Review–Director Hayao Miyazaki’s grand masterwork, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Review by C.J. Bunce

In a year of retrospectives that included the return to theaters of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), would you have guessed that the film to fill the most theater seats would be Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind?  Sunday I saw just that, as Ghibli Fest 2017 and Fathom Events presented the first of three screenings nationwide.  Tonight you, too, can see Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind at select theaters nationwide, the subtitled version, followed by the 2005 English dubbed version screening again Wednesday.  Check out the Fathom Events website here for participating theaters and to get tickets.  If you are a fan of Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, epic fantasy films, or great cinema in general, Nausicaä is a completely different film in the theater than as seen on the small screen.  In the theater you will be immersed in Miyazaki’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific, post-apocalyptic world.  You’ll surrounded by the prolific composer Joe Hisaishi’s sweeping, gorgeous melodies and breathtaking emotional cues.  And if you’re an anime fan debating which of Miyazaki’s creations is the best–Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, or My Neighbor Totoro…  you may decide Nausicaä is the winner.

Nausicaä is chillingly timeless and current.  I discovered what began as a rather chatty theater suddenly became quiet as the story’s themes unfolded: the consequences of unchecked technological advances, the price of decades of polluting the environment, the likely outcome of warring nations bent on total destruction of the other, the results of failing to take responsibility for the animal kingdom.  Miyazaki combined more compelling and important drama in one film than many top directors have created in the entirety of their careers.  But the film is not the stuff of your typical bland mainstream drama–it’s chock full of action and daring adventure of the fantastical variety while also considered a science fiction tale because of its dystopian vision of the future.  Set one thousand years into the future, the world was once ravaged, and cities destroyed, by mutated insects and beasts created by humans as bioweapons that laid waste to everything like military tanks, all during the horrible Seven Days of Fire.

But over the centuries a balance has formed between the Toxic Jungle, humans, and the animal world.  A young woman named Nausicaä, a princess of the Valley of the Wind, is praised and respected by her people.  She studies the forest, its creatures, dangerous spores, and the environment, all in secret, searching for anything to help her preserve the progress that has been made.  Her world is soon upset by the people of Tomekia, militant humans led by Princess Kushana (voiced in the English version by Uma Thurman) bent on destroying the insects and sending the world out of balance.  But it is Princess Nausicaä that steals every scene.  From the very beginning she emerges as a great leader, clever and resourceful, never hesitating to protect the people and things she cares about.  And the plot threads are entirely unpredictable–Miyazaki’s entire grasp of fantasy, interlocked with amazing special effects for an animated film, suck us down into the quicksand with Nausicaä and a boy named Asbel.  Miyazaki created a flying contraption for our heroine, a glider so wonderfully conceptualized every viewer will believe it could be real, based on sound aeronautic principles, from the soaring trajectories, weight, and movement in flight to Nausicaä’s different ways she grasps the ship to maneuver it.  Even the enormous multi-eyed Ohms feel ominous and threatening.

With the English dubbed version that was screened today (and again on Wednesday), audiences were treated to outstanding voice performances–some of the best, although likely forgotten or unknown by many, works of genre stars Patrick Stewart and Edward James Olmos–led by the enthusiastic, engaging, and addictive personality of the brave heroine Princess Nausicaä, brought to the film by Alison Lohman (Big Fish, Matchstick Men, Drag Me to Hell).  Stewart voices Lord Yupa, a fierce swordsman who appears and sounds part Gandalf from The Hobbit with Stewart’s charismatic Professor Xavier from the X-Men films.  Olmos voices Mito, an equally fierce and stalwart warrior who accompanies Nausicaä on many daring missions (think a mix of The Lord of the Rings’ Gimli and Admiral Adama’s executive officer in Battlestar Galactica, complete with eyepatch).

Together Yupa and Mito create a timeless duo, and along with Nausicaä and subordinate characters, a warrior team is established that could be compared to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or any adaptation or variation since.  Other voice actors support characters that enjoy ample screen time:  Chris Sarandon revisits his snarky side from The Princess Bride’s snarky Prince Humperdinck, voicing Princess Kushana’s majordomo Kurotowa.  Tress MacNeille (The Simpsons, Futurama) voices a wise elder named Obaba, an archetype straight out of real world myths.  Shia LaBeouf (Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Borg vs. McEnroe) plays Asbel–a young man that helps Nausicaä.  And Mark Hamill has a smaller role as the Mayor of Pejite, a third kingdom of malcontents that creates further discord in the human lands.

This week’s screenings are accompanied by two great short films: Till Nowak’s The Centrifuge Brain Project, a live action mockumentary incorporating some radical, realistic, and some not-so-realistic designs for rollercoasters, and an anime short called Afternoon Class, by Korean illustrator and filmmaker Seoro Oh, a mesmerizing look at a kid trying to stay awake in class at school that may just cause you to fall asleep if you’re not careful.

Check out the Fathom Events website here for participating theaters, showtimes, and to get tickets for today or Wednesday’s screenings.




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