Monday, May 28, 2007


The verdict: Another mind-blowing animated fable from Studio Ghibli, whose output routinely bursts with imagination.

Craziness: Hmm... quite a lot really. How about.. giant insects taking over the world with berserker rage? Don't worry though there's waay more!

The rating:

If you're going to sit down in front of a few movies to try and get a flavour of what Asia really has to offer, it would be remiss to omit an animated tale. Most of us late twenty/early thirty-somethings will have grown up with Saturday morning cartoons imported from Japan, and if you have kids of your own, you may routinely wonder how your weans aren't fitting and frothing at the mouth while watching the strobe effects in some of the more recent offerings.

Japan has a history of quality animation, and a formative movie-watching experience of mine growing up was a Japanese animated classic, a certain 'Akira'. I can safely say that the reason I watch so many movies these days is to try and catch the sensation that Akira produced on the first viewing. The words 'awesome' and 'mind-blowing' have lost currency these days, being used to describe everything from 'The Incredibles' to , somewhat predictably, 'Shrek'. However, Akira was that most unique of movie experiences, creating images that even your unconscious brain had never conceived, and delivering them in a package of confusing adrenaline-fueled action - a heady mix for a twelve-year-old, I tell thee!

As far as Japanese popular animation went, the category of Manga promised much, but delivered little to be honest. The advertising would have you believe it was edgy, dark, and mature, but in reality, the majority of manga was puerile or silly, with the animation coming nowhere near the quality of Otomo's masterpiece. There are certain exceptions though, and I'd heartily recommend dipping your toe into the Manga pool of insanity with 'Blood: The Last Vampire', 'Perfect Blue', or perhaps a little bit of existentialist fun provided by 'Ghost in the Shell'. Heed my advice here though folks, and stay away from the 'Legend of the Overfiend' franchise ... it's just perverted and bizarre. (Ah yes, featuring the extremely dodgy penis demon, almost definitely post-watershed stuff that is - Ed)

While wading through the questionable delights of what Manga had to offer though, I somehow remained ignorant of Studio Ghibli, until recently going to see Miyazaki's Spirited Away when it was released in cinemas here, and I was instantly hooked. Ghibli's output is altogether more wholesome and rewarding, and I've indulged in a couple more of their offerings since, (Princess Mononoke and Kiki's Delivery Service). So, I was looking forward to watching - and I'll give it it's full title here - Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Incredibly, this film was made in 1984, four years before Akira, and is entirely hand-drawn. This is a signature of Studio Ghibli, which has only recently begun to embrace computer-aided animation.

It's not easy to summarise the story, but Nausicaa tells the story of a planet which has survived a great war. The people of the valley, led by Princess Nausicaa, live close to a poisonous jungle, that is slowly spreading across the earth. The jungle is populated by insects, and these babies are big. In fact, one single 'ohmu' - as they are known - would wipe out the entire valley if it went on a charge. Unfortunately, other kingdoms want to wipe out the forest, but Nausicaa believes that if they try to burn the forest, they will anger the insects, and bring about the destruction of humanity.

So, 'Nausicaa' is a fable about being part of a community and man's relationship with the earth. Most of the people of the valley have a fear of the insects, but the princess seems to have the ability to empathise with, and communicate with these creatures.

But that description doesn't do justice to the visual feast on offer. 'Nausicaa' really is a pleasure to watch, with the landscapes of the valley, and the poisoned forest providing fantastic natural backdrops to the action, and constantly surprising with their level of detail and imagination.

The characters, too are various and good to watch. Our hero has an little animal companion - which seems to be a signature of Miyazaki's - named Teto, a little yellow squirrel who should at least keep the kids happy. (given that he looks like a skinny bearded Pokemon - Ed). In addition though, Nausicaa's valley is populated by an array of decent folk, including of course Lord Yupa, the great old swordsman.

The bad guys are represented too, but they're not properly frightening really, the main threat in this movie comes from the insects to be honest. We're told that when the Ohmu are about to go into a berserker rage, their eyes turn red, so when this signal is up there on screen, we know something bad is about to happen.

Kids should relate to Princess Nausicaa's ability to talk to animals, and you would expect that they'll tap into the fear of the insect swarms quite quickly! The message in Nausicaa is very positive though, and good for kids to be exposed to. It's all very Al Gore really, but in the current climate, it's very relevant, and not to be found anywhere in Pixar's movies. This is a big difference between Pixar and Ghibli, and one which I reckon reflects a major cultural difference between the U.S. and Japan. Where Japanese animation is all about man's influence over nature and vice versa, U.S. animated features are just about how being an individual is a good thing. The Japanese have always considered their place in their environment, and this comes through very strongly in 'Nausicaa'.

The two hours flew for me to be honest, and I'd recommend it for actual kids too. It's imaginative, beautifully animated, and delivers a whole lot of positive messages, including environmental ones. What more do you need from a kid's movie really? (Er, how about computer graphics!? A terminator? Light-sabers? Harry bleedin Potter!?) - Ed)

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