I recently re-read Kaze no Tani no Naushika (www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/manga/nausicaa.html), translated into English as Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki. It is one of my favorite books, a vast manga (Japanese graphic novel).
Kaze no Tani no Naushika is set in the far future, when in the face of an environmental apocalypse the two largest remaining human kingdoms, the Torumekian Empire and the Dorok Principalities, embark on a self-destructive war over the little remaining habitable land. Our hero is Nausicaä, the daughter of the old king of The Valley of the Wind, a small border kingdom; she is an ecologist who studies the poisonous forests that have covered the Earth. She searches for a way for humanity to survive, but she is drawn reluctantly into the war when Torumekia commandeers her tiny kingdom's last flying gunship and her with it to fight the Doroks.
This only hints at the intricate plot, only the first few chapters of a massive, multi-volume epic, yet the elaborate weave of the plot stays true to a simple, moving, elegant story arc. Like some of my favorite stories, the true significance of the story is revealed in layers as the plot progresses; as more history is revealed, it changes our understanding of everything that has happened. The complex ecology, cultures, and politics eclipse even Frank Herbert's fine work on Dune, and setting the story on Earth gives it a far greater urgency and sting.
I find Kaze no Tani no Naushika more compelling than most science fiction. Miyazaki's dystopian future is the result not just of ecological collapse, but also worldwide nuclear war, both of which occur before our story with the ecological collapse nearing completion as we begin. Then he stirs into this mix venal and corrupt power politics to set the nihilistic wars for dwindling territory in motion. Astonishingly, though, Miyazaki pairs this dark setting and backstory with a bright protagonist who is brilliant, hopeful, earnest, and compassionate. Thus unlike so many dystopias, the tone of this story is not despair but serious hope, the search for morality and life amid war and death. Given our own bleak future and our need to find reason for hope, this combination moves me more than most science fiction stories I have read.
The huge cast of characters is as nuanced and morally sophisticated as in all Miyazaki's stories, yet this subtlety and complexity does not wash them out; the motivation, feelings, and beliefs of even the most minor characters are strong, believable, and deeply involving. Protagonists, antagonists, and background characters alike--Miyazaki draws out their personalities and feelings to make you understand and care about everyone. There is nothing generic about anyone in this story; everyone clearly comes from one of the many cultures he created for this world, yet none of them is a simple cliche rendering of that culture. Nausicaä herself is just a touch super-heroic, a skilled scientist, pilot, and warrior, but her youth, vulnerability, guilelessness, and compassion bring her back within reach, keep her human and keep us involved with her.
I was first introduced to an extremely abridged version of the story in the anime (Japanese animation) movie of the same name (www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/nausicaa/), which was one of the first anime movies I saw. I will always be grateful to my friend Danny Barer for introducing me to this and other anime films in the mid 1980s. In America Miyazaki is better known for his more recent films, such as Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away), Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke), and Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro).
Although I loved the anime from my first viewing of it, its story is so amputated in comparison with the manga that it is less like an adaptation and more like amputating a hand and keeping just the hand. This is not Miyazaki's fault, although both the manga and the anime are his work, aided by Studio Ghibli; adapting the entire story to film would require a movie at least twice as long as Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps much more. The nature of the conflict and especially the character of Princess Kushana are drastically different, though the setting, initial main characters, and backstory are the same. Like all Miyazaki films, it is visually lush, beautiful, and striking. Abbreviated though it is, I still love it as the closest we are ever likely to come to a film adaptation of the manga.
The black-and-white artwork of this book is gorgeous--crisp, clear, detailed, and supple. Miyazaki uses that clarity to conjure a fantastic world: jungles of enormous fungi, giant insects, armadas of flying ships, ceramic armor, swords, guns, and cannons, striking religious art and costume, convincing foreign script, vast fortresses and cities, swarms of refugees, cavalry clashing among ruins, dogfights between airships amid thunderstorms, children flying kites, old women telling stories, gardens, oases in a desert, windmills, greenhouse laboratories, flightless birds cooing over their eggs, and a fiercely loyal squirrel-fox. Every panel is packed with well-chosen, telling details that fill in Miyazaki's vision of the future, make it feel real and tangible. This is not a comic to be read quickly but studied; you must take the time to let the full impact of each panel be felt. Many of the panels are so beautiful they could be framed and hung on your wall.
The glory of the art is not just in its vivid illustration of setting and character, but in Miyazaki's exciting evocation of passion, movement, and energy. In so much art faces are mere masks, but Miyazaki makes the faces of every character radiate with humanity, move with hopes and worries, moods and thoughts. And physical movement itself is so well rendered--running, flying, leaping, fighting, climbing, falling--that before we know it we feel our hearts pounding and feel the kind of adrenaline we normally only associate with real life or at least moving pictures. Miyazaki even draws raw energy well--wind blowing, explosions, flares, sharp gunshots, low rumbles, sunlight through clouds, wood buckling under pressure, air currents, stench and miasma, cheers of soldiers rising up from towers, a tow cable snapping, the charge of giant insects crashing through city walls, plants sprouting before your eyes. All this passion, movement, and energy, from delicate to overwhelming, courses through the panels, infusing the beautiful static art with vitality. The story's rhythm balances that power with scenes of beauty and quiet contemplation, strengthening both by the contrast.
Miyazaki's work has always shown a surprisingly sophisticated appreciation of the subtle moral and ecological qualities of nature. I say surprising because humans, even the most ecologically-minded, usually flatten and mechanize nature when they try to describe or represent it. I make the same mistake, even though I know enough that I shouldn't, but we are poorly adapted to understanding organic systems and so tend to read the world in terms of objects and linear forces. We imagine the cosmos to be a mere machine, perhaps a relativistic one, perhaps a quantum one, but little more. By contrast, Miyazaki depicts nature's unexpectedly delicate weave of death within life, the total but subtle interdependence of seemingly independent individuals and species upon one another for even basic survival, and the sometimes shocking but life-affirming morality of living systems.
Dear Reader, I hope more of us learn to see the cosmos like that. It is our best hope for survival.