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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

by on 2011/05/16


Two years ago, I spent some time catching up with a friend with whom I’d lost touch for a while. He made several suggestions he considered required viewing, some of which I agree with (Cowboy Bebop and Look Around You), some of which I don’t (O Brother Where Art Thou and Star Trek: Voyager), and some of which the jury’s still out on.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind originally fit into the third group, and now I’m happy to report it should move into the first. Though currently flogged as a Disney product, it is commonly considered among the earliest of works of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, based on the manga of Hayao Miyazaki.

Centuries, possibly millennia, after a nuclear holocaust, humanity faces extinction. Poisoned by the toxins in the water and the soil, they’re further threatened by the plants and animals, now evolved to survive in their new environment.

Princess Nausicaa lives in a neutral village caught between rival groups, the Pejites and the Tolmekians. Rather than join in their meaningless war, she hopes to repair the wider world and unite its inhabitants. Unfortunately, this difficult task might come at the cost of her life.

She’s an interesting heroine, focused yet complex, positive yet grounded, strong yet vulnerable. At various points throughout her story, I thought of The Golden Compass and a recent favourite, Final Fantasy. What must have seemed a distant fear in 1984 is now a timely eco-friendly tale.

Fortunately, it’s less a lecture than a fantastic object lesson. Environmental concerns form an integral part of the action, not pedantic decoration now and then. Whether Nausicaa’s future is ours or not, the unspoken parallels are clear: we are causing serious problems, those problems will come back to haunt us and, after a time, the world would go on without us.

And yet, while I’m comfortable with the plot and its themes, I’m slightly put off by the writing. It’s hard to know for certain where the quality broke down . . . in the original lines, the translation, or the readings? One thing is for sure. The dialogue is not without its flaws. Nausicaa, exploring alone, says aloud, “My heart is pounding” and “It’s so beautiful, it’s hard to believe [it] could kill me.” Clumsiness at best.

Occasionally the script is salvaged by a sensitive performance. Mark Hamill (Star Wars) does well with his role, as does Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) with hers. Edward James Olmos (Blade Runner) and Chris Sarandon (The Princess Bride) feel more like fun caricatures, the former a gruff kind of pirate, the latter an effete warmonger.

But special mention must be made of Patrick Stewart’s (Star Trek: Generations) voice. His delivery goes far beyond an authoritative accent. The most outlandish lines emerge from him, improbably believable. Rather than taking a direct approach, he speaks quietly, reluctantly, as if mulling over thoughts aloud. I was reminded simultaneously of Michael Caine, advising theatrical actors of a camera’s subtler demands, and of Bing Crosby, who revolutionized music with his intimate recordings.

For their part, the visuals surpass any words. The greatest compliment I can pay is to say I have no complaints. I felt as if parts of childhood dreams had suddenly come to life. Elements of Jeff Smith’s Bone, Antoine de St. Exupery’s Little Prince, and Georges “Herge” Remi’s Tintin seemed to have coalesced into a fantastical whole.

Which is not to suggest I have no reservations at all. I did find the narrative long and complex, especially nearing the end. Fortunately, it was an interesting complexity, and one I’ll revisit again.

Less forgivable was the score, though its themes were not without charm. The synthetic approach on certain songs have kept them from aging very well. At best they sound antiquated . . . at worst, obtrusive and twee.

Overall, however, the film’s a success, deserving acclaim and attention. The craft is amazing, the meaning ever-apt, the performances winning and fun. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is enlightening entertainment, and still worth watching now, thirty years along.

* * * *

Rated PG

117 minutes

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