Paul P. Mealing

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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki

I’ve just read this 7 volume graphic novel over a single weekend. I saw the anime version a few years back at a cinematic mini-festival of his work. As it turned out, it was the first of his movies I ever saw, and it’s still my favourite. Most people would declare Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke as his best works, and they’re probably right, but I liked Nausicaa because certain elements of the story resonated with my own modest fictional creation, Elvene. You can see a Japanese trailer of the anime here.

The movie was released in 1984 and the graphic novels were only translated into English in 1997. I didn’t even know they existed until I looked it up on the Internet to inform a friend. And then a graphic novelist guest at our book club (see my blog list) told me that the local library has all 7 volumes; they’re catalogued under ‘graphic novel – teenager’. Even though Miyazaki is better known for his animated movies (Studio Ghibli), the film version of Nausicaa barely scratches the surface. The graphic novels are on the scale of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Dune. Of the 7 volumes, the shortest is 120 pages and the last is over 200 pages. If Miyazaki wasn’t Japanese, I’m sure this would be a classic of the genre.

Being Japanese, they’re read from right to left, so the back cover is actually the front cover and vice versa. I thought: why didn’t they just reverse the pagination for Western readers? But, of course, the graphics have to be read right to left as well. In other words, to Westernise them they’d have to be mirror-reversed, so wisely the publishers left them alone.

On the inside back cover (front cover for us) Miyazake explains the inspiration for the character. Of course, Nausicaa was originally a character in Homer’s The Odyssey, but Miyazaki first came across her in Bernard Evslin’s Japanese translation of a dictionary of Greek mythology. Evslin apparently gave 3 pages to Nausicaa but only one page each to Zeus and Achilles, so Miyazaki was a little disappointed when he read Homer’s original and found that she played such a small yet pivotal role in Odysseus’s journey. He was also influenced by a Japanese fictional heroine in The Tales of Past and Present called “the princess who loved insects”.

Those who are familiar with Miyazaki know that all his stories have strong female roles, and, personally, I think Nausicaa is the best of them, albeit she is one of the youngest.

But this reference to Homer’s Odyssey raises a point that has long fascinated me about graphic novels (or comic books, as they were known when I was a kid). They are arguably the only literary form which echoes back to the mythical world of the ancients, where characters have god-like abilities with human attributes. Now some of you may ask what about fantasy fiction of the sword and wizard variety? King Arthur, Merlin and Gandalf surely fall into that category. Yes, they are somewhat in between, but they are not superheroes, of whom Superman is the archetype. Bryan Singer’s film version, Superman Returns, which polarised critics and audiences, makes the allusion to Christ most overtly, and I suspect, deliberately.

It’s not just the Bible that provides a literary world where humanity and Gods meet (well there are 2 God characters in the Bible, the Father and the Son, not to mention Satan). Moses talked to a burning bush, Abraham was visited by angels, and Jesus conversed with Satan, God and ordinary mortals, including prostitutes.

The Mahabharata is a classic Hindu text involving deities and warring families, and of course there’s Homer’s tales, where the Greek gods take sides in battles and make deals with mortals.

Well, Miyazake’s Nausicaa falls into this category, in my view, even though there’s not a deity in sight. Nausicaa is probably the most Christ-like character I’ve come across in contemporary fiction since Superman. However that’s a Western interpretation – I expect Miyazaki would be more influenced by the Goddess of Mercy (Guan Yin in China, Kannon in Japan).

Nausicaa is a warrior princess with prodigious fighting abilities but her greatest ability is to empathise with all living creatures and to win over people to her side through her sheer personality and integrity. This last attribute is actually the most believable part of the novel, and when she continually wins respect and trust, Miyazaki convinces us that this human aspect of her character is real. But there are supernatural qualities as well. Her heart is so pure that she is able to lead the most evil character in the story into the afterlife (reminiscent of a scene in Harry Potter with a different outcome). In the last volume there is a warrior-god intent on destruction (an artificial life-form) whom she bends to her will through her sheer compassion because he believes she is his mother.

There are numerous other characters, but Princess Kushana is probably the most complex. She is involved in a mortal struggle with her emperor father and throne-contender brothers, but the most interesting relationship she has is with her ambitious Chief of Staff, Kurotowa. Early in the story she tries to have him killed, much later she saves his life.

Like Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki’s tale is a cautionary one about how humanity is destroying the ecology of the planet. Other subplots warn against religious dogma being used as a political weapon to manipulate people into war, and petty royal rivalries decimating populations through war and creating starving refugee communities out of the survivors.

There are, of course, a small group of characters who see Nausicaa as a prophet, and even a goddess, which creates problems for her in and of itself.

This is a rich story of many layers, not just a boy’s (or girl’s) own adventure. Nausicaa is a classic of the graphic novel genre – it’s just not recognised as such because it’s not American.

3 comments:

Eli said...

Actually, I've run into quite a lot of Eastern literature that maintains the thing where regular humans interact with gods or are made out to be supernatural in some way or other. And, come to think of it, one South American (Latin American?) book as well.

I wonder if someone has done any surveys about this? Somebody must have the data...

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Eli,

About 4 years ago, I was at an international Sci-Fi convention held in Canberra (Capital of Oz). There were lots of discussions and one of them was this very topic: the relationship between graphic novels (comic books) and mythology. One of the guests, Queenie Chan (a Hong Kong born Aussie) made the observation that Asian cultures are generally not as precious about their gods as the West are.

Regards, Paul.

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