Hayao Miyazaki is a genius. I think we can all agree on that. If you want to talk about an auteur who builds fantastic worlds the likes of which you’ve never seen, he’s the only name worth mentioning. He takes the art of animation to a degree that before or since has only been scratched. We all love Pixar, don’t get me wrong, but the Pixar canon is the work of many different directors and writers all collaborating to make the best possible film. When you watch a Pixar film, you’re watching a product of dedication, creativity and exacting detail work. Miyazaki brings all that to the table, but makes it feel as effortless as breathing. It’s the difference between a bridge and a painting: both are marvelous but it’s comparing engineering to inspiration. The experience is like this: you come in to Miyazaki’s home and he shows you the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen, and when you mention it to him he just shrugs and says, “Eh, threw it together over the weekend.”
[ad#longpost]And now that it appears that Mr. Miyazaki will be folding his director’s chair for the foreseeable future (the current Studio Ghibli film, The Secret World of Arriety is a collaboration with one of his former key animators directing while he writes), now seemed like an excellent time to take a look at the golden age of Miyazaki, his work at Studio Ghibli and fill in the gaps in my Miyazaki checklist. Hopefully by the time its finished, we’ll have learned some valuable insight on why Miyazaki is so good at what he does, and be able to make some judgments on whether or not he’s needed in the director’s chair.
So join me for what I hope will be a great start to the beginning of the week, my new NostalgiAWESOME Special Series: Miyazaki Mondays!
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Like so many things, best to start at the beginning. When you get your DVD of Nausicaa as I did and pop it in to your player, you’ll see the Studio Ghibli logo at the front of the film. However the Studio was actually founded based on the success of Nausicaa and has been a luminary in the Japanese film world ever since. Apparently Miyazaki had been working on a manga of the story which his collaborators wanted to make in to film. So if you’re a Miyazaki fanatic and didn’t know that, pick it up. At any rate, they cared about this movie enough to buy the distribution rights back when they were already making money on it. Take it from me, when filmmakers spend extra money, pay attention.
Nausicaa is set in a world that is slowly recovering from a massive ecological disaster brought on by war. Few habitable places exist and most of the world is covered by a toxic jungle filled with monstrous insects. Nausicaa is a princess of a small kingdom that gets caught up in an empire’s power grab for control over the human world.
The first thing you’ll notice when you pop the film in to your DVD player is one of the most wonderful opening sequences I’ve seen in an animated film, not to mention one of Miyazaki’s personal greats. The scope of the film is just wondrous to behold. For most filmmakers sticking to incredibly wide shots, filling the screen with strange and exotic environments would make you lose the human feel of the film. But while Miyazaki is continually fascinated by his human characters and yet, as the opening characterizes, he’s not afraid to let them be dwarfed by their environment.
Let’s talk about the writing here: it’s superb, thematically extremely similar to some of the other Miyazaki films I’ve seen, and heavily preoccupied with environmentalism and pacifism, two of the director’s hallmarks. Though Nausicaa herself is a step above anything I’ve seen out of Miyazaki before, she attains this perfect balance of traditional sci-fi heroism while retaining her femininity throughout. It’s an utterly unique thing to see. In most genre films if a woman takes on the role of the action hero she sacrifices everything that makes her a woman in order to do it. Or worse yet she struggles with retaining her femininity while becoming a hero, like the two are mutually exclusive. Nausicaa is utterly a princess and serves as her kingdom’s military commander and envoy to the toxic jungle. She has no problem commanding men or fighting six men in battle. And yet she also has no problem spinning around in a field like a little girl, caring for animals and playing with the young girls in her village. In fact she’s used quite well in contrast to the enemy princess Kushana who has lost herself in her role as general of her kingdom’s armies.
The voice cast is, well, I can’t use words to describe how good it is. I could, but this article would veer into decidedly R rated territory. I’m not too terribly familiar with Alison Lohman, but as Nausicaa she just makes you fall in love with her. Patrick Stewart as Lord Yupa is the closest thing you’ll get to seeing him play Gandalf and it is absolutely addictive to watch. I’ve honestly never liked Shia LaBeouf in anything more, same goes for Uma Thurman. Yes, I like Uma Thurman in this more than Kill Bill. Chew on that for a little. And rounding out the cast you get the golden voices of Edward James Olmos and Mark freakin’ Hamill of all people.
The directing is fantastic, of course: watching this I’m almost as aware of the shots as I am with a live action film. Miyazaki explores a wonderful fascination with the motion of flight and how things move through the air–some of the aerial battle and chase scenes are so elegantly put together you’d think he was working with a physical camera. The wonderful part of this is, since it is animation, Miyazaki can create shots that he wouldn’t be able to get in real life.
As you finish watching the movie, keep in mind that this was Miyazaki’s second directorial project. Second. And his first with creative control. Now it’s not unheard of for a director to do great work on his second film–Steven Spielberg’s was Jaws for instance. But this is rather more like doing E.T. or Schindler’s List as the second film, which would be unbelievable. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is definitely in the four to five cup range, and definitely worth the Blu-ray purchase since you’re going to want to see this in High Def. I only wish the Netflix disc had come with special features so I could watch a little more of how this was made.
Our next Miyazaki Monday will feature the first real Studio Ghibli film, Castle in the Sky, another blank on my Miyazaki checklist. Will I like it? Will Andy Dick spoil the entire English dub voice cast? Find out next time!