Nausicaa is an intense experience. This is no doubt partly due to my inexperience with the graphic format, but also a tribute to Miyazaki’s storytelling powers. As chronicled elsewhere, I have little to no exposure to anime and manga, despite my long years in Japan. Further, I never read comics or graphic novels in my younger days, so the whole words and pictures together thing challenges my simple mind. I’m sure that veterans of the format will plow through Nausicaa with nary a blip, but I was often confused and overwhelmed by the details crammed into little panels on the page.
The reader’s initial reaction to Nausicaa likely depends on said person’s introduction to Miyazaki. Those entering from My Neighbor Tottoro or Ponyo will probably be steamrolled by the story, but people more familiar with Princess Mononoke will feel right at home. Nausicaa is Miyazaki at his most epic, with all that implies. This is not a kid’s story – heads and limbs fly, bodily fluids gush, an unexpected boob appears, characters sermonize, wax scientific, and sometimes die. It is, however, immediately recognizable as Miyazaki. Strong-willed women lead the reader through a parable about the Earth and the environment, steampunk flying devices rule the skies, and Japan is there beneath the surface, for those who look for it. (This is not like Kiki’s Delivery Service or Ponyo, where Japanese life is essentially transplanted to an idyllic European village. Japan pops up hither and yon in the form of monks, temples, statues, and Buddhist philosophy.)
Plot-wise, Nausicaa starts with a familiar post-nuclear holocaust setting but reimagines it in a uniquely Miyazaki way. Gone are the radioactive and desolate deserts, mutant rats and gas masks; in their place we find towering forests and majestic (?) giant bugs. Yes, the forests emit poisonous gases and molds, but they have the same primeval beauty and natural power of Mononoke’s woodland home. The title character is a princess in the Valley of the Wind, so named because it is shielded by the winds from the poisons seeping out of the nearby forest. Nausicaa is quickly caught up in a narrative that brings her into conflict with empires and sets her on a path to uncover the true nature of the forest. As wars rage, Nausicaa inches her way towards secrets and traditions that will nudge the world toward a pathway leading to a future free of the poisons that endanger humanity.
Initially, the people of the Valley of the Wind are the good guys and the representatives of the Torumekian Empire are bad. As the story progresses, however, relative positions of good and evil are, if not reversed, then at least subverted as several other groups are introduced – the Doroks, Worm Handlers, independent kingdoms, and various denizens of the forest. True to most Miyazaki tales, the good are genuinely good, but the bad are anything but purely evil. Each faction has its motivations, problems, turmoil and potential. Antagonists grope their way towards uneasy alliances and positions of temporary security. Good people meet unjust fates and untimely ends, while bad people find redemption. In the end, questions remain over who exactly was right or wrong. (I am reminded of a review I once read of Princess Mononoke. The author complained that the characters were drawn so strongly in black and white terms and openly longed for the moral complexity of Disney movies; my head almost exploded.)
In most Miyazaki stories, there is at least one moment that leaves both characters and viewers breathless – the glade in Princess Mononoke, the Totoro waiting at the bus stop, entering the castle for the first time in Laputa, night falling for the first time in Spirited Away. Nausicaa has more than its share, as Nausicaa explores the depths of the forest and learns the nature of her post-apocalyptic world. Some readers may be put off by Miyazaki’s environmentalism (and to be fair, I am uncertain that I agree with his conclusions at the end) or by the labyrinthine, ambivalent narrative path. Further, hardcore SF readers may be dismayed by the suspension of scientific belief that Nausicaa requires, as the story demands to be taken on its own terms. Anyone not put off by these, which should be a majority, will find a story of unexpected depth and emotional power.
Rating: FC Groningen. I doubt there’s any similarity, but I’m stuck for a good comparison.