In many ways, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind marks the birth of Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. And now that it's out on Blu-Ray, it looks like a whole new movie. Twitch's Ard Vijn reviews the Blu-Ray release.
Seeing an old classic like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in high definition, via Blu-Ray, is like seeing it for the first time again. Of course this film never made it anywhere near a Dutch cinema back in the eighties, so I only knew it from DVD, and never had any idea how sharp and detailed this film had looked upon theatrical release. Well, that has changed and I SURE can make an educated guess now!
Because last month, Optimum in the United Kingdom released a BluRay edition of "Nausicaä". It's totally English-friendly but Region B locked, meaning only regionfree players and players in Europe, Africa and Australia-New Zealand can use this disc. There was a previous English-friendly BluRay edition released in Japan earlier this year (May) which was regionfree but that one also carries a typically Japanese pricetag.
Often considered to be one of Studio Ghibli's finest hours, this film was actually released before there even was a Studio Ghibli. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind opens without the famous logo, not too surprising as Studio Ghibli was founded no sooner than June 1985. Which is more than a year after "Nausicaä" premiered and fully caused by the success of that film. It marked the first collaboration between Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, and they liked what they had done together.
This very fact makes "Nausicaä" and instant footnote in world cinema: if it hadn't been as good as it was, we might not have had a Studio Ghibli.
Perish the thought!
So what is the British disc like? Well, If you want to read negative reviews, skip to a different article — because I'm about to gush.
Centuries after a global World War, the planet is still in tatters. Most of the surface is covered by an ever-expanding forest of poisonous fungal plants called the "Sea of Decay" which is populated with giant insects. The surviving humans carve out a hard and bitter existence in the few surviving pockets where agriculture is still possible, but their numbers are dwindling through infighting and constant exposure to the mushroom forest's toxins.
Nausicaä is the daughter of the chieftain of such a settlement, built in a pretty secluded valley. Instead of hating the "Sea of Decay" she researches it and tries to understands its secrets.
But when a plane crashes into the valley carrying an ages-old weapon, neighboring warring countries invade Nausicaä's land to try and capture the device. Soon, the whole valley is swept up in a war and Nausicaä will have to find ways to avoid the total annihilation of everything she holds dear.
Although he participated as an animation director in many efforts already and had directed the Lupin III movie "The Castle of Cagliostro", "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" would be the first film where Hayao Miyazaki worked with Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki both as producers, and Joe Hisaishi as the composer.
So by all means, this project can be seen as the start of Studio Ghibli's existence, as all of the main founders and some of it's best known contributors where brought together.
And there were other famous people attached to "Nausicaä" as well. Hideaki Anno (Of "Neon Genesis Evangelion" fame) was one of the Key Animators, in fact one of the sequences he was in charge of was the climactic end battle.
But all of this, while nice for showing pedigree and historical relevance, does of course not explain why this is a good movie.
At the time, "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" was a huge gamble of everyone involved. It meant that Hayao Miyazaki was pulling out all the stops and trying to fit all of his prime topics in this one film, because if it would have become a financial disaster it might have taken ages before he could direct another film.
So everything we love about Miyazaki is in here: meticulous animation of both heroic and mundane actions, love of flight, a strong humanist core, people doing evil rather than being evil, a hero(ine) who doesn't so much preach morality as teaches it by example, environmental concerns, and kick-ass mechanical design.
What truly makes Miyazaki a master of his craft is how well he holds it all together. Like all of his films, "Nausicaä" just flows from beginning to end, no doubt caused by Miyazaki's working method of letting scenes "grow" organically in the storyboard stage rather than following a rigid plot.
With the post-apocalyptic setting and the overall sense that "we ourselves did it", a lesser movie would have become irritatingly preachy. But just like "My Neighbor Totoro" is sweet rather than cloyingly sentimental, "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" just feels epic and honest.
Helping this is the stunning animation. Made far before cgi would become commonplace in animation, "Nausicaä" is completely done the old-fashioned way and all the more impressive for it. It's matte-paintings and cell-drawings all the way, constantly showing artwork fine enough to make you gawk, especially since this is Miyazaki's most science-fiction-y film (although "Laputa: Castle in the Sky" comes close at times....).
Is this Miyazaki's best work ever? We-elllll....
For commercial reasons, investors were only willing to front the money if there was a manga tie-in, so Miyazaki created one. The movie was finished by the time Hayao Miyazaki wasn't even halfway with the manga, and he changed direction drastically after the film's release. In effect, the movie only covers the first quarter of the whole story with mere snippets of the other three quarters thrown in.
So I'll go on record by saying that in my opinion, the "Nausicaä" manga is Miyazaki's best work ever. The story is huge and sprawling, with Nausicaä basically traveling around the world, experiencing a triple-civil-war, encountering a far bigger environmental threat than the movie shows (as well as a truly evil 'supernatural' enemy) and getting to question humanity in general.
Oh, and the last 300 pages or so literally blew my mind, leaving me unable to focus my thoughts for a few hours and giving me a big headache. So far only two writers have managed to do that.
In contrast, the film is merely ONE of his best works, on par (for me) with "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Princess Mononoke". And Kiki of course, and Laputa, and Porco, and... aw crap. This always happens...
An exceptionally strong film, this is a classic for the ages and required viewing for all fans of either epic hardcore science-fiction or Studio Ghibli. "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" is a shining example of both.
This film exceeds any "recommended" tag I can possibly give it. Instead it's a must-see and I'll physically fight anyone who says otherwise.
OK that's exaggerating, but not much.
About the BluRay:
Look, let's not beat about the bush here. Extras are good (more later), sound is good with lossless 2.0 LPCM for both English and Japanese tracks, but the big draw here is the image. Because... damn!
How to describe the utter sharpness of this image?
How about this: The smaller lines are no longer blurry or grey but thin like hairs and jet black. Details pop out where there previously weren't any, especially in the meticulously painted forest backgrounds and immense aeroplanes. And when you watch closely you can actually spot signs of the animation craftsmanship itself.
"Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" is not a cgi film. This is handwork from beginning till end and it shows. Sometimes a corner of the image will be slightly out of focus and where many layers have been composited on top of each other you can now see the actual shadows the sheets throw on top of each other! All of this was on the original cinema prints as well, it's basically what happens if you do animation old-style. It's just that you never had the home equipment which could show detail enough for you to pick up on it.
This disc features an absolutely awesome image. Colors pop and contrast hurts (in a good way). The Optimum people can be very proud of themselves and I cannot imagine ever owning a version of this film which will improve on this.
On to the extras: first and foremost there is an audio commentary with Hideaki Anno and Assistant Director Kazuyoshi Katayama.
That's Hideaki Anno we're talking about, the writer-director of everything Evangelion including the recent movies!
Why on Earth is there no interview, no commentary whatsoever on the BluRays of the new Evangelion films with this guy, but can I hear him yapping for literally hours about both Nausicaä and Evangelion on this disc?
Well, whatever the reason, I'm VERY glad with this commentary track. It's an excellent one, and so far the only ever on a Studio Ghibli film. Even the hardcore Evangelion-crowd who dismiss Ghibli output as "for sissies" ought to be tempted to have this disc in their collection. Not that Kazuyoshi Katayama's contribution is anything to sneeze at either. As far as I know this is the first time this track has been available in an English-subtitled form. Very, very cool.
But wait! For Hideaki Anno and Evangelion fans, there's more.
In december 2009 a 45 minute discussion was held between Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki and Hideaki Anno. That talk was recorded and it's on this disc, titled: "Nausicaä and Evangelion! Whereabouts of the Giant God Soldier?". The discussion is presented as an audio-file without images, but it's riveting stuff. Toshio Suzuki always struck me as Mr. Nice Guy but he starts the conversation by ripping Anno a new asshole for his lack of output between the Evangelion films. When Hideaki Anno replies "But I did some Live Action..." Suzuki immediately retorts "Yes, Cutie Honey... pfft!".
But the two are obviously old friends and the mutual interview is a veritable treasure-trove of information about both Miyazaki's and Anno's celluloid dreams.
Next up is an old 35 minute Japanese television program about the founding of Studio Ghibli, made shortly after the astronomic success of "Princess Mononoke". It's a funny item, quite dated already and even featuring reenactments of several key moments between Takahata, Miyazaki and Susuki, just as if you're watching a crime program (I kept waiting to see who was going to kill who). But again, there is a lot of quality information between the quaint, and I'm happy it's on the disc.
As always on a Studio Ghibli film we have the storyboards and the trailers. Optimum's trailers are of particular interest of course as they might detail which film they'll release next on BluRay. Of the ones presented here, the only ones which were in HD were "Ponyo" and "Howl's Moving Castle" (even the trailer for "Laputa", next in line for BluRay treatment in Japan, is low-def). That's interesting for I haven't heard a peep yet about "Howl" on BluRay anywhere in the world, while Optimum's DVD for that film was easily the best version existing.
Hmmmm... food for thought?
Left for last is the packaging. I know a lot of people love the stark design of the Japanese BluRay editions (hell, we even dedicated an article to them...), but Optimum has chosen to follow the Japanese cinema-onesheets they always use. Which is fine with me, actually: I own the "Nausicaä" onesheet and have it framed on my wall. So while I do think the Japanese BluRay packaging looks pretty awesome I can hardly say the Optimum variant is ugly.
All in all this disc is basically a must-own, one of the best releases of 2010. Do be warned it is region-B locked so make sure your player can use this disk, but if it does there is no reason not to own "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind".