Saturday, June 25, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)

Hayao Miyazaki followed the critical and commercial success of his debut feature, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), by creating a manga series known as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.  The origins of the series, which began its twelve-year serialized run in 1982, are somewhat controversial.  Some say that Miyazaki originally intended for Nausicaa to be an anime, but couldn’t find funding for a feature film, while others claim that the director started the manga on the condition that it would never be adapted to film, and that he was only later convinced by financers to turn his story into a theatrical release.  Regardless, Miyazaki wound up releasing a filmic version of Nausicaa in 1984, adapting only the portions of the story which he’d already completed in the manga (roughly a quarter of the story that was ultimately completed in 1994).

Like Cagliostro, Nausicaa freely blends medieval fantasy adventure with space age sci-fi, though it replaces the earlier film’s spy elements with a post-apocalyptic wasteland motif.  The story is set a thousand years after a world war known as “The Seven Days of Fire,” which destroyed the earth’s ecosystem and turned human civilization into a scattered series of settlements.  The various villages face the constant threat of being engulfed by the toxic jungle that now takes up most of the earth.  While humans can’t survive long in the toxic environment, insects have thrived and become enormous, threatening beasts.  Princess Nausicaa, a skilled wind glider who often enters the toxic forest in order to gather supplies for her settlement, is one of the few who seem willing or able to communicate with the insects rather than enraging them.  But when several other warring kingdoms crash land in the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaa and her peaceful settlement are thrust into a complicated conflict involving a long-dormant “Giant Warrior” who may be able to eliminate the insect threat, but who may also pose a lethal threat to the humans.

The plot is about as convoluted as it sounds, and probably more well-suited to a lengthy comic book series than a two-hour film.  Sadly, the film quickly gets bogged down with long expository scenes, and Miyazaki never finds a way to effectively incorporate all of the plot points and characters into one distinct, compelling vision.  Cagliostro had several peripheral characters that seemed to have been included simply because fans of the Lupin the III series would expect them to be there, but every character besides Nausicaa gets short thrift in Miyazaki’s second film.  While the characters in Cagliostro were largely archetypal in conception (and in their physical design), many of them were given enough personality to at least partially transcend their generic origins.  Not so in Nausicaa, which features such hackneyed figures as the noble swordsman, the blind but wise old lady, and the arrogant and power- hungry soldier, and then doesn’t give any of them enough screen time to become anything more than walking action figures.  Miyazaki is wise to temper his earnest environmental and anti-war themes by acknowledging that nature is often harsh and inhospitable to humans, and the animators admirably make no attempt to make the slimy, multi-eyed giant bugs cute in any way.  But otherwise the low level of ambiguity and nuance in the film seems wildly out of proportion to the complexity of its plot.

Fortunately, Nausicaa’s stunning hand-drawn animation ensures that the film is at least as compelling as it is frustrating.  The world of the film may be made up of a thousand different fantasy and sci-fi clich├ęs, but its indigo hue and wide-open vistas are as unique as they are breathtaking.  There are a lot of nice little touches, such as the way that the wind rustles through the characters’ hair, that earn the animators points simply for degree of difficulty.  Nausicaa’s action sequences aren’t as crisp as those in Cagliostro, but they do feel impressively huge and they are edited with a clarity that is sadly lacking in most modern action films.  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is bloated with plot and underdeveloped characters, but it is proof that even a heavily flawed Hayao Miyazaki film is well worth staring at for a couple of hours.

UP NEXT  Castle in the Sky

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