May 25 to 30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.
If there’s one thing to know about Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, it’s that when the reclusive director wants to say something, whether in an interview or in his films, he doesn’t hold back. Among other things, his filmography is known for its clear pattern of pro-environmentalist, pacifist, humanist leanings.
These are good messages for any time, but in the middle of what is probably only the first wave of New York City’s interminable coronavirus shutdown, another common Miyazaki message has been at the forefront of my mind. It’s most clearly expressed in his first original feature film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and his manga of the same name. Miyazaki’s heroes often succeed by confronting radical, existential, irreversible change, getting over the fear it instills, and finally embracing it.
Nausicaä isn’t a Studio Ghibli film, because it preceded the studio. It was produced in 1984 by animation studio Topcraft. But its success — at the box office, with critics, and with Miyazaki’s contemporaries — gave Miyazaki the clout and funding to co-found Ghibli a year later. What’s now considered one of the great animated films of all time began life as a long-form serialized manga.
After some failed attempts to collaborate with the magazine Animage to bring manga adaptations to the screen, Miyazaki agreed to produce an original manga series for the publisher on the stipulation that it would not be adapted to film. He later relented, on the condition that he direct the Nausicaä movie — hence, international success, the founding of a studio, and the launching of a career.
Nausicaä the movie and Nausicaä the manga share a setting, many characters, and in general, many themes. Both versions follow the eponymous princess, explorer, warrior, and peacemaker on her journey to end conflict between human factions in a world where humanity is constantly beset by a hostile environment.
A thousand years ago, ancient humanity poisoned the earth in a war of terrible weapons known as God Warriors, destroying their own civilization. The poisoned earth brought forth an ever-growing forest, the Sea of Decay, formed of deadly plants and fungi that produce an airborne miasma that can kill people in minutes, unless they wear proper protective masks at all times.
The Sea of Decay is populated by massive, territorial insects with impenetrable hides and unstoppable strength. Every now and then, they gather in great swarms and stampedes, rush out over healthy land, then starve to death. Their corpses carry the miasma with them, and serve as fertilizer for a new swathe of the fast-growing forest. The everyday life of humanity is constrained and civilization’s days are numbered. And still, in the face of nature itself turning against us, we can’t even put a pause on the cataclysmic clash of rival empires — the world simmers with war.
In the film, Nausicaä stops an insect swarm from overwhelming her home and puts an end to a dangerous scheme to use an unearthed God Warrior to destroy all the innocent life in the Sea of Decay. She also discovers that deep beneath the Sea of Decay is a vast, cathedral-like cavern of petrified trees, where the air is free of toxic spores, the earth is fertile, and the water is clear and safe. The Sea of Decay is only full of toxins because it is cleansing the earth.
The final image of the film is a literal ray of hope: a single seed growing in that deep chamber, under a shaft of pure sunlight. The image suggests that the world’s recovery may take hundreds or thousands of years, but if humanity can accept its altered circumstances, everything will eventually change for the better. The implication is that the world is stronger than humanity’s violence, and with or without their help, it will recover. Change may be permanent, but it isn’t always inimical. That’s the message of Nausicaä the movie.
Nausicaä the manga is … more complicated.
Avid consumers of manga and anime are familiar with the fact that manga is often adapted into film before its story is complete, and Nausicaä is no exception. The manga published its first installment in 1982, and the movie was released in 1984, but Miyazaki didn’t wrap up the manga until 1994.
And in that time, he complicated the movie’s simple theme of allowing nature to take its course. The manga doesn’t merely advise that humanity should embrace its present, changed circumstances. It states that if we seek to alter our present environment, rather than adapt to it, we deserve to perish.
In the final chapter of the Nausicaä manga, the heroine discovers that humanity has already adapted to breathing trace amounts of the Sea of Decay’s miasma — so they can no longer breathe pure air. Humanity will not survive in the clean world the Sea of Decay is bringing about. Nausicaä also confronts the force that created the Sea in the first place: an ancient biological supercomputer, now worshipped as a dark god. Its plan is to cleanse the earth, wiping out humanity in the process, and replace civilization with a new, genetically engineered crop of humans.
Unable to destroy the Sea, and yet knowing that it will likely bring about the eventual end of human life, Nausicaä choses to destroy the ancient machine and its altered human embryos. She rejects the past’s control over the present, even at the cost of the future, regretting only that the machine’s new humans were caught in the middle.
“I shudder at the depth of my sin,” she says (at least in my translation) as the machine collapses. “They were to have been a peaceful, intelligent people. Not violent like us.”
Nausicaä’s ultimate moment of heroism is when she accepts that the world has changed and gives humanity the opportunity to try and find a new normal. The cost of not finding that new normal, however, is still death.
After the Nausicaä movie, but during the production of the manga, Miyazaki directed some of his most lighthearted films, like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. The director has said that the Nausicaä manga often served as an outlet for his darker ideas, allowing him to produce more cheerful work for the big screen.
In that light, it’s no surprise that the first film he directed after wrapping the Nausicaä manga was Princess Mononoke, a dark, violent, bloody epic in which the heroes fail to stop radical change and the destruction of the environment. In that film, no one really wins: humanity and the forest both suffer great losses.
But the protagonists also see proof that life will carry on, just in a different manner than they might have wished. The damaged forest will regrow in a new way, the humans will rebuild their destroyed enclave. It’s up to all of the characters to accept that things will be different, and seek to adapt. Change is unpredictable and uncontrollable, but inevitable.
There are many uncertainties about our current moment. We wonder about the return of the immediate communal joys of theatrically released movies, live sports events, concerts, libraries, gyms, and plays. We wonder about the return of our jobs, or our friends’ jobs, or our loved ones’ jobs, or even just the return of the industry that employs us. We wonder if we’ll ever feel calm stepping on to an airplane, a train, or a bus, or merely while standing in line at the grocery store, in a waiting room, or at the polling place.
Miyazaki’s work, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in particular, remind us that change is always on the horizon, and true heroism can lie in surrendering to it, rather than complaining about it or resisting it. The idea isn’t to go quietly into the night, but to walk mindfully into a new dawn.
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.