The story begins with Nausicaä, princess of the Valley of the Wind. A pilot, scientist, and explorer that can communicate telepathically with other living creatures, Nausicaä finds serenity and beauty within the Sea of Corruption. Humans cannot venture into this vast fungal forest without masks due to a deadly miasma produced by the resident flora. During an excursion, Nausicaä encounters her mentor Yupa returning home from distant lands. He offers her a small creature that he saved from hungry insects of the forest, a fox-squirrel Nausicaä names Teto.
As Yupa is welcomed back to the Valley of the Wind, he brings grim tidings of the outside world. The Sea of Corruption is spreading, consuming entire countries in the south. Populations and birthrates are in decline all over the world. Yupa tells of herds of Ohmu, giant larval insect guardians of the forest, rampaging through villages and settlements, scattering spores that expand the Sea of Corruption and render the land uninhabitable. He remarks darkly that nature bears an active malice towards humanity and the traces of the old world. Some believe this to be god’s retribution for the pollution humans caused during the Seven Days of Fire, a devastating war that took place a thousand years ago.
Yupa is briefed on the current affairs of the kingdom; war is brewing in the here and now. Bound by an ancient treaty of fealty to the Torumekian Emperor, the valley must offer up their lone gunship and a pilot for the empire’s campaign against the theocratic Dorok principalities. With King Jhil bedridden, victim to a hardening disease that is the fate of all who live to old age, Nausicaä, his daughter, has been chosen for the mission. Yupa is dismayed, knowing that Nausicaä’s untapped potential lies not in war, but in healing.
During the final training run with the gunship, Nausicaä and her loyal liege Mito encounter a freighter in distress; it is filled with refugees from Pejitei, a neighbouring mining town. Swarmed by angry forest insects, the ship crashes, and most of its passengers are killed. Nausicaä manages to speak to the Pejitei princess before she dies, learning that Pejitei was levelled by a Torumekian army in search of a strange stone. With her dying breath, the Pejitei princess entrusts the secret stone to Nausicaä, telling her to give it to her twin brother Asbel.
The Torumekian fleet traces the wreckage back to the Valley of the Wind. Wishing to avoid the fate suffered by Pejitei, Nausicaä confronts Princess Kushana, commander of the fleet, and daughter of the Torumekian Emperor. In defense of her kingdom, Nausicaä duels a Torumekian soldier, killing the man in a fit of rage. Startled at Nausicaä’s raw and unchecked hatred, Yupa intervenes to defuse the situation. Assessing the situation, Kushana withdraws, now knowing the location of the stone and recognizing the value of the valley gunship to the war effort. In the aftermath, Nausicaä is frightened at the darkness and anger that resides with her.
On the night before leaving for the war front, Nausicaä reveals to Yupa a discovery in her secret laboratory: The toxic miasma in the Sea of Corruption originates from the soil, and not the forest. Yupa begins to speculate that the toxic jungle may not be a form of punishment, but life actively working to cleanse the world of pollution caused by the Seven Days of Fire. Stunned by this revelation, he sees off Nausicaä before embarking on his own journey to learn more about the secrets of the forest.
The story shifts to Kushana. Kurotowa, a sneaky, shifty, and cynical attaché assigned by the emperor to keep an eye on Kushana, brings good news from the main front: Multiple Dorok cities have succumbed to Torumekian surprise attacks. Soldiers loyal to Kushana complain bitterly that their campaign in the Periphery has been a farce, a ploy intended to separate Kushana from the loyal troops she trained who are now fighting under her three older brothers.
Back in Pejitei, Kurotawa tours the underground mineshafts in the destroyed city, and the reason for the assault is revealed. News had reached the Torumekia that local miners had uncovered an intact but non-functional God Warrior, a fearsome weapon from the Seven Days of Fire. The emperor ordered the destruction of Pejitei to acquire it for the war effort. The final element for the God Warrior’s activation is the stone Nausicaä now has in her possession.
The following morning, Nausicaä, piloting the gunship and towing a flying barge, join the other tribes of the Periphery in formation with the Kushana’s armoured corvettes. While traversing over the Sea of Corruption, the fleet comes under attack from a gunship piloted by Asbel, brother to the Pejitei princess. Kurotowa manages to shoot him down, but several ships were lost during the assault, including the valley’s barge, which falls into the Sea of Corruption. Nausicaä makes the risky decision of landing in the forest to reattach the barge and encounters a swarm of Ohmus. Nausicaä is able to communicate with the insects to ensure that the valley crew mean the insects of the forest no harm.
Some distance away, Asbel crash-landed and is desperately trying to stay alive. Frightened and ignorant, he kills the insects of the forest indiscriminately, enraging the inhabitants of the Sea of Corruption, which seem to share some sort of telepathic connection. Sensing the anger of the forest, Nausicaä takes off on her glider to search of the brother of the Pejitei princess. During the rescue, swarms of insects damage the glider, and Nausicaä and Asbel fall into caverns beneath the forest floor. With Nausicaä knocked unconscious, Asbel prepares to face death from an approaching Ohmu.
But the Ohmu does not attack. Instead it heeds Nausicaä’s telepathic pleas for peace, referring to her as “little one”. It cryptically hints that the forest here no longer needs the Ohmu, that a forest far to the south calls for their aid before departing deeper into the forest.
Nausicaä wakes up and discovers Asbel in the process of fixing her glider. She tells Asbel of her sister’s fate and offers him the stone. They are both surprised they can breathe air in these caverns without a mask, confirming the hypothesis that the plants of the Sea of Corruption absorb toxins from the soils. In death, the plants petrify into inert crystals and then crumble into sand. Nausicaä ponders this new discovery as they prepare to journey back to the surface.
Nature and Humanity, Purity and Corruption
The Nausicaä saga takes place in a distant post-apocalyptic future where humanity lives on in the twilight of a past civilization lost to the mists of time. This world features an interesting twist: its dominant ecosystems are complex, diverse, and actively threaten the remnants of the human race. The people who survive in this diminished landscape fear nature with good reason, as the toxic jungle and dangerous insects seem intent on wiping them from existence. Myths and legends passed down from the generations perpetuate a narrative that humans are being punished for their sins against the earth during the Seven Days of Fire. Many have come to believe that nature is a force of divine retribution.
Notions of purity and corruption occur throughout in the saga. In the beginning, the Sea of Corruption is viewed as a destructive force that merely transformed livable lands into inhospitable jungles. By the end of the first volume, Nausicaä and Asbel discover how the fungal forest is actually purifying the world of toxins. There is always more than one truth, and what is pure and what is sullied depends on the perspective and the observer. What is good and what is bad? What is natural and what is artifice? These are all fascinating questions that will be explored in detail in the following volumes.
Nausicaä: Mediator of Nature and Culture
Nausicaä walks the line between nature and of culture, valuing them equally, abhorring violence inflicted upon both. She forms connections with all whom she meets, winning their trust and love, from Teto the fox-squirrel to Asbel to the giant Ohmu. Her unflinching empathy for others ripples out, fostering the building of bridges between various groups and factions in unexpected ways. Over the course of the story, Nausicaä becomes the strand that ties the world together. In Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki’s subsequent environmental epic, the protagonist shares a similar disposition – Ashitake seeks understanding and coexistence, “to see the world with eyes unclouded by hate“.
Some may say that having such a strong, understanding, and capable protagonist is never a good idea for a story, that Nausicaä is simply a Mary Sue, Miyazaki’s perfect heroine. But as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that a superhuman character is necessary to shoulder the burdens of a world filled with suffering and despair. Miyazaki seems to take to heart Kurt Vonnegut’s advice of putting characters through their paces:
“Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” (wikipedia)
Towards the end of the saga, Nausicaä learns truths no one should know, makes decisions no one should ever have to make. Her world needs her as a saviour, but no one can follow in her footsteps, can do what she must do. With all her powers and talents and connections and love, she ultimately has to live with herself, in pain, alone. All of this makes for a fascinating protagonist.
Complex characters, organic storytelling
Miyazaki’s work is filled with complex and multi-faceted characters; those found in the Nausicaä saga are no exception. Each major character is driven by their own unique desires, motivations, and circumstance. Villains are given depth, nuance, and background, even if they are completely insane. Some characters, like Yupa, serve as the reader’s guide to the world and touchstones for other characters. Others, like Kushana, undergo significant character development. A host of memorable side characters is gradually introduced, from the beginning to the end, to help flesh out the tone and direction of the story. There’s never a dull moment.
As I mentioned in The Greatest Ekostory Ever Told, Miyazaki’s organic style of storytelling is in full display here. When he started the manga, he had no idea where the story was going to end up. The film that was created, while memorable, is incomplete, featuring a quick wrap up and a happy ending. As he matured from a naïve idealist to a more pragmatic and hardened realist, so went the story. This decade-long gestation period, coupled with Miyazaki’s willingness to go deeply and painfully into himself to find the real story makes the Nausicaä saga, in my opinion, a gripping, thought provoking, and powerful masterpiece.
Next up: Nausicaä Volume 2: The Acid Lake.
- Before Cameron’s Avatar: Princess Mononoke
- Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Part 2
- Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
- The Greatest Ekostory Ever Told
Miyazaki, Hayao. (1983) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind I. Translation by David Lewis and Toren Smith. Viz Media, LLC: San Fransisco, 2004.
Images of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind © 1983 Nibariki Co., Ltd. All rights reserved. New and adapted artwork and text © 2004 VIZ media, LLC.