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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

*sigh* There’s no way I’m going to make any fans for this one.

I’d been meaning for a long time to brush up on the works of Hayao Miyazaki, and one of my correspondents was gracious enough to loan me a few of the grandmaster’s movies that I hadn’t gotten around to yet. I decided to start with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which is widely regarded to be Miyazaki’s masterpiece. If nothing else, it was certainly the start of his legacy, as it’s safe to say that Miyazaki’s career and Studio Ghibli would both have been stillborn if not for this movie’s success.

I was at first tempted to see this movie in subtitled Japanese, which is generally considered superior to any dub. But then I found that this DVD was the 2005 Disney re-release featuring the voices of Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman, Edward James Olmos, Chris Sarandon, Tony Jay, Frank Welker, and Mark freakin’ Hamil. Not even the questionable presence of Shia LeBeouf could take away from that much talent.

So now that I’ve seen the movie, I’m just going to come out and say it: Nausicaa is overrated. Yes, I’m totally serious and I’m not taking that back.

To be clear, that’s not to say it’s a bad movie. The English-language voice acting is every bit as good as the cast list above would suggest, and the visuals are of Ghibli’s usual excellence. Even if the animation is flawed by today’s standards, it’s still thoroughly impressive throughout.

The animation and the artwork are both key reasons for why this movie’s world feels so vivid. The film’s vision of human civilization — or what’s left of it — was clearly designed with a great deal of effort. The clothes, tools, weapons, machines, and houses in this movie were all made with a ton of creativity that pays off in spades. And that goes double for the film’s depiction of nature.

Every creature in this movie — from the awe-inspiring Ohmu to the adorable Teto — is dynamic enough to practically jump off the screen. The environments look even more amazing. The Valley of the Wind’s sweeping fields are breathtaking, which makes for a jarring contrast against the hideous and inhospitable wilderness sweeping the rest of the world.

On a technical level, the movie is superb. Granted, the soundtrack has an overwhelmingly ’80s sound, but I can dig that. So what’s my problem with this movie? Well, the short answer is that it’s just plain boring.

For those who aren’t already familiar, the premise is as follows. At some point in the future, human civilization collapsed. The world’s flora and fauna mutated in response to the environment’s pollution, coating pretty much the entire world in a toxic jungle. The forest’s massive insects and poisonous spores continue encroaching on newly-built cities, threatening the extinction of mankind.

So the movie is a heavy-handed environmental fable. Only a fool or a stranger to Miyazaki’s work would expect anything else. That said, Miyazaki can usually be depended on to create flawed, nuanced, and relateable characters. It’s a difficult thing to find “good guys” or “bad guys” in his movies because everyone acts in ways that are morally justifiable, though perhaps misguided.

Not here.

Take the eponymous heroine Nausicaa, for example. She’s the princess of the idyllic Valley of the Wind, universally beloved by her people. She’s a flying ace and a perfectly capable fighter. In fact, there are many scenes in which she appears to be invincible. She single-handedly discovers why the jungle is toxic, and she possesses a miraculous ability to communicate with animals. Her every action is virtuous, and she always knows exactly what to do in any scenario.

In short, our heroine is perfect in every way. And perfection in a protagonist is soooooooo BORING.

For one thing, it eliminates any suspense. We know that she’ll always come through and that she’ll always be proven right because she never ever makes mistakes. For another thing, it immediately rules out any possibility of a character development arc. She begins as a perfectly righteous hero and she ends as a perfectly righteous hero, whoop-dee-doo. The only thing that can possibly happen is that everyone else learns the error of their ways, which we know will happen off the bat because no one else is remotely as perfect or as inexplicably in tune with nature as Nausicaa.

This brings me to the Tolmakians. They’re a militaristic people who earnestly believe that humanity can only be saved by destroying the toxic forest and its mutated fauna. Still, they must be at least somewhat sympathetic because their intentions are pure, right? Yeah, no.

The very first time we meet the Tolmakians, they crash a fleet of huge friggin’ warplanes into the Valley of the Wind. A whole army of fully-armored soldiers then takes the town over and confiscates everyone’s weapons. The effort leads to catastrophic property damage and countless casualties, Nausicaa’s father (the king, remember) among those slaughtered. And finally, when everyone in the town has been rounded up and taken prisoner, the Tolmakian princess and her toady general say that they’re on a mission of peace.

BITE ME. FUCKING BITE ME.

So we’ve got an infallible hero and a villain deserving of no sympathy whatsoever. Naturally, the villain’s plan will backfire and the hero will clean up the mess, showing everyone else the error of their ways in the process. I could have told you all of this half an hour into the proceedings, so where’s the point in seeing it through to the end?

Again, it’s worth pointing out that being predictable and preachy doesn’t necessarily a bad movie make, especially when we’re dealing with family-friendly entertainment. Moreover, the technical aspects of this movie are all entertaining enough to make up for a boring story. All told, it adds up to a film that’s merely serviceable. The problem is that personally, I hold Hayao Miyazaki to a higher standard. “Merely serviceable” isn’t enough to cut it when this much talent and effort is clearly visible, and it sure as hell isn’t enough for a film that’s reputed to be Miyazaki’s master work.

I can plainly see why Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was so groundbreaking, as a tremendous amount of creativity and animation mastery went into its construction. However, the characters are all extremely two-dimensional, which makes for a viewing experience far more boring than I’ve come to expect from the anime grandmaster. Is it a bad movie? No. Is it Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece? Not even close. For my money, that honor goes to Princess Mononoke. Hell, I’d even take Spirited Away over this one.

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