In 1984 Hayao Miyazaki released Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, his story of a simple agrarian community being dragged into the battle of two vicious empires. But the story is more than this: it is a statement on humanity’s relationship with the natural world; the consequences of human ignorance and greed. The current state of the natural world and incoming climate catastrophe have now become global socio-political issues as people have begun to demand an end to fossil fuel energy and justice for the natural world. Films like these, as well as others by Miyazaki, can offer meditations on where modernisation—most specifically industrialisation—has failed to create a sustainable future for humankind.
The opening scenes of Miyazaki’s film introduce us to the Sea of Decay, a vast jungle of toxic plants and grotesque mutant insects which is equally chaotic as peaceful. At once a testament to Miyazaki’s skill, but more importantly introduces his post-apocalyptic vision. The Valley of the Wind is tucked away on the edges of this jungle, protected by the ocean winds, but the equanimity of their community is upended as they’re dragged into a war between two empires and their maniacal dreams.
The film reveals how their current wasteland was born out of an age of human conflict and man-made apocalypse—a future that our humanity now faces. Although scientists haven’t predicted giant bugs, the consequences of climate change cannot be overstated. The world has already begun to experience the bitter taste of an inhospitable world: wildfires are becoming increasingly common, with Australia being the most recent victim, and the UK has witnessed the destructive power of storm flooding in recent months. But scientists warn these are only precursors for what is to come.
Miyazaki creates tension in this movie through the dangers of the toxic jungle and militarist nations. The air inside the Sea of Decay is suffocating and its encroachment lays the groundwork for a pessimistic tone for most of the runtime—a tone familiar for anybody concerned with the rotting of our planet. Scientists are slowly coming to classify Earth in the same way—as a ‘toxic planet’ due to the 250 billion tonnes of chemicals humans emit every year. The threat of pollution goes beyond its relationship to global warming; studies are also repeatedly linking it to the risk of cancer. This process of human pollution doesn’t seem to be slowing, and Miyazaki’s toxic jungle seems like an overt warning.
The continuing refusal of politicians to take this imminent threat seriously has become endemic to modern environmental politics – most recently seen in Rishi Sunak’s outrageous plan to sell even more British oil reserves in the North Sea.
A key scene in Nausicaä’s story is when she ends up crashing into the jungle; following a daring rescue to save the Pejite fighter pilot who shot her down, they both end up falling deep below the soil of the Sea of Decay. Nausicaä realises that this world below the jungle isn’t toxic at all – the air and water are completely safe. The Sea of Decay is revealed to be nature’s response to Armageddon and the process through which it is filtering our toxicity.
This moment encapsulates the entire message that Miyazaki is trying to make with Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind: that humanity’s relationship with the natural world needs to completely change for our own good. The poisonous forest threatening the vestiges of civilisation is revealed to be both a response to human failures and the process through which nature is healing.
I’d argue Miyazaki lays a subtext that the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy between humanity and nature is part of the puzzle of human’s predicament with ecological catastrophe. Humanity, particularly in the West, glorifies its separation and domination of nature, which embeds this superiority complex, commonly named anthropocentrism. It is quite clear that these divisive mindsets are part of the problem of why humanity is constantly unable to sustain peace and prosperity, as our paradigms are unable to comprehend how we’re ultimately part of the Earth’s ecosystem too.
The aversion that human characters feel to the forest and insects is threaded throughout the movie, but it rears its head most perversely through the torturing of a baby ohm (insect guardians of the forest) in the climax of the movie. The mutilation is a testament to the distance and lack of empathy that humanity has for non-human beings - the scene is meant to be reflexive. This scene produces a sense of shame at the way you view the environment, and the history of humanity’s treatment of it.
Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind is also a story of resistance to empire, and more importantly, has a subversive message about the absurdity of politics in an age of environmental turmoil. The Valley of the Wind is an independent agricultural enclave which has yet to be engulfed by the two hegemonic powers of this post apocalyptic world – the Tolmekians and the Pejites empires.
The movie principally dissects the themes of empire and power through the character of Princess Kushana, the leader of the Tolmekian forces. She ruthlessly aspires for the Tolmekian crown as well as the domination of her nation, seen most notably in her plan to reawaken an ancient being who can be commanded to destroy the toxic jungle and subjugate the opposing Pejite nation. The absurdity of her character is put on blatant display when her new weapon fails to bring her any success, let alone clear the Sea of Decay.
Miyazaki’s decision to imagine a conflict between two militaristic imperial nations undoubtedly mirrors the global reality of when Miyazaki released this movie in 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the end of the Cold War. The arrogance of these fictional states mirrors the infatuation with global dominance that both the Soviets and the United States demonstrated during the twentieth century. This obsession with equally flawed ideologies to the point of near nuclear annihilation defines this period of global history: something which appears ridiculous for anybody who enjoys life following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The willingness for planetary genocide in the name of nationalist and ideological aims isn’t criticised enough, and its absurdity something we still have to tackle with.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2021 once again revealed the darkest side of humanity – one in which we cannot control our greed. This conflict of influence over Eastern Europe - as a piece in a larger chess game between Russia and NATO - again mirrors the situation imagined by Miyazaki. The loss of life in this warfare is disastrous enough, let alone the environmental impact of human warfare. Studies have begun to show how chemicals used in both warfare and damage mitigation are seeping into the soil and contaminating it - in an eerily similar way to the setting of this film.
This doesn’t exclude the intersection of both global power and environmental crises; China and the United States are both the world’s leading economic powers and the biggest polluters, while equally failing to address the climate emergency. Their obsession with battling for global hegemony is stifling any major international efforts towards sustainable infrastructure and energy.
Miyazaki wasn’t aware of our impending doom in the 80s, however, the theme of human-nature relations is timeless and a clear throughline in more than one of his works; Princess Mononoke (1997) explores the nature of industrialisation and how it affects the natural world, while Castle in the Sky (1986) depicts the dangers of modern technology. The title of his upcoming 2023 release A Boy and the Heron (2023) alludes to an exploration of similar themes of humanity’s relationship to nature. Clearly, Miyazaki has plenty to say about nature, before and after our discovery of global warming.
The film ends with a shot of a sapling growing in the caves beneath the Sea of Decay: a statement on hope after the apocalypse. Miyazaki isn’t using this movie to offer practical solutions – but instead invites the audience to reflect on their perceptions of nature and the world. Through this introspection, I imagine we might still have a chance regarding the state of our planet. Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind is a beautiful medium through which Miyazaki has warned us of our arrogance and greed - and pointed to where our enemies really lie. The fight towards climate justice is posing itself as an uphill battle but through the right lenses, we can repair our relationships with each other and, more pertinently, the natural world.
Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor