1984 was a landmark year. Sure, it’s not quite what George Orwell wrote about back in 1949 (that, arguably, applies to today’s times), but a lot of things happened that year, too.
Prince’s Purple Rain ruled the airwaves, HIV was identified (after years of the government dragging its heels), Tetris gave gamers its first block, Alex Trebek made his debut on Jeopardy!, and everybody called The Ghostbusters.
But 1984 is also the year that acclaimed director and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki gifted the world with a subversive masterpiece in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. A triumph of a film, it has a lot to say both then and now, four decades later and in a time of COVID-19, a worsening climate crisis, and mindless, soulless militarization. In fact, the film and its titular protagonist are more relevant today than ever.
That said, it’s interesting to note that Nausicaä is not Miyazaki’s first film. That honor goes to 1979’s Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Nor is Nausicaä Studio Ghibli’s first. That’s 1986’s Castle in the Sky, which, incidentally, drew partial inspiration from another major 1984 event in the year-long mining strike in the UK.
Though Studio Ghibli was only officially founded by Miyazaki and long-time collaborator Isao Takahata a year later, Nausicaä remains to be not just one of Miyazaki’s finest work, but also the quintessential Ghibli film that helped define the company’s unique spirit and vision for decades to come.
So if you haven’t seen the film yet, I strongly recommend you do — both for the reasons above, but also because there are some spoilers below.
A Summary of Nausicaä
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is based on a manga series of the same name, written and illustrated by Miyazaki himself for Animage Magazine from 1982 all the way until 1994. Set in a Dune-like universe a thousand years after an apocalyptic war that concluded with the Seven Days of Fire and poisoned the earth, the film tells the story of 16-year-old Nausicaä.
Nausicaä is the princess of the Valley of the Wind, and we meet her in one of her explorations of the vast Toxic Jungles — complete with giant, mutated insects like the Ohm — that have taken over most of the world. She wears a mask and travels via a pretty cool glider, which lets her soar through the air.
Other influences include Lord of the Rings and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea.
At the start of the film, we learn that Nausicaä is not only beloved by her people, but she’s also finding ways to better understand a jungle that humanity remains wary of. At one point, we even see her dancing and resting in a pool of toxic pollen like it’s nothing.
One evening, however, her idyllic village is jolted awake by a massive aircraft crashing into the valley. In the wreckage, Nausicaä finds Princess Lastelle of Pejite, whose last act is to plead with her to destroy the plane’s cargo.
The cargo in question turns out to be an embryo of a Giant Warrior, a bioweapon that, as its name suggests, is a lethal, humanoid giant, used in the war that had caused the Seven Days of Fire, which, in turn, destroyed the earth.
We then learn that another state, Tolmekia, had seized both Princess Lastelle and the embryo but had been attacked by the mutant insects, which led to the crash. Tolmekian troops soon come looking for the embryo, invading the valley and killing Nausicaä’s father.
Nausicaä nearly massacres the soldiers in her grief, but is stopped by the valley’s swordmaster, Lord Yupa. Together they learn that the Tolmekians, led by Princess Kushana, want to use the Giant Warrior to burn the Toxic Jungle.
Before being taken by Kushana, Nausicaä tells Yupa about her secret underground garden of jungle plants. In her experiments, she’s found that when grown in clean soil and with clean water, the same plants aren’t toxic at all, and so the Toxic Jungle is likely the result of polluted soil.
What follows is an exciting adventure that takes us deep into (and underneath) the Toxic Jungle and to places like Pejite, which is ravaged by angry insects. We learn, horrifyingly, that the destruction was intentional: Pejites had lured the Ohm into their home in an effort to destroy the invading Tolmekians — a tactic they intend to use again with the Valley of the Wind.
And so, Nausicaä must race home to stop the destruction of the valley and help bring peace back among the nations, and in a world ravaged by war and pollution.
Nausicaä, the Young Woman
With her curiosity, kindness, and vibrant, roaming spirit that shines brighter as she glides through the air, Nausicaä is the classic Studio Ghibli protagonist. The titular, strong-willed warrior princess is a beloved character that embodies plenty of tensions: both a pacifist and a skilled fighter, a princess and a wanderer, strong-willed and also soft and compassionate.
Like Kiki, San, and Chihiro after her, she’s not a singular archetype but rather, a fully realized character that makes the most of what life throws at her, capable of standing up to seemingly insurmountable odds and learning along the way.
Unlike other princesses of children’s animation and pop culture in general, she doesn’t have much of a character arc: She’s just as kind, empathetic, and brave as she was in the beginning. And though the film is named after her, the story mostly involves the world around her, and how she’s able to find and build peace in the most hopeless, violent, and destructive situations.
In a post-apocalyptic future, Nausicaä is one of the last vestiges of humanity, both in a literal and figurative sense, and is driven both by a love for others and a love for life.
It is this love for life that helps her look at a Toxic Jungle not with fear or avoidance, but with curiosity and a need to make peace. It’s what helps her communicate with giant insects, to calm them down, and to understand what they need. This is also what makes her cry and say, “no more killing. It has to stop,” right after she nearly murders a room full of soldiers who had just killed her father.
In the manga, when faced with an old man who tells her the world is destined to die because of men, it is also this love for life that has Nausicaä say, “Our God of the Winds teaches us that life is above all! And I love life! The light, the sky, the men, the insects, I love them all more than anything!”
She chooses a love for life even as she’s bitten, taken hostage, shot at, actually shot, burned by acid, stuck in a burning airship, and standing up to a stampede of angry giant insects. Her pacifism, steadfast in a world destroyed and continues to be shaped by violence, is not one of passiveness. Instead, it’s one that consciously chooses empathy and rejects the cynical idea that the world is hopeless. It’s also pretty action-packed.
At one point in the film, her commitment to the environment and to peace almost costs her her life, but the Ohm ultimately reward her for it.
It’s also this love for life that stands in contrast to everyone else, particularly with other political leaders like Princess Kushana. Believing that she was acting in her people’s best interest, the Tolmekian princess had wanted to use a bioweapon that once destroyed the earth to now burn the Toxic Jungle that the war had caused in the first place.
And it is through this contrast that we see one of the film’s strongest truths: When people say violence is the only option, they’re not acting out of logic. Instead, for all their military might, the Tolmekians were acting out of fear and ignorance.
But Nausicaä is never overtaken by fear— not of the funky flora and fauna of the Toxic Jungle, not of giant insects rampaging at full speed towards her, and not of angry, scared humans with guns. She may be afraid, but instead of killing things with fire, she chooses empathy.
This love for life is also infectious. At their darkest hour, a villager tells another, “As long as the princess hasn’t given up, we can’t either!”
Given all this, Nausicaä’s character is very interesting to look at today, in a time when the climate crisis threatens our existence (and is especially worrisome for women), when countries are spending billions in war (even after the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan and instead of spending on, say, healthcare), and when the pandemic continues to take thousands of lives every day (both directly and through misinformation).
Nausicaä, the Film That Started It All
In her book Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, Helen McCarthy describes the creation of the Nausicaä manga as instrumental in the development of Studio Ghibli itself.
The name Ghibli, after all, is derived from the Italian ghibli, which refers to a hot desert wind, not unlike the winds that carry Nausicaä through the clouds and which envelop her in one of her visions. The idea is for the studio to “blow a new wind through the anime industry.”
In the film, the wind is seen as both destructive and life-giving. It’s the wind that carries the airborne miasma and spores of the Toxic Jungle, which can kill you in minutes if you’re not wearing a protective mask. But it’s also life-giving: In the Valley of the Wind, windmills are used to power irrigation and other everyday systems, and clean air from the ocean keeps the sickness from entering the valley.
It’s a theme that’s explored in many of Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s other works, alongside the idea of flight. Wind, after all, is what carried the airships that dropped bombs on the Japan of Miyazaki’s early youth, but it’s also what provides a sense of freedom to his characters.
Indeed, many of the other themes explored in the film — ruins and their forgotten histories, anti-war sentiments, and environmentalism — have all become cornerstones of Miyazaki’s rich output over the past two decades. And though it’s not technically a Ghibli film, it embodies so much of what the brand stands for, setting the tone for everything that came afterward.
Perhaps the strongest and most profound message, I think, both in Nausicaä and in the Ghibli repertoire, is that life goes on, and we must keep living.
In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, this message is clearest at the end: On its final shot, the film shows us a single, new life sprouting underneath the jungle, bathed in a shaft of sunlight, and right next to a facemask that, hopefully, will no longer be necessary in the future. Over a thousand years after a war that destroyed the world, and despite humanity’s capacity for ruthless, senseless violence, life can go on — if we choose it.
Whether or not change comes to us in the form of a Toxic Jungle secretly cleansing the world of pollution caused by war, we can react to change in different ways.
We can avoid it and hide in little pockets of safety, the way the kingdoms of Nausicaä’s world had done. We can try to stand our ground, fall back on our ego and fight, like Princess Kushana thought was best for her people. But we can use the change to transform ourselves, how we see the world, and how we interact with it, so we can all come out of change just a bit better than before.
And the best part about this message? It’s never too late. It took humanity a thousand years after the Seven Days of Fire to start truly recovering with nature, instead of against it. Plus, Hayao Miyazaki was 43 years old when he got to send Nausicaä’ and this message out into the world — and the rest is Ghibli history.