It's easy to fall in love with anime movies from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, mostly because of the constantly superb visuals and unique stories. But we also love Miyazaki movies because there's a measure of joy to be found in every one.
This goes for the darker, more adult tales too, like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the headliner in the group of three, two-DVD Ghibli releases from Disney/Buena Vista. Porco Rosso is the most adult (in a fun way) of the group, The Cat Returns is the one meant to keep the kids entertained for a couple hours, and Nausicaa is the epic adventure that can grab the attention of every age group.
Nausicaa is also the first of Miyazaki's films to truly spotlight his talents, and the film's success paved the way for Studio Ghibli to be born.
It's 1,000 years after a world war wiped out much of humanity, and an expanding, deadly forest, which spreads poisonous spores and houses monstrous insects, constantly threatens the last remnants of civilization. All of humanity fears and fights the insects that protect and live in the poisonous jungle, except Nausicaa, a young, adventurous princess from the seaside kingdom of Valley of the Wind, where whipping breezes keep the forest spores from choking everyone to death. With wisdom and a thoughtfulness that you wouldn't expect from a girl her age, she empathizes with the world that's threatening the last remnants of her race. She's also the best damn kid with a glider, fearlessly flying her light, unarmed machine throughout the land.
The relative peace of her kingdom is shattered when a ship from another city of humans crashes into a nearby mountain, killing everyone onboard and spilling its cargo: a long-dormant, frightening weapon named Giant Warrior that has done more harm than good for mankind. When an army from the other city comes calling to collect its weapon, led by the valiant but misguided leader Princess Kushana, the people of the Valley of the Wind are imprisoned.
While Nausicaa is being held hostage by Kushana and her kin, a young man, Asbel, from another faction of humans (which had the weapon stolen from it) attacks in his warplane. Nausicaa is freed, and with Asbel's help, she may be able to keep all three groups of humans from being annihilated.
Nausicaa has secretly been gathering and growing spores in a secret room in the bowels of the castle. Using clean soil and water from deep inside the Earth, the spores and moss are not poisonous and the air is clean. She deduces that the forest is not the problem, but rather the topsoil of the Earth is contaminated, making the growing jungle spoiled. She wonders, aloud and naively, who could have done such a thing. Things become clearer to her later.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind incorporates that familiar Japanese anime theme, a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world and the trials of living in it. The weapon Kushana wants to use is easily equated to a nuclear bomb (morally, and visually when it's used). But while other anime explored humanity's technological advancements in a post-apocalyptic Earth, Nausicaa sees humanity a thousand years removed from a world war with no leg up on the new order of things. Simple guns and beaten-up ships are all humanity has to fight the insect threat, until this new weapon is utilized. The jungle is simply dominating the Earth, pushing the last of mankind to the furthest corners of the land, and the best mankind can think of to this point is to burn it.
Even after all three groups of humans are introduced, Nausicaa remains surprisingly coherent and fluid, with the motives of each group explained fully during the action. None of these characters – Kushana, her right-hand man Mito, Nausicaa's mustached friend Lord Yupa, the young and proud Asbel – believes they are doing anything wrong. Convinced of their moral footing, they wreak havoc on each other and the land, drawing only more grief from the varied insects. The insect hoards are led by the giant, caterpillar-like Ohmus, which draw instant comparisons to the worms of Dune, a mystical and powerful force of the world, largely misunderstood by the humans. Except Nausicaa.
What you'll find in Nausicaa is what you've found in most other Miyazaki animations: excellent detail present in most every cell, a sense of wonder present in every scene involving flying, from simple journeys to great battles, and strong female characters. Miyazaki is a feminist at heart, and it's doubly apparent in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind as both of the lead characters, Nausicaa and Kushana, are strong-willed, few-frills women.
Grand in scale, thoughtful in more than one way, and visually ahead of its time, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is another wonderful film from Miyazaki, one which isn't afraid to fault mankind for all its stupid behaviors, but offers hope and, yes, joy, in the form of one young girl.
Reports of this DVD's poor video quality on the DVDTalk forums were a little exaggerated, I think. A few specks and grain here and there, definitely some edge enhancement (which my untrained eye usually misses completely), but for a 1984 animation, the transfer to DVD is cleaned up nicely, with no bleeding or shimmering, that I could see. The characters are definitely softer than later Miyazaki films, though their movements are pretty fluid and easy on the eyes. Scenes in the air are beautiful and eye-catching. The widescreen presentation is enhanced for you viewers with the swank 16X9 TVs.
Of course, the English dubs on these Ghibli DVDs are the big selling point from Disney/Buena Vista. Patrick Stewart is the only one who's immediately recognizable, as the voice of the mustached Lord Yupa, and you'd probably only guess Kushana is voiced by Uma Thurman if you read a review beforehand or watched the special features first. Shia LaBeouf (Constantine, Holes) and Edward James Olmos (Mi Familia, Selena) do fine work as young Asbel and Mito, respectively, but are mostly nondescript players in the Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation. As Nausicaa, Alison Lohman (Big Fish, Matchstick Men) has the bulk of the work in this film, and she does wonderfully.
However, with all the big names attached to the English dub, it's just not that much better than the Japanese track, which can boast some pretty good voice acting as well. Of course, I'm partial to original language tracks anyway, but, honestly, the hype for the English voice cast is not met in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
The Birth of Studio Ghibli featurette is very enjoyable, as actors recreate how Producer Toshio Suzuki and Miyazaki put Studio Ghibli on the map, launching the most well-known anime studio with the success of Nausicaa.
All sorts of vignettes about the history of the movie and Studio Ghibli are included: Nausicaa was pitched as a feature-length movie with no comic book tie-in at first, and when it was rejected outright, Miyazaki and Suzuki gave them what they wanted, and put out a popular manga. We find out how close Grave of the Fireflies (next to Spirited Away, the best Ghibli movie ever) came to being shelved. And we get a long and enjoyable explanation of the name of the studio, and how Miyazaki screwed it up.
The short, half-hour long feature is mostly a TV documentary that aired in Japan in 1998, comprised of stock footage, interviews and still shots, but with some added clips and a Ghibli narrator specifically for the DVD release of Nausicaa.
The Behind the Microphone featurette is short, but fun. It's hard to believe this is the first time Stewart has done a dub for a foreign language film. Listening to LaBeouf talk about his experience working with all these high-end talent is great, and he earns a laugh when he explains how he really had to work on his first animated voice-over ("when I talk I slur").
A THX optimizer is also included if you want to test your audio and video set-up. There's also a set of original Japanese TV spots and trailers, and trailers for Disney's new Bambi and The Incredibles DVDs and Ghibli titles Nausicaa, The Cat Returns, Porco Rosso and the first three DVDs released under the Disney-Ghibli partnership.
Animators will adore the moving storyboards on the second disc, a complete, two-hour long, step-by-step sketch-out of the movie, complete with voiceovers (English and Japanese) and soundstage work. Everyday animation fans, however, may find it tedious and could ignore the second disc altogether. If you're truly interested in the conceptual, visual process, give the storyboard feature a go. Just have plenty of snacks and drinks at the ready.
The slip-cover case is just a copy of the front and back of the DVD, though it's still nice, and Disney goes gung-ho with the marketing of this latest batch of Ghibli/Miyazaki DVDs, with a pamphlet promoting tie-ins to VIZ comic books of Nausicaa, an art book of Porco Rosso and a free Ghibli DVD offer.
More could have been done with the special features, sure, but what is included is enough to complement the movie and what it meant to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
No anime reaches so many people of so many ages and tastes like Miyazaki's, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is another must-have, especially for those who find themselves replaying Castle in the Sky, but feel it wasn't epic enough. Many Studio Ghibli fans expressed disappointment when a new My Neighbor Totoro wasn't among the announced, second set of Ghibli DVDs, however Disney/Buena Vista holds the licensing rights to it and a handful of other Miyazaki and Ghibli titles, and plans the same star voice talent, two-DVD treatment for all of them. In the meantime, feel free to add Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the film that started Studio Ghibli and put Miyazaki on the fast track to anime immortality, to your collection. Highly Recommended.