That Miyazaki Hayao is not merely a great director and animator, but also the writer and illustrator of numerous well-regarded manga, is a fact doubtlessly long-known to his legions of adoring fans, but to a more casual admirer of his work like myself, it was something of a tiny surprise. But there it is, sure as anything: quite the Renaissance man he, able to work in seemingly any visual medium he should desire.
This partially explains the odd five-year gap in his filmography following his feature debut, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro: he had not given up on animation, but simply moved, temporarily, into another medium (there's another half to the explanation, but it shall have to wait for next time). Starting in 1982, Miyazaki began producing a series titled, in English, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the epic story of a princess living in a post-apocalyptic world filled with giant insects and technocratic fascists. The series continued publication intermittently until its completion in 1994, with Miyazaki working on new issues in between directing his features, but long before the full scale of the narrative had been achieved, the artist created a two-hour feature film based on the first 16 issues, removing much of the series' complexity and giving it a more definite sense of closure. The film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, released in 1984, is customarily regarded as the first "Miyazaki film", according to the aesthetic and themes present in his later work (it has even been retroactively called the first film produced by the not-yet-extant Studio Ghibli), and while it is understandable why some would give it this pride of place - the film enjoys a visual richness and narrative ambition virtually unheard of in animation prior to its release - it seems rather obviously like the natural evolution from Miyazaki's 1978 television series Future Boy Conan, with more maturity and higher production values, rather than some unimaginably revolutionary work of art.
Before we get into that, though, a brief word about its manga origins: there are two directly opposed stories about how Nausicaä came about. The official story (which is, for that reason, the one that I'm less inclined to believe), is that the executives at Topcraft, the studio to which Miyazaki brought the concept, were uncomfortable producing a feature that wasn't based on any pre-established brand name, and so the director was obliged to write and publish several issues of the manga in order to give the film a sort of built-in fanbase. The other notion is that Miyazaki wrote Nausicaä as a manga because that's exactly how he wanted to tell the story (the fact that the series went on for ten years after the movie's release seems to me to add credence to this idea), and that he specifically did not want to see it made into a film; but the book's publisher's convinced him that it was a richly cinematic concept, and worthy of animated treatment.
That little bit of housekeeping out of the way: I believe I had just mentioned Nausicaä's extraordinary production values. It takes no time at all to see what I'm referring to; in the film's very first shot, we are already comfortably and unmistakably in a brand new visual world for Miyazaki.
There's an elegance, a painted quality to this image that is absolutely lacking from Miyazaki's previous work; here we see the first gesture of an animated film that would rather be an achievement of graphic art than cartooning. At no point in history has that mindset been exactly common, but in 1984, it must have been especially stunning to realise that here was an animated film with pretensions towards real beauty, and not mere playful entertainment.
An opening title shortly after this shot informs us that there was a terrible war 1000 years ago, and the surface of the planet was left devastated, covered mostly by a crawling wasteland inhabited by toxic plants and huge insects. Human civilisation has been reduced to a few patches where people were able to keep the devastation at bay, or where lucky geographical features left the decay unable to spread (at this point, if you are recalling with some urgency the scenario of Future Boy Conan - world destroyed in a war, covered by the seas, only a few spots of high land remain for humans to save themselves - well, I was too).
One of these natural havens is the Valley of the Wind, nestled in something like a mountain gorge. This is the home to an agrarian society that mostly operates with pre-industrial technology, save for a few useful tools involving higher tech, and the most prominent of these are the jet-propelled gliders used for exploration missions. The most gifted of all the windriders is Princess Nausicaä (Shimamoto Sumi), whose gifts extend far beyond her derring-do; she has an otherworldy affinity for animals and plants, even able to communicate in a rudimentary fashion with the Ohmu, a whale-sized intelligent isopod species that has become the dominant form of life on Earth.
When we first meet Nausicaä, she is deep in the toxic jungle, looking for supplies. Her explorations take her past an outstanding array of marvelously-designed wonders, and as sheer eye-candy the first ten minutes or so of the film can hardly be topped for the spectacle found within.
Eventually, she finds the molted husk of an Ohmu, and is thrilled by the windfall she can bring back to her village (Ohmu hide, we find out, being the hardest substance known to man). On her way back, she runs into Lord Yupa (Naya Gorô), a wandering sage whose knowledge has brought peace and prosperity to the valley; and after a series of further incidents she arrives at home in time for the plot to kick in: an airship crashes, and the only survivor is another princess from another country, who shares the terrible news that the technologically advanced nation of Tolmekia is planning to revive the ancient Giant Warriors, the doomsday machines that led to the "Seven Days of Fire" a millennium ago.
We can leave the plot be, not only in the interest of avoiding spoilers, but because all things considered, Nausicaä isn't tremendously inventive in the plot department. It belongs to a profoundly and unutterably 1980s genre that has no specific name that I know of: steampunk sword 'n' sorcery tales. Years and years before the Final Fantasy video game series gave the trope a weirdly classy sheen, American and Italian cinema (I cannot speak to Japan) was overrun by stories of peaceful cod-Medieval or cod-Stone Age villagers going up against sleek, futuristic villains. The earliest use of these tropes that I can think of is the miserable Zardoz from 1974; a better example for our current purpose is 1983's Krull. By naming Nausicaä as part of this subgenre, I do not at all mean to suggest that it's only as good as the great majority of its stablemates; the exact opposite is true, that in a field of some of the crappiest fantasy movies in history, Miyazaki's film shines like a sun, better by far than absolutely every other such film I can name. But make no mistake, it comes out of a genre that was tremendously prominent for about five years before it completely evaporated in the late 1980s, and despite the well-observed timelessness of Miyazaki's later films, his first film, great as it is, bears an unmistakable time-stamp.
I'd imagine we can safely relate the brief popularity of this style of film to, of course, Star Wars: which is at heart a fantasy story of knights and wizards given some science-fiction dress to hide in. Other than Mad Max 2, I don't suppose any film had as many oblique and explicit imitators in the first half of that decade as George Lucas's massively successful space opera; and Miyazaki doesn't fight letting that movie creep in around the edges of his own project. Yupa is both visually and structurally something of an Obi-Wan Kenobi clone, and just look at where he lives:
I'm not trying to belittle Miyazaki's accomplishment. It is what it is, and for a post-Star Wars animated science-fiction fantasy, Nausicaä is pretty damned outstanding. For a start, live-action film in 1984, even if it could afford Lucas-quality effects work, simply couldn't manage the same scope that an imaginative director could bring to animation, and Miyazaki is at the very least "imaginative". With a plot hook - windriding - with which he could indulge his oft-noted love of portraying flight, and with nothing to limit his ability to depict size, he turned the film into a sandbox of glorious, epic imagery.
Bless Future Boy Conan and The Castle of Cagliostro, but they're not playing the same sport, let alone in the same ballpark. What we see in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a man making the vital shift from making animation that is salable, because it is similar to what others have done but at a much higher level of accomplishment, to making animation which fulfills some deep personal impulse. Certainly, his films were achieved thanks to a large team of artists, but it is with this film that he unabashedly turned into an auteur, one of the very few in mainstream animation history.
Of course, it is not just the type of imagery being depicted that sets Nausicaä apart, but the way in which it is presented. What sets this apart from most other anime to that period more than anything else is the high quality of the animation, which is rich and colorful and lush, a far cry from the earnest simplicity of Future Boy Conan. It has the look of expensive, detail-obsessed art that is being made to be gorgeous to look at in the abstract, not just to advance a story. Not even the Walt Disney Animation Studio, history's great standard-bearer for expensive animation, was doing so well in 1984 as we see here. Observe this close-up:
Such elegance to the shadowing; such clean lines; such bold, appealing colors; and the details of the eyes are absolutely hypnotic. There is, ultimately, no function for the precision of this image; it does not change the plot any more than if Nausicaä were painted in three solid colors with black dots for eyes. But what it does to the drama of the moment in which we see this shot, to the emotional tenor of the story! And every single frame is drawn with the same level of care and detail (though I cheated a bit by picking an image with unusually dynamic lighting).
As you can also see from that shot, the character design in the film is equally as accomplished as the draftsmanship; the simple, broadly expressive cartoons of Miyazaki's earlier career are nowhere to be seen, in favor of - I was going to say, "increased realism", but there are plenty of perfectly unrealistic characters, such as the blind wise-woman Obaba (Kyôda Hisako). Increased sincerity, maybe; no cartoon physics allowed here, which banishes the silent-film mugging and goofy slapstick of Miyazaki's earlier projects far out of sight. Even when he includes something painfully cute, like Nausicaä's squirrel-fox, that animal is rendered as an animal, not as a doe-eyed singing comic sidekick.
This is the new visual maturity of Miyazaki's aesthetic, and it would become his hallmark for decades thereafter.
Since I've engaged in nothing but one big love-in for the movie, let me close with my single huge complaint about the movie: its indebtedness to the '80s sci-fi fantasy genre extends unfortunately to its second and third acts, which become rather aggressively routine. Big ships blow up; future war is waged; and while it's all very good, it's also all very noisy and it comes closer than it should to violating the pacifist spirit of the story to have everything solved by killing the bad guys dead (that other future Miyazaki hallmark, ambiguous villains, is not in strong evidence here). It's the one point at which I wish the filmmaker had resisted the tug of Star Wars a bit harder, but on the other hand, Nausicaä remains exciting enough, and so visually stunning, that I can hardly call it a "flaw"; more like a limitation that keeps a very excellent movie from being a masterpiece.