Nausicaa: The Coolest Book You’ve Never Heard of

We have a wonderful new acquisition in the library, perfect for anyone interested in science fiction, fantasy, anime, or graphic novels.

It’s called “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” and it’s a pioneering series of manga (Japanese graphic novels that read right to left) by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is the founder of Studio Ghibli and the director of beloved anime classics like “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Ponyo,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and many more. However, even the most hardcore Studio Ghibli fans don’t know that before Miyazaki directed his first Ghibli movie, he was an author of an acclaimed manga.

“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” is seven books long, highly allegorical, and already features the two themes that would come to define almost all of Miyazaki’s work: pacifism and environmentalism.

The series takes place in a small, peaceful kingdom called the Valley of the Wind. The setting is post-apocalyptic, but not in the way the term is usually used, meaning immediately after the apocalypse. “Nausicaa” in fact takes place thousands of years after the apocalypse, a mass nuclear war that wiped out most of the world’s population. The societies that have reformed since the collapse are still mostly primitive, but with vestiges of pre-apocalypse technology remaining. The setting could therefore be described as “futuristic Iron Age,” certainly a unique genre.

Fallout from the nuclear war has made Earth almost inhabitable. The air is not safe to breathe without masks. Plants emit toxic gas. Mammal life is rare. The world is dominated by enormous, dangerous insects. To top it off, we also have a toxic jungle slowly expanding to devour the entire world. Humans eek out a fraught existence, and are only expected to live a few decades before the world’s poison seeps into their bones. In this setting, Nausicaa, Princess of the Valley of the Wind, is despite everything, an environmentalist. She has the ability to tame the furious insects, and can cultivate plants that do not poison humans. She can even communicate with the Ohmu, a race of sentient giant insects who serve as the guardians of the natural world. Nausicaa shows compassion toward a destructive environment, and through her compassion, seeks to heal it. The characters in “Nausicaa” are sometimes criticized as being flat, when they are in fact allegorical. Nausicaa is a savior figure, bringing a message of forgiveness and tolerance. Her empathy and love of nature, in Miyazaki’s worldview, is the only way for humans to survive in this changed world.

Alongside the environmental degradation is a strong political subplot. The Valley of the Wind has found itself caught between two massive superpowers, and is being unwillingly pulled into their war. These superpowers are seeking to resurrect the nuclear technology that destroyed the world thousands of years ago. (The world ‘nuclear’ is never used. Atomic weapons are here personified as massive, fiery Titan-like giants.) The allegorical story is clear. Miyazaki himself was born in 1941 and came of age in the only country on Earth that has experienced nuclear warfare. The manga itself began serializing in 1982, when the Cold War was very much still in effect. The Valley of the Wind represents Japan, or any small, neutral country trying to find a safe path between two dominant superpowers and avoid another nuclear conflict.

If some of the above summary sounds familiar, it might be because Miyazaki himself directed a movie adaption of “Nausicaa.” It was in fact the first feature film project of the legendary Studio Ghibli. The film is excellent, but there is no way Miyazaki could ever encompass all seven graphic novels into its 117 minute runtime. The film largely covers only the first two books of the seven book series. This means there are surprises in store for even fans of the movie! The manga also includes fascinating world-building and character development that couldn’t fit into the fi;,.

“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” is one of the most unique fantasy stories available today, even for people who don’t normally enjoy graphic novels. It is rich in allegory and political meaning, just as relevant today as in the 1980s. From a purely artistic point of view, the manga is also gorgeous. Miyazaki’s line art is complex and expressive. We see him, early in his career, developing some of the personal visual language that will appear through the rest of his films. Most noticeably, Miyazaki creates a sense of the uncanny by blending organic and inorganic. His machines seem like insects: curved, not straight; lumpen and ill-formed; sprouting thousands of teeming legs and antennae. Meanwhile, his insects seem like machines: streamlined, straight, metallic, covered not so much in carapaces as in plates of armor. This is a world strange, out of balance.

The complete “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” is now available in the library. The original seven volumes have been republished as two beautifully bound hardcover books. The lavish box set includes several pages of full color art and Miyazaki’s own watercolor illustrations. Come by the library to look at it! Many of Ms. Cain’s Fantasy Writing students will be assigned the book soon, but it is of wide interest to any fans of science fiction and fantasy.