Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is coming stateside soon. In anticipation of that, I figured it’d be fun to catch up on as many titles from the studio as I can, since I know my exposure’s woefully incomplete (to count, I’ve only watched PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, SPIRITED AWAY and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.)
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For a most welcome change of pace, I got to see this flick projected on a big screen from a vintage 35mm print instead of the assorted avenues of home video I’ve been employing so far. See, as it happens, LA’s Egyptian and Aero theaters and I have the same idea - - they’re currently right in the middle of their “Castles in the Sky” programming block that’s screening every single Studio Ghibli movie before THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY’S release.
Some of the prints are new or restored, but the one I saw must’ve been an original, since it did show some wear. That made me more conscious of the era of the movie’s release than I usually would’ve been; conscious enough to even project my mind back to the day. If that sounds like a rather trippy way of describing the viewing experience, it’s because NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF WIND - - with its dreamy, melted wastelands and nightmarish, macro-sized insectile fauna - - feels more like a “head movie” than any other Miyazaki picture.
I couldn’t help thinking how sublime this must have been to audiences in ’84, when computer effects were still a good 15 years away from making the depiction of fantasy worlds on screen as common as we’ve all become so numb to. This came out a year after RETURN OF THE JEDI and somewhere between the releases of THE ROAD WARRIOR and BEYOND THUNDERDOME; so, for as striking as its lusher vision of post-Apocalyptic society seems today, it must been incredibly more so then.
Miyazaki does certainly wear some key artistic influences on his sleeve, however. The linework and color palette recall Moebius and there’s also some thematic and aesthetic carry-over from the flower child sword & sorcery Bakshi was exploring in the 70’s (though, to be sure, this is significantly better rendered.) It likely owes some debt to Frank Herbert's DUNE, as well, which's doomed movie adaptation actually happened to come out around the same time. Nausicaa's ornery master swordsman aide-de-camp, Lord Yupa, recalls Gurney Halleck, at the least.
Princess Nausicaa herself seems like a heroine in the mold of Joan of Arc - - an adored, virginal matriarch with a saintly compulsion to peace that's coupled with an expert capability for violence. She’s a take-action heroine who doesn’t feel like a man in drag; a girl who can kick ass when she must, not when she's trying to titillate. Likewise, the cyborg Princess Kushana (seeming like a prototype for Lady Eboshi in PRINCESS MONONOKE) is an antagonist who doesn't fall into any of the easy archetypes that less sophisticated parables would settle for. She's a power-hungry, war-mongering monarch, to be sure, but it's very hard not to be impressed by her indomitable will as she surmounts her own daunting gauntlet of challenges (and enjoys some wonderful moments of bickering levity with her henpecked husband.)
The ladies clash sabres as Nausicaa navigates, on her wondrous glider, through a three-party conflict of kingdoms that mixes medieval armaments with modern vehicles, and man-made weapons with colossally-scoped ones of the natural, unnatural and mutated variety. It’s an anti-war adventure (and why exactly is that concept such a bugaboo to so many?) that never delivers its themes with a heavy hand. There are no preachy “message moments,” only lucid statements of fact. It even handles an environmentalist message more maturely in Nausicaa’s relationship with the bugs which asks simply for understanding and respect, not limp and obsequious pandering.
As mentioned, this was an older print and, as it stands, it's perhaps an exhibit to show purists that subs aren’t always the most ideal translation for a film. I haven’t seen the dub Disney did a few years back with Alison Lohman and Patrick Stewart, et al, and yes, I'm aware of the much-maligned WARRIORS OF THE WIND cut that infamously excised 30 minutes of screen time. Still, this purest version's still saddled with some unnecessary-unto-disruptive dialog that has characters stating outright what can so easily just be seen on screen.
Nausicaa struggles to hold up a colossal glass eyelid?
She says, “Oh! This big glass eyelid is so heavy!”
The big bugs’ eyes start turning from red to blue?
Somebody exclaims, “Oh! The bugs’ eyes are turning blue!”
And so on.
Japanese grammar may be difficult to translate to English, but I still wish the translation team could have had some room or motivation to come up with more interesting substitute lines.
Afterward, I found out this was based on a manga Miyazaki did that runs longer than 3000 pages. Call that R&D well spent, as NAUSICAA exhibits a world more detailed and realized than a movie's cramped production cycle usually allows time for. Though, perhaps that gets at my other mild frustration with the flick - - that there's so much to this world and its people, and yet we only get these brief glimpses of it all. This isn't an overstuffed adaptation, nor does it deviate from all the "Aristotelian unities" championed by so many a screenwriting guru, but it does still feel like NAUSICAA lands a little bit before it can jet into a rightfully epic flight.
Forget PORCO ROSSO's Adriatic Sea. It's been nearly 30 years since the release of this - - where are the further adventures in this most charming of nuclear wastelands?