Hayao Miyazaki and Epic Fantasy

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Since taking on this blogging position, I have been struggling to find works that would appeal to the audience that Amazing Stories has, particularly those who are interested in fantasy.  I would categorize a large majority of anime and manga works as “fantasy,” based on the fact that they frequently have fantastical elements to them regardless of genre (except, perhaps, for slice-of-life stories).  But “epic fantasy” is a title that holds a lot of very heavy connotations, and one that is difficult to directly translate into the anime world.

There are many reasons why I believe that it’s a challenge to find epic fantasy in the Eastern pantheon of literature, not the least of which is that we define epic fantasy very narrowly in the West.  Most people look to J.R.R. Tolkien as the founder of the genre, and therefore only works that look more or less like the Lord of the Rings trilogy really qualify.  But I don’t believe that dragons and elves and wizards are what make an epic fantasy; I believe that the secret lies in the word “epic.”  And when you consider the vastness of epic tales that exist in animanga, there is a plethora of epic fantasies to choose from, with varying degrees of quality.

And I believe that I have finally found one of the quintessential epic fantasy stories to come out of Japan: Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Nausicaa

I’m sure people are rolling their eyes; of all of Miyazaki’s prolific movie works, Nausicaä is perhaps the least interesting.  However, I am not talking of the movie, but of the two-volume, 1,000-plus page manga, written by Miyazaki from 1982-1994.  I know that there are many people who would try to correct me and tell me that Nausicaä is actually science-fiction (it’s a post-apocalyptic world, there’s some science going on, etc.), but I don’t think that something being science-fiction or having science-fiction elements precludes it from being fantasy.  Indeed, I believe that science-fiction is a type of fantasy, a sub-genre, a specification.  But Nausicaä is definitely fantastical, and it’s got the epic story in spades.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind follows a young woman (the title character, Nausicaä herself) as she discovers the secrets of the poisonous forest that plagues the people of Eurasia – how it came to be, why it exists, et cetera.  She is very much a Christ character, the one everyone looks up to, the one everyone wishes to emulate and follow.  Her world has broken out into a war, and she sees it as part of her duty to her people in the Valley of the Wind to see that the large-scale destruction ceases.  In the movie, the story is wrapped up prematurely; where the film ends is maybe a quarter of the way through the manga, which provides a much more exhaustive account of the tale, with a much more satisfying ending.  The film also doesn’t do Nausicaä’s character justice – there she is portrayed as a wide-eyed, happy-go-lucky, must-save-the-world-and-everything-is-fine type of character (really annoying), but the manga gives her much more definition, and a more flexible sense of morality, justice, and hope.

The world that Miyazaki has created is extensive, with different countries and different tribes of people, all with their own customs, religions, prejudices, and desires.  And the cast of main characters is also quite large; aside from Nausicaä, there are a few men from her tribe, the princess of another empire, that princess’s second-hand man, a couple priests, a peasant woman, a child, and a prince from yet another nation who all follow Nausicaä and play major roles in the story.  It has always been my impression that epic fantasy centers around a main character and the ragtag group that chooses to follow that character come hell or high water.  And Miyazaki being the master storyteller that he is has made each character feel very significant, even those who happen along later in the story.  I was definitely able to have attachments to every character, which is no easy task for a writer to accomplish.

The one place where Nausicaä doesn’t appear to fit into the epic fantasy category is in its blessedly fair treatment of women.  This is not, at long last, an epic sausagefest.  Miyazaki has always had a wonderfully bold approach to the female narrative that gives me real hope for the kind of writing that can be made, even by men.  Not only is Nausicaä a veritable messiah (indeed, she is referred to constantly as “the apostle”), but there is Kushana, the Torumekian princess, who commands an entire army battalion.  And there is Ketcha, the Dorok peasant girl, who might not be as bold as the former ladies, but who can assert herself and her beliefs and is more than willing to get her hands dirty and help the cause – even though she was against it at first.  And nowhere does Miyazaki try to apologize for having such strong female characters; many of the other men in the story call into question the power of “one young girl,” only to have their rear ends handed to them without too much pomp and circumstance.  It is a matter of fact – these women are fully fleshed-out characters with their own motivations, desires, and beliefs.

In terms of the technical stuff, Nausicaä is not the most visually interesting manga.  It is a very enjoyable read, but the panel layouts are rather conservative, and it can sometimes be difficult to tell what is going on in a given panel (though it is often made clear by the dialogue).  The version I read, published by Viz Media, has beautiful watercolor images in the beginning of both books, as well as charts and additional information at the back.  Also, interestingly, there is a pages-long key of sound effects at the back of both books as well; sound effects are a very integral part of any comic book, and Japan has an entire vocabulary for such effects.  To remove and replace all of the effects in the manga would have been tedious, but also could potentially ruin the overall look of a panel or page.  So the translators have done the (arguably more tedious) job of seeking out each effect and providing translation, both from the katakana to English letters, as well as what the approximate onomatopoeia is in English.

It is perhaps fitting that Nausicaä’s name is shared with the Phaecian princess from The Odyssey, as her own tale is of as large a scale as Odysseus.  While there are no elves or dragons or wizards present in this story, it is undeniable that Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind has taken its place as a brilliant epic fantasy – one that is entirely original, not a Tolkien derivative – and one that flourishes under the deft hand of master storyteller Hayao Miyazaki.  I highly recommend the manga to anyone who wants an adventure full of strong female characters, a central theme of environmental and social responsibility, and a heck of a lot of giant bugs.

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