Sunday, 20 October 2013

Week Thirty-Nine - Jeanette

Nausicaä Of The Valley Of Wind by Hayao Miyazaki (1982-94)
Recommended by Alex

Correct me if I’m wrong, but everyone loves Studio Ghibli.

Surely, from dedicated followers of The Fast And Furious franchise right through to Man With A Movie Camera silent film bores, all are charmed by Ghibli’s fantastical worlds. It annoys me that any shit romcom is branded a ‘feelgood' film, for it devalues something like Spirited Away: cinema that is gloriously enjoyable, yet undeniably profound.

In the early 1980s, Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli’s founder, pitched a movie about a pacifist young princess living in a world beset by environmental disaster. However Miyazaki, still largely unproven as a director, was told that he needed a manga series to secure funding for this pet project. The argument ran that animated movies based on manga did far better at the Japanese box office than did original stories.

What did Miyazaki do? Churn out a straw manga to please the money men? Or create a ridiculously intricate and multi-layered epic that ran for twelve years?

Set centuries in the future, humanity is on its knees. The industrialist societies of today pushed the earth to its limit. Unable to endure the devastation any longer, the earth roared, creating the Sea of Corruption. This is a vast forest where poisonous spores emit clouds of deadly miasma, and in which mutated and very angry insects dwell. Since the Sea of Corruption is uninhabitable, humans are relegated to its periphery, and then divided into semi-feudal autocratic states. The two primary powers, the Dorok Principalities and the Torumekian Kingdom, are perpetually at war – ostensibly over scarce resources, but there’s quite a bit of old-fashioned belligerence involved, too – while the smaller states are caught in the crossfire. Both Dorok and Torumekia use deeply unethical military strategies: biological warfare, racist inflammation, genetic engineering, and implied rape.

One of these small states is the Valley of Wind. Nausicaä is its beloved princess; she is a pure-hearted young girl who has a unique affinity with the earth. She is even able to communicate with the most feared of all the Sea Of Corruption’s insects, the giant Ohmu. Nausicaä could easily be an annoying do-gooder, but her characterisation is superb: she feels real anguish for human, animal and environmental suffering, while sometimes forced into making dubious moral decisions.

One of these dodgy compromises is her alliance with the Torumekian princess, Kushana. Nausicaä and Kushana share a complicated and fascinating relationship, almost as if they are obverse and reverse to one another.

Kushana was very much my favourite character. A brilliant tactician, ruthless and brutal when necessary, she sprung from a ‘nest of vipers’: a group of ambitious siblings fighting in Roman internecine style for (often short-lived) supremacy. The brief insights we gain into Kushana’s family are among the best panels in the whole manga. How far Nausicaä influences Kushana (and, more subtly, vice versa) is a tremendous tension in the story.

Nausicaä is in four volumes, and a real Gordian knot: it would take paragraphs and paragraphs to effectively explain the story alone. And its philosophical scope is even grander, for it examines different government structures under extreme crisis. As well as Classical history and myth (Nausicaä herself was based upon a Phaecian princess in The Odyssey), I detected influences from pre-1914 Europe, primarily the crumbling Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. Although my Japanese history is shaky, its Samurai era seems another key reference point. Miyazaki seamlessly links all this with modern theories of environmental destruction, feminism, the abuse of religion, and ethnic scapegoating. Sometimes Nausicaä is about nothing less than what it means to be human, especially when we have devastated the means of sustaining our humanity. Its ambition is as enormous as the Sea of Corruption itself.

The manga was a huge commercial and critical success. Thus, Miyazaki had no trouble getting funding for his movie, which was released in 1984.

It is far, far, far simpler work. Although it’s a good film, it’s on to a hiding to nothing after one has expended the hardcore concentration required to tackle the manga. The world, for once, should be grateful to cautious investors for without them this movie is all we would have.

Similar to my previous graphic novel recommender, Alex is brilliant artist herself. This is my favourite of her drawings: Kirsty MacColl sitting on her bench in Soho Square, created for the board game Soho! 

She is also a respected film academic and a very good friend. I remember when I first met her about ten years ago I really didn’t know what to make of her – she was so different to anyone I’d ever, ever, ever encountered before. I soon realised what providence was telling me: that she was awesome and we should get on with this friendship lark immediately. She is extremely intelligent, highly sensitive, beautifully dressed, and incredibly magnetic. At Kathryn and Rupert’s wedding someone thought she was a film star.

I love things like Nausicaä, which trust you to hold masses of plot and character threads in your head, and then reward you a million times over for paying attention to them. If I may return to that awkward portmanteau word: feelgood. I feel good to know art has such vision, and I feel super good for knowing that I’ve been able to drink deep from its well this week.