Watching anime movies used to be a relatively niche hobby. In most cases you had to be prepared to watch them in Japanese with English subtitles. If we could point to one film that changed all that and brought anime into something approaching the mainstream, it would be the success of Spirited Away, which won Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards, and quite right too. Spirited Away was made by Studio Ghibli, but it was far from being their first endeavour, with at least ten major films before Spirited Away. The back catalogue from the studio was gradually mined for DVD release, with English dubs being handled by Disney and attracting some big names.
I won’t be writing about every Studio Ghibli film, because a couple of them I have found basically unwatchable, but the vast majority are stunningly good films, often enchanting, beautiful and with a compelling moral message. The obvious place to start is with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Strictly speaking this is not a Studio Ghibli film, although the DVD range recognises its connection and includes it as part of the Studio Ghibli Collection, numbered 1 in the range. It was made in 1984, and its success led to the founding of the studio in 1985 by some key staff from the film: Hayao Miyazaki (writer and director), Isao Takahata (director) and Toshio Suzuki (producer), among others. The music for Nausicaä was composed by the amazing Joe Hisaishi, who went on to provide the music for most of the Ghibli films. His work here lacks the refinement of later efforts, straying bizarrely and often suddenly into 80s synthesised sounds and occasionally a sitar, but it is in the calmer moments of the film that Hisaishi arrives as a fully-formed genius. The flashback sequence has a haunting theme that makes use of a child singing, and the main theme of the movie is memorable and beautiful.
For my Doctor Who articles I have never bothered to include synopses, assuming that readers of the blog will be familiar with the episodes already. The same might well apply to Ghibli films, but I am hoping these articles will inspire a few readers who are unfamiliar with the films to seek them out, so I’ll include a quick rundown of the premise of the movie. Just a quick warning though: it’s pretty much impossible to write an article like this without including some spoilers, so if you’re just looking for a recommendation then scroll down to the bottom of the article and I’ll include a quick list of the Ghibli films I would most recommend.
So, Nausicaä is a post-apocalyptic film: about a thousand years post-apocalypse. Nature has started to recover and Nausicaä is a young princess in the beautiful Valley of the Wind. Close by is a vast toxic jungle, populated by giant mutated insects called the Ohmu. Nausicaä is adventurous, making trips to the jungle and trying to find a way to live in harmony with the Ohmu. When an aircraft from another kingdom crashes in the Valley it brings a deadly cargo, the embryo of a humanoid bioweapon, one of the Giant Warriors that caused the apocalypse originally. Nausicaä’s world is turned upside down and she has to fight to save the Valley from destruction when the invaders bring down the fury of the Ohmu upon them all.
Nausicaä is a film with a strong ecological message, and was endorsed by the WWF. There is an obvious anti-war theme, but more importantly Nausicaä shows the importance of valuing all life and working with nature rather than trying to destroy it. The Ohmu behave instinctively and the only way to stop them from destroying the Valley is to calm them. Weapons will only make them more angry. The film also has a message of hope. The most appalling damage has been done to nature, but it still finds a way to recover. Although the artwork is a little more simplistic that later Ghibli movies, the secret world below the jungle is stunningly imaginative.
Many of the hallmarks of later Ghibli films are present and correct here: the anti-war and ecological message, the bizarre flying machines, and to some extent the beautifully drawn scenery. The Valley containes a small settlement in the shadow of a grand castle-like structure, with windmill turbine blades, a familiar Ghibli contrast of domestic and monumental, and the landscape is dotted with windmills.
A lot of the films have a strong female lead. Nausicaä is inspired by a complex character in Homer’s Odyssey, who subverts the usual expectations of a love interest. In the film, Nausicaä becomes the fulfillment of a prophesy of a messianic figure, interestingly assumed to be male, until Nausicaä becomes the saviour of the Valley. Also present and correct, and familiar Ghibli tropes to fans of the films, are the grotesquely-drawn wise and kindly old lady, and the cute pet. Apparently Teto is supposed to be a cross between a squirrel and a fox, although it behaves like a cat. The pairing of a young female lead with a pet cat is something that will be repeated again and again in Ghibli films, to increasingly powerful effect, culminating in The Cat Returns.
Next week we’ll take a look at the first official Ghibli film, and it’s an absolutely stunning piece of work: Laputa: Castle in the Sky. But before that I promised a quick rundown of the films I would recommend, so here goes:
The very best Ghibli has to offer:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Whisper of the Heart
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- When Marnie was There
Also highly recommended:
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Porco Rosso
- From Up on Poppy Hill
- The Wind Rises
…and as far as Nausicaä is concerned, if you are a sci-fi fan (and if you are reading this blog you probably are) then you will love the performance of Patrick Stewart as Lord Yupa in the film. Nausicaä is voiced by Alison Lohman, but also listen out for Uma Thurman as Kushana, and the Star Wars fans will also appreciate hearing Mark Hamill in the relatively small role of the Mayor of Pejite.
By the way, if you go looking for the trailer for Nausicaä it’s awful, and won’t give you much idea about the film. I couldn’t even find a trailer for the English dub version at all. Also, avoid anything that says Warriors of the Wind. It’s a hideous hacked down version of the film from 1985 with different voice actors. So I won’t link to the trailer here, as I will be doing for most of the films. Instead, enjoy a live performance of the music from the film, which also shows some clips on the big screen. It will give a better idea of the spirit of the film. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Laputa: Castle in the Sky