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Nausicaä: Gender and Age in Environmental Film

Updated: Mar 10

By Ivy Gavin

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind 1984 (‘Nausicaä’ for the purpose of this writing)

Writing of Hayao Miyazaki’s narrative of gender and age surrounding environmentalism in Nausicaä’s Flashback scene.

Timestamp 1:01:37 - 1:03:14.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is part of the ecological dystopia subgenre. Hayao Miyazaki creates a narrative of climate destruction through war and overpopulation in a time when climate change as a political issue in the west had only been around for just over a decade. Over the whole film, but prominently found in this Flashback Scene, there is an emphasis on generational discourse surrounding the environment. This theme can still be seen in contemporary society, allowing a modern audience to experience Miyazaki’s intended message. Along with the film’s younger heroine, it is also important to consider her gender. The film was made almost exclusively by men, and the idolisation that follows Nausicaä throughout the story perpetuates the misogynistic and, in this case, ageist theory that young women exist to fix the mistakes of others.

Nausicaä, an animated film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, of Studio Ghibli fame, is a post-apocalyptic film that takes place a thousand years after the Seven Days of Fire - a cataclysmic global war that destroyed most of the world. A planet now polluted with toxic air and poisonous seas is inhabited by small pockets of remaining humans who live in non-polluted lands away from the Sea of Decay, a deadly human made forest protected by massive mutant insects called Ohms. The humans that remain are divided into kingdoms which are left to fight over limited resources, whilst the toxic Sea of Decay threatens to consume them all.

In creating the film’s lead heroine, Nausicaä, Miyazaki was influenced by a Japanese 12th century tale The Princess who Loved Insects, about a girl who defies social norms and would rather play with insects than look for a husband. He also drew inspiration from western works like Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, which his son Goro would later adapt into a 2007 film. Real-world environmental decay was a vital inspiration - the mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay in the 1950s is reflected in the polluted environment of Nausicaä, as is the salt-contaminated ‘Rotten Sea’ in Syvash, Ukraine. Despite the influences of strong women, Nausicaä does not come across as a complex character. She exists as the sole narrative symbol of hope and change.

Environmentalism and non-violent means to solve conflicts are two themes prevalent throughout Miyazaki’s work. This childhood flashback scene is an embodiment of everything he finds wrong with the world. The young Nausicaä reflects the beauty that is left even after such devastation. Her age is an indication of hope: those who value their environment are not dying out, though they are few and far between. This is demonstrated by her isolation at the start of the clip. The backdrop of vast, golden fields are like pillows in the wind, protecting her from the external corruption of war. The initial silence projects an image of vulnerability as Nausicaä is completely alone - until her father and the army arrive. Innocent peacefulness is suddenly replaced by unfamiliar creatures and a dissonant soundtrack that evokes impending danger.

Hands become an important motif in this scene. In Nauscaä’s memory, things seem massively oversized, to an almost comedic degree. But the rough hand that reaches out to the screen evokes dread, not humour. The warning implied by the soundtrack seconds prior is coming to fruition.

A cut doesn’t remove this danger; the massive hand still sits in the forefront of the frame with her father’s body now blocking out almost all of the beautiful gold fields and dwarfing Nausicaä’s tiny figure. Soon after, we see another woman, her mother. The stoic expression she wears gives no indication as to where Nausicaä is being taken. The camera again cuts away, moving back to Nausicaä and slowly zooming in on her wide eyed expression. Suddenly, she is running across the fields that were protecting her innocence mere moments ago. Her defiant escape from the clutches of the armed adults suggests a kind of power, a strong independent will, which is a key character trait that Miyazaki continues to highlight throughout the film.

The most powerful image in this sequence refers back to the initial outstretched hand of her father. This time there are multiple hands reaching diagonally across the screen, downwards, blocking out the golden fields and filling the frame with muted beiges and browns. Human intervention disturbs and harms the world’s natural beauty, restricting those few innocent souls who aim to maintain and protect nature. The amount of hands and their impending movement across the screen is an extremely unnerving image, evoking a sense of claustrophobia. Nausicaä is pressed against the tree in her light pink outfit; connotations of maternity abound as we learn that she protects a baby Ohm. The music begins to crescendo, along with the pitch of her voice.

Nausicaä is an image of hope in Miyazaki’s eyes, someone we should all look up to, as she stands against her family, as well as those who are far stronger than her, in order to save a small defenceless creature like herself. Though brave, she is extremely vulnerable, with her back to the army, crouched in a foetal position, again bringing attention to the young age of these creatures. She eventually chooses to trust her family, though Nausicaä and the audience both learn of the potential of betrayal as the hands suddenly return. This time, they are clawing at the screen and completely taking up the whole frame. It is a horrifying image, making clear that this experience has traumatised her. The groping, swarming hands are similar to the feelers of the baby Ohm, drawing parallels between the human race and the insects that they see as the enemy - they are no less destructive than the creatures that they live to kill.

The Ohm is carried away by an outstretched arm, disdainful of nature and the unfamiliar. The family go off on horseback into a golden light. It is a surreal, contradictory image; golden light often indicates hope, with connotations of heaven. These men’s treatment of Nausicaä certainly do not inspire hope for the future, but perhaps Nausicaä still sees the good in these people. She is young, but she understands that these creatures - Ohms and humans - can be blinded by grief. It foreshadows the ending of the film, which brings redemption to many. A reminder to the audience that individual change at all ages is key to avoiding this dystopia. And that it is not to be left on the shoulders of young people, specifically women, to fight for environmental stability.

For now though, she is utterly distraught and completely alone in her compassion for these insects as the camera pulls away, the eerie tune fading back in whilst she sobs.

Photographs courtesy of Sarasjuntorn Angkinun

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