Miyazaki’s first creatively controlled project is based on his own hugely successful manga series, which itself was produced to prove to financiers that the project was viable as an anime. All this tends to suggest Miyazaki could have got cold fusion to work if he put his mind to it.
Nausicaä combines traditional elements of high fantasy: a war, a prophecy and a princess with a Japanese post-apocalyptic wasteland: a world being inexorably consumed by a poisonous forest spread by airborne spores and giant insects. For Miyazaki’s first go, Nausicaä is masterful storytelling.
Writers tend to trot out the, ‘Miyazaki creates strong female characters’ line with monotonous regularity. This superficial observation never really gets to the bottom of why they are so good. In a world where day to day survival requires all the energy of the community, Nausicaä has the prescience to look for long term answers. She displays a strong empathy and compassion for a world that is effectively attempting to kill her, yet is fiercely protective of her people, prepared to resort to extreme and bloody violence.
Visually Nausicaä is astonishing. From the poisonous forest to the giant, multi-eyed insect Ohmu, to the wooden human airships, Miyazaki displays an absolute mastery of world building. His designs are unique and unforgettable.
On top of all this Miyazaki layers a story of nations at war. The Tolmekians, led by Princess Kushana, are never portrayed as evil but hardened by a brutal world, caught up in an escalating conflict from which they are unwilling to back down.
Towards its conclusion, Nausicaä feels a little top heavy as it resolves multiple plot elements. Whereas these had space to develop in the manga, here they tend to pile up and are a little overwhelming. This is a minor quibble. Nausicaä is an incredible journey that shows Miyazaki as a true auteur even at this early stage of his career.
Madman’s DVD release of Nausicaä has an excellent all-star dub that uncannily resembles my own 3am drunkenly scrawled napkin wishlist. Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men, Big Fish) is a great Nausicaä. Her pitch is lower than many of the helium-inflected anime heroines and she captures a young woman with a maturity beyond her years. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) brings a gravelly gravity to the role of Lord Yupa, and Uma Thurman is just too convincing as authoritative, sly and charismatic Princess Kushana. But then again I’d listen to Uma Thurma reading train timetables.
Nausicaä also has a insightful featurette, The Birth of Studio Ghibli with ‘re-enactments’ of key events that seem to mainly focus on the key players’ trousers and shirt sleeves.