledNausicaä of the Valley of Wind (pronounced “NOW-she-ka,” not, as my younger self had assumed, “NAW-sih-ka”). After a bit of research, I learned that Warriors of the Wind was an edited-down, American version of the original Japanese film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, based on his own comic book. Although I quickly found all seven volumes of the comic book, it took me about five years to track down a bootleg import of the uncut Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind on VHS, by which time Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke had been released in the United States.

Nausicaä, like Princess Mononoke, is an adventure story, and one that also avoids the “white hat/black hat” conceit of most American adventures. When a plane from the nearby Torumekian Empire crashes in the Valley of Wind, which lies on the outskirts of an enormous, ever-growing wasteland populated by strange, enormous insects, the Torumekian army quickly invades the Valley to secure its precious cargo. When Nausicaä, a princess of the Valley, and her friend, Lord Yupa, learn what that cargo is, they attempt to stop the Torumekian army from taking it home with them. Although the Torumekian princess Kushana and her army are clearly the “bad guys” of the film, Miyazaki never demonizes them outright. While they are brash and aggressive, they are doing what they feel is right for their country, regardless of the repercussions, rather like our own country (though any parallels in the film are inferences on the viewer’s part, not allegory).

Although I couldn’t have known it when I first saw Warriors of the Wind, the edited version is, by most accounts, a travesty. Warriors edits out a whopping 30 minutes of footage from writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s original 116 minute cut — in addition to renaming some characters, including Nausicaä, who goes by “Princess Zandra” in Warriors. Key scenes including a revelation on the origin and functions of the wasteland are excised, undermining the point of the film considerably. Still, it was the only edition available in the United States for a long time. Actually, Miyazaki’s dissatisfaction with this gutting of Nausicaä is why this and many other Studio Ghibli films took so long to be released in the United States.

There are a couple of reminders that the film was originally made in 1984. Miyazaki’s animation is gorgeous, of course, though it suffers slightly when compared to the more recent, more lushly animated Mononoke or Spirited Away, which cheated a bit and used computers for a number of shots that would have been either difficult or impossible to pull off by hand alone. Also, the score, though mostly beautiful, occasionally lapses into cheesy 1980s synthesizer music in some of the more action-oriented scenes. Only the latter of these bothers me, but it doesn’t detract from the film in any major way. The story, as with all of Miyazaki’s films, is the star. As it should be.

At long last, a legitimate, U.S. edition of Nausicaä hits the stands next week. Disney’s two-disc edition, entitled Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, will be released on Tuesday, February 21. In addition to the extra “the,” the new edition features an English dub starring Allison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman and Edward James Olmos. It also includes the original Japanese language track, the complete storyboards, the original Japanese trailers and a featurette on the “birth” of Studio Ghibli.

Viz Comics recently released new editions of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind comics, also with an extra “the” in the title. Fans of the film should definitely check out the comic. It’s not just a great comic book that greatly expands on the film’s story. Instead, it is, like the animated feature based upon it, one of the greatest works of its medium.

Also due out from Disney and Studio Ghibli are U.S. editions of Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso (which is really weird, but fun) and the Hiroyuki Morita-helmed The Cat Returns, a slight fantasy that loosely ties into an older Ghibli film as yet unreleased in the United States called Whisper of the Heart.

Miyazaki’s next feature, Howl’s Moving Castle, an adaptation of the British children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones, will be out sometime this summer.

(Originally published at Gapers Block on February 18, 2005. Nausicaä is available on disc through Netflix.)


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