Japanese animation often takes on the apocalypse. Akira, Metropolis, Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL, and practically every sci-fi feature of the 1980s ends with the world on fire. Even naturalist Hayao Miyazaki flirts with nuclear winter. Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and to a lesser degree Castle in the Sky all dance on the edge of worldwide annihilation.
It’s no surprise. Japan’s the only world superpower that’s actually been hit by the Bomb. For the Japanese not to reflect Hiroshima and Nagasaki in their art, directly or indirectly, would be the equivalent of post-WWII Jews not addressing the Holocaust. But it does make for tiresome viewing. With every epic anime storyline, you keep waiting for the first shoe to drop. You know it’s coming.
Only Miyazaki, however, would find glorious beauty in the post-apocalypse. And only he would find perverse pleasure in imagining a world in which another apocalypse could land right on top of the first one.
In Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the second shoe dangles mighty precariously. A thousand years previously, seven giant warriors—blood-red, fiery, voiceless—laid waste to the planet. We only glimpse them in flashbacks and their destruction has been elevated to folktale, but their presence looms large. Their rampage triggered the release of pollution created by humans—who created the warriors as well—which has spread across the Earth. Poisonous spores are blown across the planet. They latch on trees and animals, mutating and killing them. The characters refer to the encroaching wasteland as the Sea of Decay. It’s a rich irony—very little water is seen in the film; the only potable kind comes from wells dug so deep that the Decay hasn’t found it yet.
Humans are dying out. They exist in outposts and isolated enclaves, desperately trying to stave off the Sea and find a place where they’ll be protected. Good land is scarce and, instead of banding together to cultivate it, tribes instead fight over it. Somehow, Miyazaki finds hope in this bleakness.
His heroine is Nausicaa, the redheaded princess of a village that’s protected from the spores by the wind. She’s revered, and rightly so, by everyone in the village. Resourceful, smart, a gifted flyer and a forceful leader, she’s led the community towards a strong agricultural economy and a beautiful town. She’s also the only one in the movie’s who not afraid of the Sea of Decay. In fact, she explores it at will, collecting spores and growing them in a secret garden. With pure soil and water—in order, with ingredients uncontaminated by human presence—she finds that the plants she grows aren’t poisonous and may indeed be beneficial.
As the audience, we’re initially as frightened of the overgrown insects as the villagers. In particular, the Sea is dominated by huge, many-eyed, doodlebug-like creatures called the Ohmu. In the film’s first five minutes, one of these bugs attacks one of the movie’s heroes. Instead of killing it, Nausicaa instead calms it down and leads it away. She respects its right to live.
More than that, she thinks it’s beautiful. Painted in rich greens and animated in sliding sections, it is majestic in a monstrous way. The decayed world she explores and knows intimately is gorgeous, filled with oversized planets, menacing insects (some as large as tanks), and lush, muted colors. The Sea of Decay is a growing ecosystem that astonishes with its horticultural variety. At the movie’s beginning, we see this world the way most of the characters see it—as something horrible and nightmarish. By the midpoint, Miyazaki makes us identify with Nausicaa, who wants to save both the humans and the lovely, polluted world around her.
Last October, I visited Portland’s Japanese Gardens with my old friend Jorge. Before we entered the gardens, we dilly-dallied around the Victorian rose garden around the base of the Gardens. The roses were fragrant, with different kinds of roses segregated from each other in their own rectangular plots. The layout was a grid—there was a symmetry to it that was mathematical and orderly. It was pretty but not very interesting. Jorge led me into the Gardens. I fell in love. The diversity of colors paled in comparison to the rose plot. The Japanese Gardens features mostly greens and browns, punctuated by bursts of orange fish in a clear pond, a sudden blue highlight in rolling, dark green bushes, and hidden trails with low-hanging branches. The Japanese Gardens has curves and meanderings. It’s less orderly than the Victorian roses but it’s far more graceful.
I couldn’t figure out why until Jorge said it out loud: “To me, it’s like this—Westerners build gardens that impose their sense of order on nature. We try to make the world fit into our image. The Japanese, instead, try to fit themselves into nature.”
That’s the lesson Nausicaa, and Nausicaa, teaches us. We can’t dominate nature—in the film, each attempt leads to a stampede by the Ohmu that decimates the populace and spreads the Sea even further. The violence we do in our name does violence to ourselves, whether we know it or not. But we can learn to integrate ourselves into nature, if we do so peacefully and with respect.
Nausicaa understands this better than anyone but Miyazaki’s too nuanced to let her totally off the hook. When a military airship crashes near the village, we quickly discover that its cargo—the embryo of a Giant Soldier—is even more dangerous than the Sea. As another military force enters the valley to retrieve the embryo and to enslave the populace, Nausicaa’s fury rises. She’s been so angelic up to this point that her slaughter of four soldiers shocks us.
She spends the rest of the movie atoning for her sin. By this point, we’d follow her anywhere. The character is so well-defined and generous that we want to imagine ourselves as her; we want to see the world as she sees it. As a result, we too spend the rest of Nausicaa pondering our rape of Earth, our battles against the people who should be our compatriots, our careless destruction that does no good. Miyazaki’s always been a pacifist, an antiwar activist, in plain sight. Here, he gives us a protagonist who’s loving, human, and peaceful. She’s no stereotype, no hippie with patchouli-and-underarm musk. Rather, she’s his surrogate, a woman who thinks as deeply about the planet as we all should, who sees how humans and nature are inextricably connected.
For all this philosophizing, though, there goes nature, indifferent to our concerns. The movie shows, forcefully and poetically, that we’ll never destroy the Earth. We only destroy ourselves when we try. When Nausicaa delves underneath the verdant (though polluted) surface, she discovers clear water and unmarred soil. The world is slowly regenerating itself after so much manmade damage. Even after the Giant Warriors’ onslaught, even after the violence we witness in the movie (it’s not for kids), nature is rebuilding and fortifying itself. It’ll go on with or without people.
That’s something to make us hopeful or despondent, depending on how you see things. Nausicaa’s betting on hope. So should we.