In The Odyssey, Homer tells the story of the great Wanderer, Odysseus, crossing the nations and oceans of the Mediterranean to the small island of Ithaca, his own kingdom. Having fought for Helen, Odysseus spends the next decade scattered across the Greek islands. Towards the end of his journey he comes to the island of the nymph Calypso. For seven years Calypso detains Odysseus, hoping to persuade him to be her immortal husband. It is of no use. Finally conceding to his broken heart, Calypso sends him off. It is not long, though, before Odysseus is caught in a massive storm and only survives by divine help, washing up naked on the shore of the Phaeacians.
Half dead and beaten senseless, Odysseus is found by the princess of the Phaecians, Nausicaa. While The Oddyssey is filled to the brim with wild characters and people, Nausicaa is a woman set in stark contrast to any other female figure before her, especially Calypso. The nymph tried to keep Odysseus on her island, tried to hold on to him; Naussica keeps the wanderer distant, clothing him and then telling him to meet her at the palace, to keep his distance. Calypso builds Odysseus a ship; Naussica’s name means “burner of ships”.
It would be easy to glaze over Nausicaa for the sake of what seems to be important: Odysseus telling the story of the Trojan War and his wanderings. But Nausicaa is too intersting to do that. She finds a naked Odysseus, brought in by the wind, on the shore as she’s washing clothes. She treats the great hero of the Trojan War like a child: clothing him, cleaning him, feeding him, and giving him directions. At the same time, though, we know she is daughter to the King. So what do have? A mother-daughter who cares for strangers but wisely keeps them at a distance and keeps a hidden strength to burn ships.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is, no doubt, a wild and eyebrow-furrowing film. In a post-apocalyptic world where man has created massive giants that torched the entire world and consequently gave birth to a massive, toxic jungle, the story is set first in one of the now 7 kingdoms called the Valley of The Wind. The people here are gardeners and farmers, trying to stay away from the deadly jungles and massive insects that inhabit them. They are simple and happy, even as they are timid in their realization that death is so near to them always. Nausicaa is the Princess of the Valley of the Wind, and Miyazaki takes no time at all showing us how similar she is to the Homeric character by the same name.
We first see Nausicaa in one of the toxic jungles, wearing a mask against the noxious air, and finding the shell of a massive insect called an Ohm. Ecstatic at how useful the whole thing will be to her people, Nausicaa laughs as snow-like spores from the plants rain down and settle in a thick blanket over her. She is stirred by the sound of something far off. Time and again, Nausicaa will be roused from sleep by something she hears, something that comes to her on the wind. But we never hear it. She feels something coming, tastes it on the wind, but we never hear it when she does.
Nausicaa follows the sound on her glider and finds a giant Ohm running in rage after a traveler, who turns out to be Lord Yupa, the great Wanderer of the Valley of the Wind. After calling up a mysterious power to quiet the Ohm, Nausicaa meets with Lord Yupa and tells him to meet her at the Kingdom of the Valley of the Wind. As in the Odyssey, Yupa makes it clear that this Princess is something different, something very important as she flies off toward the Valley.
It is not long, though, before the peace of the Valley is disrupted. Nausicaa is awakened one night by a sentry who says they have heard something on the wind. Flying into the stormy night, Nausicaa finds a massive ship, infested with insects, barely flying. Screaming at it to turn, she watches as the whole thing crashes into the valley. From here Miyazaki’s story moves quickly: the ship is followed soon by an army of the Tolmekian people, a Kingdom of war machines and firepower that is intent on burning away the toxic jungle and uniting all other kingdoms under one flag. In their skirmish with the Valley people the Tolmekians kill the King and nearly destroy the whole valley. Nausicaa, finding her father dead, goes on nothing less than a small rampage as she slaughters a band of soldiers. She is stopped by Lord Yupa, who would rather take her blade into his own arm than watch any more killing. With blood running down his sleeve, standing between soldiers and Nausicaa, Yupa tells the Tolmekians to stop their killing and be sensible with the simple Valley people. The shot is striking.
Soon we find that the Tolmekians are trying to recover the cargo of the crashed ship; one of the Giant Warriors that scorched the world in fire is hibernating in a sort of womb, not entirely formed yet. They plan to awaken the warrior and set its onto the toxic jungle and, if it’s convenient, onto any kingdom that stands in their way. Miyazaki makes their contrast with Nausicaa very vivid when he shows us Nauiscaa’s secret underground garden, where she has been growing the toxic plants in pure water, eliminating their poison altogether.
Once again the character of Nausicaa is complicated and full. She is a burner of ships, a destroyer, and we see that power evident when she takes up the sword. But she hates it. More than once Nausicaa says, “Stop all this killing!” to both the Tolmekians and her own people. She is a caretaker, a mother to her people, but also a frail child, weeping in her garden. She loves the toxic jungle and finds the insects to be simply misunderstood. And yet she knows the jungle is, in fact, toxic and the insects are deadly.
Forced to go back with the Tolmekian army, Nausicaa is on a war ship when an interceptor from another kingdom, the Pejites, opens fire on the convoy and destroys nearly the entire fleet. In the chaos of the crash, Nausicaa ends up with the Pejite pilot Asbel in the toxic jungle. They are caught in quicksand and swallowed up, only to wake up under the forest in a massive chasm of pure air and water. Nausicaa realizes that the jungle is purifying itself, purging the polluted topsoil. Asbel and Nauiscaa soon find themselves racing against time to stop the Tolmekians from unleashing the Giant Warrior, a power they clearly can’t control, on the toxic jungle, which Nausicaa knows will only send the millions of insects into a swarming rage and could very well destroy the entire planet all over again.
The first time I saw this movie, I cannot pretend I liked it. It seemed ridiculous. I passed it off as a story about saving the planet from pollution, of world peace and animal rights. But that is not what Miyazaki is doing. Not nearly. If there is any writer or director who understands what it means to think like a child, it is Miyazaki. His imagination is so rich, so full of wild creations and magnificent colors that it actually becomes easy to gloss over how vivid the whole film is. Nausicaa herself is a character nearly always wearing blue, with countless shots showing her against a blue sky. She belongs to the wind. She reads it. She knows the sky, and sees what comes on it before we do.
This is, I think, more than a neat idea. It is even more than a nice reference back to a character in the Odyssey who is also picking up things from the wind. Nausicaa is a hero precisely because she is real, full of contradictions, but not useless because of them. Perhaps we might call them paradoxes. She burns ships; she hates to see things killed. She fights for the people around her; she despises the sword. She is a reader of the wind; her kingdom is a valley.
Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind could very well be speaking in some sense about guarding the planet, but it dwells much longer on the question of fear. It is fear that keeps the People of the Valley in their quiet lives, fear that has kept the Pejites from venturing to other kingdoms, and fear that motivates the Tolmekians to try and resurrect the Great Warrior. Fear has kept the Kingdoms from trying to make sense of the dangerous jungle, and, like Nausicaa, fear continually clouds their ability to see that the insects are enraged by their own violent actions.
Miyazaki is, by all accounts, a devout Buddhist. So what, then do we do with his proposition? Is fear what drives us? Should we try to make sense of our world by assuming that there is something more to it than we see? Is there something pure under the topsoil? Or is it nonsense? Maybe believing such a possibility is foolish. Perhaps it is childish, thinking that even the most toxic can be made sense of. Or maybe wisdom really is being like a child. Maybe it is being cautious of strangers and telling them to meet us at our own place. Maybe it is living on solid ground and listening to whatever comes on the wind.