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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (GKIDS Release)

GKIDS Films // PG // October 31, 2017
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 8, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Hayao Miyazaki's reputation for creating and properly utilizing female lead characters has continuously elevated over the years, reaching peaks with the scrappy ambition of a young witch living on her own and the absorbing emotions of an untamed princess seeking to preserve and protect her land. Other heroines have emerged and entwined with the purposes of Miyazaki's stories, but despite the consistent success of his craftsmanship, his very first -- now over thirty years old! -- still stands tall as a comprehensive distillation of just about all the noble qualities that he's explored in the others. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind holds the distinction of being the production that propelled Studio Ghibli into existence, often lumped together with the rest of the studio's catalog despite not being one of their official releases, and the strength of this very different kind of animated princess certainly plays a part in that. Exceptional world-building and versatile, if overpacked, themes providing the obstacles she must conquer certainly helps.

There's cleverness involved with the introduction of Nausicaa, as a masked journeyer on a mount delves into the the Sea of Decay: lands ravaged by the "seven days of fire" more than a thousand years back, now populated with hostile, defensive insects. Elsewhere, our heroine gallantly traverses the area with a familiarly unique breathing device affixed to her face, eventually revealed to be a fairly young girl, one who sacrifices her well-being for that of her community who peacefully live in the Valley of the Wind. Shortly after she encounters Lord Yupa (the masked journeyer from the beginning) while containing the threat of a large insect -- an overgrown, scuttling being called an Ohmu -- the people of the Valley of the Wind are threatened by something equally as imposing, if not more so. Forces from the authoritative Tolmekian kingdom, spearheaded by ruthless Princess Kushana, thrust their rule upon the people and threaten to resurrect devastating ancient technology to wipe out the insects. Nausicaa, fearful for her people and yearning to cohabitate with the Sea of Decay, fights against their efforts.

Introductory text laying out the creation of the Sea of Decay may provide some upfront context to the setting's history, but Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind throws the audience's perception deep into the overgrown, dystopian wasteland without much explanation of how it operates. Instead, Miyazaki's script -- adapting from his own manga novel series -- lets Nausicaa herself elaborate upon the sights and sounds of the dangers surrounding her through her experiences, emphasized by hauntingly whimsical imagery featuring sporous tunnels and overgrown cities wiped away by the spread of toxic pestilence. The Valley of the Wind, the focal area unimpacted by the Sea of Decay, holds its own traditional beauty once we arrive there with its verdant isolation and quaint building, but it's the unique pastels and shadows within the corrupted areas that lend the film its fascinating beauty. It's an unconventional fairytale environment that sets the right mood of melancholy hopefulness upon the first glimpses at the title character's home.

Nausicaa quickly becomes layered and multifaceted in these introductory scenes, showing fearlessness in her desire to explore alongside an understanding of the boundaries that keep her alive, while also taking the time to enjoy being young and alive while pursuing things helpful to her township. The swiftness in which Miyazaki establishes this character allows for the somewhat narrow trajectory of her development to continue latching onto that initial substance throughout the story, as she falls into a position of being a selfless heroine engaging authoritarianism and struggling with the unknown. Quite simply, she's outfitted to be the principled hero whose barometer won't waver in the midst of moral ambiguity; the tyrannical bad guys have noble intentions through their desire to control, while the wildness of the Sea of Decay isn't simply lost to mindless consumption and destruction. She's the one who wants to understand the hostile wilderness and prevent her people from being conquered, bounaries that have little place for moral ambiguity but plenty of breathing room for expressive escalation.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind becomes an endurance test for the young heroine, and it's her spirit amid the ugliness of humankind and the wrath of nature that gives her such a strong presence. Miyazaki doesn't narrow the focus of the film's themes: he incorporates critiques on authoritarianism, destruction of the environment, even warfare itself, as if this might be his only shot at showing the world what Japanese animation can accomplish. This does clutter the film's intentions, ones that the director will tackle individually and more thoroughly in his following works; however, there's a meaningful synergy between them all within this post-apocalyptic wasteland, amplified by the lack of easy solutions to the problems created in this seemingly doomed universe. These are problems bigger than what a single princess can get under control as she hastily glides between locations with a pointy-eared squirrel on her shoulder, and the film's willingness to display the harsh, wrenching repercussions of humanity's obliviousness and self-destructive tendencies give the story a very mature vibe.

Amid stampedes of red-eyed insects, tense aerial battles, and crumbling earth caused by the reemergence of doomsday devices, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind sustains captivating intensity throughout its depiction of princesses with warring perspectives on their duties to preserving the world. A degree of arguably unnecessary mysticism does enter the equation, though, with the film's emphasis on a glorified savior -- memorialized in tapestries wearing specific clothing and surrounded by specific sights -- who's ultimately preordained to come onto the scene and rejuvenate the world. In that, Miyazaki's film teeters into the realm of fantasy, away from a practical viewpoint on Nausicaa's hard-fought reputation and from the "organic magic" generated by the setting. Yet, in true Studio Ghibli form, spiritual prophecy and human effort intertwine into a beautiful galvanization of the film's rewarding meanings, justifying the usage of the supernatural in how it empowers the young princess. Nausicaa may be the studio's eldest heroine, but her resilience and empathy keep her elevated as one of the best.

The Blu-ray:

Shout Factory and GKIDS soar into Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind's territory with a two-disc presentation, but, unlike some of their other re-releases, there's some significant differences in the packaging between this one and Disney's initial release. The exterior artwork features the beautiful classic poster design of Nausicaa standlong alongside the body of an Ohmu, with pastel skies of the horizon ahead of her, while the interior artwork features smartly-designed discs and a fitting inlay still on the reverse of the cover. GKIDS have also included their own standard-definition DVD for Disc Two, as well as a thin, exclusive Booklet with promo photos and three textual blurbs: one from producer Toshia Suzuki from 2010, a director's statement from Hayao Miyazaki from 1983, and a producer's statement from Isao Takahata from the same year.

Video and Audio:

For nearly all of GKIDS' recent Blu-ray (re-)releases of the Studio Ghibli catalog, crucial little details have been tweaked to bring the films closer to their intended viewing experience, from refining subtitle translations to including an upgraded high-definition audio track. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, however, is another story. The differences aren't exactly subtle here: GKIDS have obtained a new scan of the artwork from overseas that boasts a more accurate representation of the colors, and the differences can be striking when comparing the two. Granted, watching the footage one Blu-ray after the other doesn't yield what one might consider a "night and day" comparison; it takes a determined eye to see some of the differences. However, this new transfer -- presented in 1.85:1 in a 1080p AVC encode -- does sport bolder, richer, yet more appropriate shades of color to the Disney counterpart, many of which change the aesthetic of certain scenes based on darkness and depth, such as the shade of purple that Nausicaa's mask changes to when covered by the Ohmu's eye.

The result, whether viewed for the first time or as a seasoned devotee of Nausicaa who already owns the previous Blu-ray, is a staggering representation of ‘80s animation that both embraces the complications of its vintage and sports tremendous contemporary high-definition brilliance. Fine details has been improved in many sequences, allowing the dark strokes around characters to stand out more appropriately while subtracting from the film's hazy presence at certain points. Grain looks noticeably more natural throughout, and the black levels are more evenly handled, yielding deeper shadows in some scenes and brighter ones in others so that they're more cohesive with the tonality of the setting; check out the colors and shades of the shrouded skull at the very beginning of the film. Some image wobble pops up very intermittently and there's still some haziness in spots, but those are the only real negatives one can muster over this tremendous representation of three-decades-old anime.

The divine transfer may end up overshadowing the improvements made to the audio of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, though the differences don't require nearly as much careful spot-checking to hear ‘em. Using predominately the Japanese 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track as the reference, the twang and restraint of the film's vintage has been significantly improved in this treatment, which has also been dialed up in volume at many points for a consistent level of audibility. Subtle sounds like the buzzing of insects, the poof of spores, and the tapping of gunpowder onto a surface possess far stronger clarity and naturalness to them. Stronger effects, like blade slamming into surfaces, explosions, and insects scuttling along the surface of the earth, tap into much more resonant lower-end heft. Dialogue clarity is richer and more evenly balanced, possessing little distortion beyond the faint rasp of the film's age here and there. Spot-checking confirms that these qualities largely carry over between both tracks, though the sound effects in the English language track don't seem quite as pronounced as nuanced as the original Japanese track.

A note about the subtitles: the standard English subs are not dubtitles; however, the English SDH titles are. One example of the differences between the tracks emerges quickly in the film, at the difference in terminology of the contaminated areas in the world: it's called the Toxic Jungle in the English dub, while being referred to as the Sea of Decay in the original Japanese translation. The differences between the two stretch beyond terminology like that, with the English dubtitles including extra adjectives and exposition to more thoroughly fill in the narrative gaps.

Special Features:

Both the audio and visual areas of GKIDS' release of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind offer substantial upgrades that already make this Blu-ray set worth pursuing, but they aren't finished there, carrying over a number of extras produced in Japan that weren't available on Disney's release. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that all the new features are entirely in Japanese (with English subtitles), including the Audio Commentary with Hideaki Anno (Key Animation) and Kazuyoshi Katayama (Assistant Director), which can be found in the "SETUP" area of the disc instead of the "BONUS" wing. It's a tremendously insightful track, too, where they discuss the techniques used to create certain aesthetics, how so much of what was created would be far easier now with digital animation, and flickers of intended symbolism. They also discuss region-specific elements as well as content specifically about the Japanese-language recorded audio. Subtitles are in English, and the points where the pair of commentators are silent are filled with subtitles from the film itself.

Along with extras that have been carried over from the previous release -- Feature-Length Storyboards (HD), Creating Nausicaa (11:33, 16x9) from the Behind the Studio collection of featurettes, and the vintage Behind the Microphone (7:47, 4x3) featuring the voice talents of those who recorded the English dub (Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Mark Hamill, Shia LeBouf, etc.) -- GKIDS have also included another extra goodie for those who haven't had the pleasure of enjoying the Japanese Blu-ray. An Audio-Only Interview with Toshio Suzuki and Hideaki Anno (43:32) takes place with a black screen surrounding a white countdown clock and the subtitles appearing on the bottom, as the pair discuss their history, transition from Neon Genesis Evangelion, and working with live-animation. Rounding things out is a series of original Theatrical Trailers (8:16, 16x9 HD).

Note that the Birth Story of Studio Ghibli doc from the original Disney DVD and the interactive Enter the Lands feature from the Disney Blu-ray -- which included a trivia challenge focused on Nausicaa -- have not been carried over to this new release. In terms of substance dedicated solely to this film, however, GKIDS have ported over just about everything that's worthwhile.

Final Thoughts:

Despite being what's essentially the very first Studio Ghibli film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind continues to withstand the test of time, whether we're talking about its visual language, the themes it employs, or the enduring strength of its heroine. The world created by Hayao Miyazaki taps into a haunting beauty that infuses post-apocalyptic toxicity with the insistence of organic life to continue existing alongside it. In tandem with that, Miyazaki's themes of exerting control over nature and the repercussions of warfare entwine with the film's potent melancholy storytelling, involving people still trying to thrive and rebound a thousand years after manmade destruction ravaged the land. But perhaps its most radiant success exists within Nausicaa herself, who continues to stand tall among both Miyazaki's heroines and female lead character across all animation as a fine embodiment of perseverance, inquisitiveness, and empathy. With each viewing, it inches further up my favorites Studio Ghibli list, an impressive feat considering it's their first real crack at this thing. GKIDS have presented an immensely satisfying Blu-ray presentation of the film, too, complete with strongly improved audiovisual merits and a fairly comprehensive slate of extra features, including a commentary and several featurettes. Very Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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