Saturday, September 10, 2011

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and the Concept of the Princess

One of the earliest memories that I have growing up as a child in the early 90s is of the first 
movie I ever saw. When I was little, my mother took me to the public library because they were having a screening of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), and because I was a girl this seemed to be a good fit in her mind. In America during the late 80s and early 90s, Disney released several films geared toward the female market that focused on a female character that either was, or became, a princess, usually through finding romance. However, five years before Disney released the first of its modern princess films, Hayao Miyazaki wrote and directed Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), presenting a princess very different from those being developed in America. Part of this comes from Miyazaki’s own influences when choosing to become an animator. In his memoir, Starting Point: 1979-1996, he cites the film Hakujaden (1958) as one of the main films that influenced him to become an animator. Hakujaden is notable for being Japan’s first color feature-length animated film, and it is, in fact, a princess story. However, while the princess in Hakujaden does find love and has lots of feminine charm, she can also shape-shift into a snake and blast fireballs out of her dress. This “tougher” yet feminine princess seems to have been a major influence on Miyazaki, and it carries over into Nausicaä, particularly when dealing with the two princesses presented in this film.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind tells the story of Nausicaä, the princess of the Valley of the Wind. The valley is situated in a small corner of a post-apocalyptic world that is dealing with ecological disaster in the form of a toxic jungle that spreads across the land, polluting the air and water. She also has to contend with the strained relationship between Tolmekia and Pejite, the two largest countries in her world that are constantly at war. In the film, the conflict between the two countries escalates to the point that Nausicaä’s valley is taken over by the Tolmekians, led by Princess Kushana, who want to claim the valley for themselves. This incites Pejite to attack by causing a stampede of giant bugs called Ohms to head straight for the valley in order to destroy the Tolmekian troops. The main conflict of the film involves Nausicaä figuring out how to return peace to the valley while not harming the Ohms that are headed straight for it.

Nausicaä’s Relationship With Her Valley

One of the first things striking about this film is the relationship between Nausicaä and the people of her valley, and this relationship with them really helps to define her character. Naturally, the people of the valley have to at least pretend to respect her because she is the only daughter of their king. However, the feeling that one gets from watching this film is that Nausicaä is not merely respected because of her genes, but because she, as a person, is genuinely loved by her people. And what’s not to love about Nausicaä? She effectively leads and saves her people when her ailing father is unable to do so. She does research into the toxic jungle and tries to come up with a solution to help those who have become ill because of it. After her father is murdered by the Tolmekians, she is able to set aside her feelings of grief in order to make prudent decisions regarding the future of her people. And at the end of the film, Nausicaä places her own life at risk in order to secure a future for her people that won’t involve them being in a constant struggle with both the toxic jungle and the Tolmekians.

However, while Nausicaä does all these good deeds for her people, she is still respected for her femininity. One of the earliest scenes in the film involves Nausicaä holding and cooing over the newest baby born in town after returning from an expedition to the jungle. The birth of the baby is especially important for the valley, considering that the valley most likely does not have a population over about 300 or so. This scene has Nausicaä fulfilling a traditionally feminine role, but she is still given the same amount of respect here that she is when giving orders to the valley’s soldiers. To the people of the valley, it doesn’t matter whether their princess is dodging bullets or holding babies. She is beloved by them for her skills and her personality, and as such she deserves their respect. Miyazaki, with this small scene, establishes that the valley is very tolerant of a female in a leadership position. In the course of about three minutes, Nausicaä is praised for doing her research in the jungle as well as given the opportunity to fulfill a traditionally feminine role. This nurturing environment is a strong part of the reason that she is able to develop in the way that she does, and if she had not had this environment, she would probably have ended up very much like the film’s main antagonist, the Princess Kushana.

Nausicaä and Kushana 

Kushana's memories of her mother.
The film’s main antagonist, Kushana, is also a princess, but is presented a bit differently from Nausicaä. A good deal of Kushana’s back-story is not provided in the film, but is instead related in the long-running manga version. This is one limitation of the film version, in that it could never possibly hope to contain all the content in the manga version. The only possible way would be to have either multiple films or a television series, which, at the time would have been a ridiculously costly gamble on a film that wasn’t necessarily guaranteed to be a hit. As a result, a good deal of character development, not only for Kushana but for other major characters as well, is left out. In fact, the plot that is contained in the film is approximately only a quarter of the plot in the entire story, and is a relatively minor event when compared with other major events that occur later.

In a nutshell, Kushana’s basic personality is very similar to that of Nausicaä’s. However, Kushana has the unfortunate fate of growing up in a society that is very restrictive on its females. Kushana’s own mother is poisoned and driven to insanity while trying to protect her daughter from men that want to harm her due to her status as heir to the throne. In fact, this information helps to show a great deal of Kushana’s motivations. She is constantly trying to make the men around her respect her, and it is tough for her, not because she is a poor leader, but because she is a woman. At one point, the men she commands believes she is dead and they have nothing to say about it. One man is even overjoyed, and begins to plot ways that he can usurp her power. Unlike Nausicaä, Kushana is not respected or loved by her people, providing for a very interesting contrast between their situations. It is best summed up in a scene where Kushana has contact with an elderly citizen of the valley. He looks at Kushana saying, “You’re a princess too. You’re nothing like our princess.” However, it leads the viewer to the conclusion that, had she grown up in a nurturing situation like Nausicaä, she very well could have been. This is spelled out clearly in the manga, and the interactions between Nausicaä and Kushana make this obvious.

Nausicaa and Kushana
An example of this is present in this page from the manga. These events take place after the events depicted in the film version, and involve Nausicaä asking Kushana to release some prisoners. Apart from the striking physical similarities present between the two, there are some additional similarities as well. The main one is the concern for the people placed under their protection. By this point, it is plain to see that Nausicaä cares for her people, essentially living and breathing in order to protect them. However, here it is shown that Kushana feels the same way about the men under her control, the very men who earlier did not care if she lived or died. Kushana takes a more rugged approach to her love, however. She, unlike Nausicaä, tries to smother her femininity, and tries to act more manly in order to make her men respect her. This is even evident in the way that she chooses to dress. Her armor does not emphasize her feminine shape, but instead bulks her up, making her look less like a woman and more like a male warrior.

In making stylistic choices like these, Miyazaki appears to be creating two sides to the same character. In fact, it almost feels as if he decided to just create one basic character, drop them in two different scenarios, and see how they would ultimately develop. The “Nausicaä” side is more traditionally feminine and does a good job of leading her people because of the nurturing background that she has been brought up in. She has not been encouraged to suppress her femininity, and as such, has become an effective leader of her people and a relatively happy young lady. The “Kushana” side, on the other hand, appears to be much less feminine and does a poor job of leading her men because of the restrictive environment that she has been placed in. Kushana’s own mother is poisoned because she gives birth to a female heir, and this leads Kushana to try and repress her feminine side as much as she can in order to survive. In fact, the only time that she uses her femininity is when she is placed in a position where she may have to face an arranged marriage for a military alliance. Even at this point, Kushana thinks not of being a bride, but of the tactical advantage of the alliance. The potential groom even feels the same way, thinking of Kushana not as a bride, but just as a means to an end. Miyazaki makes a powerful statement here on the importance of maintaining some level of femininity for women who are placed in a position of power. Nausicaä is an effective leader because she is able to strike a successful balance between the two. Kushana’s leadership is always a bit disjointed and ineffective as a reflection of the inner conflict inside herself. Character duality of this nature is a big part of Miyazaki’s films, and is a tradition that he continues with the characters of San and Eboshi in Princess Mononoke (1997) and Yubaba and Zeniba in Spirited Away (2001). 

Some Final Thoughts

As the film that led to the birth of Studio Ghibli, this one certainly has had its fair share of praise heaped on it over the years. Revolutionary for not only its quality animation, but for its content, it remains a classic 27 years later. In an interview included on Disney’s 2011 Blu-Ray release of the film, Toshio Suzuki who produces many of Studio Ghibli’s films said that Nausicaä, for him, stands out because of both the grand-scale challenges that she faces and because of her selflessness. Taking this a step further, Nausicaä’s selflessness while still maintaining her identity as a leader, a woman, and a princess makes her truly one of the great film princesses, and both she and Kushana are worthy successors to the legacy that Hakujaden began in Japan over fifty years ago.

For the purposes of this review, I viewed Disney’s 2011 Blu-Ray release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I also watched the Japanese language track that stars Sumi Shimamoto as Nausicaä, Yoji Matsuda as Asbel, Yoshiko Sakakibara as Kushana, and Goro Naya as Lord Yupa. All film stills used in this piece are taken from that version. Additionally, the pages from the manga version of Nausica
ä of the Valley of the Wind come from Viz Media's English language edition.

1 comment:

  1. Oh! It was good to know about it. I was just looking for some nice shows by Andy Yeatman online. The ones available on Netflix are over and I want my kids to watch that kind of content only. It was entertaining and very educating. Anyways, this seems to be an interesting movie. I am going to add it to the watch list.