Post-apocalyptic movies provide a unique opportunity to explore our relationship with the Earth while also providing pulpy sci-fi fun. However, a lot of great post-apocalypse films like Mad Max: Fury Road or Snowpiercer fall into the trap of having their characters fight to either fix the world or find a safe haven from it.
That's not the case with animation master Hayao Miyazaki's pre-Ghibli sci-fi adventure. After an impressive debut with The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki was approached to make an adaptation of a manga he was working on at the time. He reluctantly agreed to do on the condition that he could direct.
The result is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a film that established everything Ghibli would come to be known for while uniting the people who would eventually launch the legendary animation studio.
A thousand years ago, the earth was poisoned after a conflict known as "Seven Days of Fire" destroyed all human civilization. In its wake, an ever-growing forest of toxic plants and fungi formed and began to expand, killing anyone who enters within minutes unless they wear protective face masks. The forest is also home to giant mutant insects as big as ships.
We follow Nausicaä, the princess of one of the only three remaining human civilizations, which have devolved into warring feudal states at once at war with each other and also with the ever-growing forest at their border. Rather than look for a way to stop the forest from invading the human cities, our hero knows that the creatures of the forests are to be respected, and the new flora to be understood in order for humanity to coexist with it.
This theme is present in most Ghibli films, as Miyazaki's fierce and unapologetic sense of environmentalism often leaks into his film. His characters are often forced to accept and adapt to change, rather than fight it or try to reverse it. Greedy humans ruining the environment for the sake of industrial progress are the villains in films like Princess Mononoke, and Takahata's Pom Poko.
In the case of Nausicaä, the antagonists are two human kingdoms just trying to find a way to bring back the old world, even if they never knew it. Though their actions are despicable, you can't help but feel some kind of sympathy for their desire to prevent the toxins of the forest from overrunning the world.
There's a reason Nausicaä's logo sequence includes a seal of approval from the World Wildlife Fund. Miyazaki is playing with environmental themes we have seen in animation before, just on an unmatched scale. Sure, a hunter kills Bambi's mom, and The Last Unicorn involves animals being hunted to near extinction, but Nausicaä never sugarcoats humanity's role in causing the end of the environmental world.
Everyone in this world knows and recognizes that their dire situation is a direct result of the actions of humans from eons past. There's no changing that, even if some humans now worship the long-dormant machines that brought upon the apocalypse as gods.
Ghibli films often feature ancient magic and creatures so bizarre and old they seem almost alien, from Totoro to the spirits in the bathhouse in Spirited Away. Miyazaki uses these ancient mythological beings to emphasize one simple point: "the Earth doesn't belong to you."
The main characters in Nausicaä are all young enough that you can excuse their reckless behavior as childish and irresponsible. They don’t understand that they cannot control nature and bend it to their will, but also that the nature of being human and mortal means instinctively wanting to leave your footprint on the world.
Miyazaki makes sure to inhabit his vast world with morally ambiguous, sympathetic characters. We understand why they so desperately attack the forest to attempt to save humanity, even as we side with Nausicaä's quest to find a balance between the two worlds.
As great as the action (including a phenomenal sequence animated by Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno), the music and the voice acting are the reasons Nausicaä remains such a special and important film. Miyazaki creates an epic action sci-fi film about how we should be prepared for sudden change and adapt to it rather than fight it.
Without spoiling how that happens, Nausicaä presents a light shining at the end of the tunnel, not the light you expect, but a light nonetheless, and it is the job of those who are in the tunnel to stop trying to dig a hole out and simply accept the light being presented to them.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is streaming now on HBO Max.