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Nausicaä 35th Anniversary: Miyazaki’s Long Lost Twelve Year Manga Journey

2019 marks the 35th anniversary of Hayao Miyazaki’s landmark feature film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika). While I won’t pretend like I was around at the time to see that event firsthand, its legacy has persevered throughout the years – eventually even reaching me, across the ocean, some 20 years later.

I still vividly remember my first exposure to Nausicaä. It was on a rainy day on a hiking holiday in England, and we were cooped up inside a prefab holiday home in front of a tiny, analog TV. For some reason, I switched over to Film4 (a British TV channel that plays films for free) only to end up glued to the climactic finale of Miyazaki’s 1984 masterpiece.

Nausicaä 35: Miyazaki's Long Lost Twelve Year Manga Journey
During the climax of the film. Source: IMDB

Everything about that finale, from the apocalyptic imagery to the haunting soundscape informed an intense obsession with anything and everything to do with the film that has continued to this very day. Of course, that also extends to Hayao Miyazaki’s original Nausicaä manga.

Wait, you did know there was a manga, didn’t you?

While knowledge of the Nausicaä manga certainly isn’t as limited as it used to be, mostly due to VIZ Media’s gorgeous 2012 English release, there are no doubt many people who have watched the film and enjoyed it, perhaps even enough to call it a favorite, but have never heard of anything to do with any kind of original manga.

If you’re one of those people or even just a fan who has yet to check out the manga, I’m here to tell you that you’re doing yourself a massive disservice.

Behind the Manga

In some respects, the story behind the original Nausicaä manga is almost as interesting as the manga itself. We mostly think of Hayao Miyazaki as a director and animator – and rightly so – but he was not always the legend he is today. To get ahead in the industry and chase his dreams, he was forced to dip his toes into the world of manga.

Miyazaki’s work with Isao Takahata on The Little Norse Prince (also sometimes referred to as The Great Adventure of Horus) in 1968 clearly showed that he was a talented animator. His 1979 directorial debut in Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro then went on to demonstrate his extraordinary genius as a director.

All that success was enough for him to make the acquaintance of a powerful ally – Toshio Suzuki, then editor of the still-running monthly anime magazine Animage from publishing giant Tokuma Shoten. It was to Suzuki that Miyazaki entrusted with the basic idea for Nausicaä, which he had been nurturing for years in the hope of making it into an original theatrical film.

But investors for the film were put off. Why should they place their trust in this original work, especially when it was headed up by a newbie director? Without some kind of established source material, there was no foreseeable way that they could justify making such a big gamble.

Animage volume 102, 1986 for sale on Yahoo! Auctions.

So Suzuki and Miyazaki did just that. If source material was what they wanted, then they’d make it – and so a manga called Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind began in earnest in 1982, serialized in Suzuki’s own Animage. And while you might call that collusion, I’d call it the beginning of a truly remarkable journey into the unknown for Miyazaki – a journey that now seems to have been lost to the annals of time.

Manga vs. Film

Arguably the most important and most interesting aspect of the Nausicaä manga is the fact that it both preceded and succeeded the film of the same name. It began two years before the film premiered in 1984, but continued for ten more years after that – eventually coming to a conclusion in 1994. Part of the reason for this was the constant hiatuses that Miyazaki was forced to take over the years due to his continuing work on theatrical projects at Studio Ghibli. But the result of this is a work that is endlessly fascinating to analyze in tandem with its theatrical counterpart.

The focus of the film and the manga are very different; focuses that are mostly informed by length and form. The film is more focused on the story of the Valley of the Wind and the God Warrior, opting to reorganize and remove story elements to make for a more cohesive theatrical narrative. Yet the manga has a much wider focus, taking full advantage of it’s serialized format to embark on a grand adventure for the ages. In fact, we hardly get to spend any time in the Valley of the Wind before Nausicaä is called to war and, subsequently, to adventure.

Nausicaä 35: Miyazaki's Long Lost Twelve Year Manga Journey
Nausicaa goes to war. Source: Ghibli Wiki

 

It must be said that trying to adapt manga directly into a film without any substantial changes would definitely have diminished the film’s overall quality. But having read the manga, the questions that the film raises yet fails to answer or resolve are impossible to ignore. To name but a few: what are the Ohm? What is the God Warrior? What happened to the human race? What will happen to the human race? Can the Sea of Corruption be stopped?

The Nausicaä manga sets out to answer all of these questions and more. It took Miyazaki twelve years to get there, but his story ended up being much more complete and much more impactful in terms of its core ideas on the nature of humanity and sin as a result. What the film provides the viewer with is but a slice of such a story; perfect to introduce you to further reading, but not quite enough on its own in retrospect.

Characters and Absence

Furthermore, in the brutal march of adaptation, many characters in the film differ greatly from their manga counterparts. The most radical change comes in the form of Kushana, the warrior-princess of the Torumekian Empire that invades Nausicaä’s home of the Valley of the Wind, as her backstory is completely changed for the sake of avoiding exposition. Nausicaä herself is also remarkably more vulnerable and feminine in the film, mainly because of her scene with Yupa in the basement of the castle that comes towards the end of the first act. Incidentally, this scene instead comes much later in the manga, making it a much less formative character moment.

Nausicaä 35: Miyazaki's Long Lost Twelve Year Manga Journey
Kushana being Kushana. Source: Isaac Yuen, Ekostories

Once more, I don’t think that the film would have benefitted from directly adapting the manga. But it must be said that the film features remarkably less interesting characters as a result of these changes. The proof of this comes in how criticism of the Nausicaä film largely functions, as it focuses on production instead of the story; on the good bits and not the bad.

One final change in the story comes in the complete absence of the Doroks. Their role is instead played by the survivors of Pejitei in the film, who unleash the swarm of Ohm on the Valley in their quest to destroy the God Warrior. This one I can forgive, as adding a fourth faction to the conflict in the film would be confusing, to say the least. It also mitigates the need to explain who the Doroks are, their history etc. But their exclusion means that yet another fantastic element of Nausicaä’s incredible world is lost as a result.

A Masterpiece of Fantasy Fiction

It’s hard to separate the film and the manga, given that one was literally made to make the other, but the manga can nevertheless stand firmly on its own two feet as an excellent story of fantasy fiction.

It must be said that a childhood predicated on Lord of the Rings has given me an immense appreciation for immaculately crafted fantasy worlds. Unfortunately, you don’t tend to get very many of those in the world of manga.

There are some, like Kentaro Miura’s Berserk and even Yoshihiro Togashi’s Hunter x Hunter which have succeeded in crafting such worlds despite the norms. But none of those can come close to Miyazaki’s world in the Nausicaä manga – at least, not until they come to a definitive close and round off their vision.

Nausicaä 35: Miyazaki's Long Lost Twelve Year Manga Journey
The Forest People. Source: Isaac Yuen, Ekostories

As stated, the scope of the manga is much wider than that of the film. Alongside Nausicaä’s homeland of the Valley of the Wind, we get to see all kinds of different kingdoms and cultures. You have the industrious and warlike Torumekians, the tribal Doroks, the vagrant Worm Handlers, and the spiritual Forest People.

These various cultures and kingdoms are not just presented, but also explored in meticulous detail by Miyazaki. We get to see the backstabbing nature of the Torumekian imperial court, the clash of ideals between Dorok priests of different traditions, the tragic lot of the Worm Handlers, and the enigmatic cohabitation of the Forest Dwellers.

Miyazaki’s meticulous attention to detail and eye for quality is already renowned the world over, and this is indeed one of the reasons why Studio Ghibli has become such an international success. Just because Miyazaki has changed mediums with the Nausicaä manga does not mean that this aspect of his artistry disappears; rather, you could say that it is intensified due to the long form nature of serialized storytelling. The result of this is one of the best fantasy worlds ever created in the medium of manga, period.

Ghibli, But Epic

Although it may seem surprising, my first exposure to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli was not actually the Nausicaä film.

In fact, by the time I watched the finale of the film on that tiny, analog TV whilst on holiday, I was already fully aware of Studio Ghibli’s works and the concept of anime as a whole. Yet, in a typical turn, my first exposure to the world of anime was indeed through Studio Ghibli – with Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning 2001 feature Spirited Away.

Once more, I first watched Spirited Away on holiday. My second cousin had brought it with them as they were firmly in the middle of their anime “phase,” and ended up putting it on for me to watch. Little did I know that the story of Chihiro and her brother Sen, or perhaps more accurately the love story between Chihiro and Haku, would become the basis for my future career.

But I have always come up against a rather hefty obstacle when choosing to watch a Ghibli movie – the runtime. You could say it’s because I’m too used to long-form serialized manga and anime storytelling these days, but even as a kid – back when I had no idea what “serialization” even meant – I always found myself wanting more as the credits rolled. Even now, I still remember vividly that feeling of heartbreak when Spirited Away came to an end for the first time, and I had to leave the story of Chihiro and Haku behind.

Nausicaä 35: Miyazaki's Long Lost Twelve Year Manga Journey
Japanese volumes of the manga. Source: Amazon

Life is full of finales – that much you can’t avoid. But you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you willingly avoided a continuation, especially when it comes to one penned by such a talented creator as Hayao Miyazaki.

So why haven’t you read the Nausicaä manga yet? It’s a Ghibli story through and through, complete with a strong female protagonist, an anti-war theme, and of course that gorgeously detailed art style. There’s absolutely no need for you not to check it out if you’re a fan of the studio’s work. And of course, you’d be doing a disservice to eight year old me, crying his eyes out at the end of Spirited Away and doomed to spend at least seven years waiting until he finally discovered a true, full-length Ghibli epic.

Success From Failure

But, alas. Just as all things must come to an end, nothing can ever be perfect. And while my younger self certainly saw in the Nausicaä manga all the makings of perfection, rereading the manga now is not such an easy experience.

Copious viewings of the film have greatly acquainted me with its excellent screenplay and tight structure. Each act of the film takes place in a distinctive central location, giving the moment-to-moment happenings of the film focus and direction in ways that such series as Kemurikusa lack. One of the reasons why I remember the finale of the Nausicaä film so vividly is precisely because of its distinctive location on the shores of the Acid Lake, in the wreck of a ship from a bygone age – so very distinct from the other key locations of the Valley of the Wind and the bottom of the Sea of Corruption.

However, Miyazaki was probably only able to craft such a tight structure for the Nausicaä film because he had already struggled to do so in the original Nausicaä manga. The manga has a story that meanders, often from character to character and from location to location without much overall direction. Sure, there are the overarching story arcs of the Taikaisho and the Crypt of Shuwa that drive the two halves of the story, but the story of the manga could not have been as focused as the film was able to go on to be – because it’s failures informed later success.

But by far the biggest drawback of the manga is the art. You would perhaps be inclined to think that the manga would look gorgeous because of Miyazaki’s intensely detailed art style, and you’d be at least half right in that respect. Attention to detail that should be perfect for the vast fantasy world oozes from the art of each panel and rewards slower readers. Yet this attention to detail can also make each panel feel crowded and chaotic, with action scenes losing vital visual focus in particular because of the ocean of details.

Nausicaä 35: Miyazaki's Long Lost Twelve Year Manga Journey
A battle scene. Source: Jason Thompson, ANN

This isn’t helped one bit by Miyazaki’s poor panel placement and flow. There’s a reason why such manga as four-panel comics or ‘4-koma’ are often put to one side when discussing the medium of manga – comics in general need panel variation to match the rhythm of a scene and engage the reader. In general, good panel placement can make or break a good series. For example, I’d consider Dragon Ball to be a fairly boring story, but Akira Toriyama’s excellent paneling makes consuming that story a true joy.

Too bad, then, that Miyazaki’s Nausicaä manga reads more like Hidamari Sketch than Dragon Ball. Panels are squeezed next to each other on the page, often being the same or similar sizes and lengths. There’s not even a single splash page until about 600 pages in!

In theory, the Nausicaä manga should be one of the best looking series out there. But because of Miyazaki’s lack of experience with manga, he isn’t able to sell his artwork with much flair – in fact, he often makes his manga a chore for the eyes to consume. What a shame.

Miyazaki the Mangaka

Yet this major drawback can be also said to form one part of one of the most fascinating things about the Nausicaä manga for me: how it functions as a reflection of Miyazaki’s own life and career.

I began this article with an explanation of how this manga came to be. It was essentially born out of necessity, out of a compromise between Miyazaki and the industry. Miyazaki had no intention of becoming a mangaka – he simply ended up doing manga in order to further his own career as an animator and director. No wonder, then, is the Nausicaä manga dysfunctional in many aspects.

But isn’t that a beautiful reflection of Miyazaki himself? Despite not being a trained mangaka, he was willing to give it a go if it meant he would be able to tell his story. This small event at the very beginning of his career could be seen as one of the first examples of why Miyazaki has become such a legend today; his constant creativity and drive to improve. It’s why he has been able to capture the hearts of audiences all around the world.

Nausicaä 35: Miyazaki's Long Lost Twelve Year Manga Journey
The finale of the film. Source: IMDB

The Nausicaä manga ends on a strange note. It’s not exactly a happy ending, and many things are left up in the air. But we are assured that the inhabitants of Nausicaä’s world are able to happily live out the rest of their days in an afterword by Miyazaki. This afterword also claims that there was more story to tell, but years of hiatuses and too much involvement with Studio Ghibli left him with no feasible way to continue telling it.

The VIZ version also reprints Miyazaki’s comment from the very first volume of the Nausicaä manga at the end of the story. While that may seem strange in concept, in actuality the beginning paradoxically functions very effectively as the end. I quote:

“The folks at the anime and entertainment magazine Animage encouraged me to do a comic, so I went ahead and signed up for the chance to create Nausicaä as I imagine her to be. But now I have to relearn – the hard way – why I concluded that I had no talent for comics and gave them up so long ago! The only thing I want now is for this girl to somehow find freedom and happiness.”

Miyazaki’s journey with the Nausicaä manga lasted far longer than it ever should have. But he continued on, determined to tell the story he had thought up over his years as an animator at Toei.

In many ways, the manga is both a testament to Miyazaki and the characters he created. He had the humility to change and rework his own ideas so that they worked better in a different form. Yet experiencing the story in it’s original, manga form makes clear how powerful his world and characters originally were, even if the film benefitted from changing them.

VIZ Media have done an excellent job in raising awareness about Miyazaki’s twelve-year manga journey, but the adventure is far from over. I can only hope that Miyazaki’s fantasy world, so inextricably linked to his own birth as a legend, continues to inspire generations to come. In turn, I hope that I too have done my part in illuminating at least one small part of this legend.

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