Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is rightly regarded as the world's greatest living animator. His cinematic techniques hold influence over the most iconic cinema of our time, like Star Wars, and have won him — and Studio Ghibli — many loyal fans.
But it was not always so. In the early 1980s, Miyazaki was just emerging as a filmmaker and struggling to gain recognition despite the successful 1979 release of his directorial debut, The Castle of Cagliostro.
Today, these early moments of Miyazaki's career seem distant, but one film, in particular, serves to remind us why Miyazaki holds such sway over cinema's power to influence culture — and it's streaming now on HBO Max.
Not long after his first film, Miyazaki wrote a manga about a princess who attempts to save her people from ecological disaster amid the crossfire of warring nations. He eventually turned that manga into the 1984 sci-fi film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
The film was a critic's darling that gets overlooked today. Yet this is the film that caused Miyazaki's career to skyrocket. On the back of its success, he formed Studio Ghibli with fellow animator, Isao Takahata, in 1985.
But we think it's a mistake to overlook this early masterpiece. In fact, we'd argue that Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is actually the perfect pandemic movie for our times.
The movie's protagonist is the titular princess, Nausicaä, who protects the people of the Valley of the Wind.
It's worth mentioning that Nausicaä's namesake is a female princess who appears in the ancient Greek legend Odysseus. In the Greek myth, Nausicaä is renowned for her beauty, bravery, and kindness — not unlike the film's protagonist.
Yet, Miyazaki's Nausicaä inhabits a completely different kind of world to the ancient Greek princess. This world is a distant post-apocalyptic future, supposedly 1,000 years after humans — with some help — effectively burned up the surface of our planet in a seven-day cataclysmic inferno.
The aftermath of that seven-day disaster: A largely depopulated planet and a toxic jungle that emits lethal spores. The pandemic these future humans face is biological, but it is also purely one of their own creation.
Humans must wear masks to protect themselves from the toxic spores, which if inhaled can kill them in minutes. People are shown taking great care to cover their mouths before approaching any spores, and one character even implores the princess to put on her mask before she dies.
Given its effective endorsement of mask-wearing, it's a no-brainer that Nausicaä is the must-watch Miyazaki movie of the pandemic.
But beyond the deadly spores, this post-apocalypse poses another threat: Massive insects that fiercely defend the toxic jungle, and the mysterious creatures called Ohmu. The Ohmu are generally gentle herbivores, but human aggression can provoke them to defend themselves — and the jungle
The peace-loving Nausicaä, who gets around on a dope-looking hang glider, has great reverence for the Ohmu. Her people also largely respect the creatures of the valley and leave the toxic jungle alone.
But when Nausicaä does enter the toxic jungle, it's mostly for harmless scientific experimentation, and she leaves the region largely untouched. Her philosophy is remarkably similar to the "leave no trace" ethos of conservationist-minded adventurers today.
In a later scene in the movie, we see the fruits of Nausicaä's research: a hidden laboratory, where she has collected samples from the toxic jungle and managed to purify them in such a way that they no longer pose a threat. Essentially, she replicates the ongoing work of drug makers today as they frantically race to produce vaccines and medicine to prevent and treat Covid-19.
Without spoiling the movie too much, Nausicaä has a hypothesis about how the toxic jungle works. She tests out the hypothesis in her laboratory through scientific methods, using trial and error, and proves her theory correct with scientific-based evidence.
Like any good researcher, she is highly observant and looks for new evidence to expand her scientific knowledge. After an unplanned excursion into the toxic jungle, Nausicaä uses critical deduction skills to conclude that the fearsome insects are actually crucial to purifying the taint emanating from the toxic jungle.
Even though the movie never explicitly spells it out, it's clear that Nausicaä is a scientist. She's arguably one of the first female scientists to ever appear in an animated film. With her princess status and fearless demeanor, Nausicaä made the female scientist cool long before it became a phenomenon in pop culture.
Unlike other sci-fi movies, like Avatar, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind shows it's possible to conduct scientific experiments without harming the natural environment. This is a break from the old trope that science, innovation, and human progress nature are somehow in constant conflict with nature.
Nausicaä and her people choose to live in harmony with the insects, and that's why they are able to survive. Miyazaki is an avid environmentalist, and this movie shows his clear appreciation for nature.
The same can't be said for the other humans left on this toxic planet. Warring nations fight each other for access to a destructive technology that could destroy the toxic jungle — and the insects along with it.
But Nausicaä, who has learned how the jungle works through her scientific experiments, realizes that this destructive plan would be a very big mistake for the planet — and the survival of humanity. Nausicaä wants humans to coexist alongside the insects as the jungle slowly heals from mankind's pollution.
She fights to get her message heard, but her science-backed pleas of patience face an uphill battle against the ruthless ambitions of political leaders, who seek to enhance their own status in a zero-sum game. Nausicaä's science is ignored in favor of political expediency.
And yet, slowly, but surely, Nausicaä's empathetic stance wins out over the bloodlust of warring nations. She even befriends the young man who was trying to kill her, and he becomes her most loyal defender.
Nausicaä ultimately symbolizes how radical empathy is a form of courage during times of crisis.
The movie's messages are clear: trust science, and treat nature — and your fellow human — with empathy and respect.
If you're still not convinced to watch the film, we'll leave you with this tidbit:
Decades ago, Miyazaki gave an interview about the movie. In the interview, Miyazaki said: "Then, what is hope? Going through hardships with those whom you care about, maybe that's hope, too."
That's exactly the kind of message we need to get us through these trying times.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is streaming on HBO Max now in the U.S.