[ANIME CULTURE] When Nausicaa was falling on the video game industry…

Hello everyone.

I was wondering of which anime I could speak this time, then circumstances had it, that I had to explain some things on Nausicaa for some events. Using this for excuse, I’ve gathered some external information and connections, and just thought it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to put it on this blog and have a little speech on Miyazaki’s first work in Ghibli. Plus, I’m not really known for loving Miyazaki ; not that I despise it, though : I’m simply being neutral. Neither do I love his works, neither do I dislike it ; I however do be dazzled, by the quality of his work and the grassroots reputation he managed to create worldwide as a Japanese animator (also there is a lot of economic and personal determinisms which could be the subject of a study, especially considered Miyazaki Hayao as one of the very few important animators who come originally from the bourgeoisie).

Plus, being one of the prime works of Miyazaki, Nausicaa didn’t benefit from the capitalization, or I should say the inuring process within the westerners, being somewhat belated to the audience’s tastes by the time it got here. This, also, is one of the prime reasons why people don’t look that much at Nausicaa, putting aside the sole fact that, being the « first » work of the so known director, much people look down at it, thinking at first glance it ought not to be as good as his latter by which he got famous – namely, Mononoke hime or, of course, Chihiro.

With his post-apocalyptic background, Nausicaa is setting itself in the brand of the 80s « post-apocalyptic » trend, with the likes of Mad Max or, in the manga / anime world, Hokuto no Ken.

To get things started, one must put Nausicaa in context ; that is, the situation of both animation and movies in the first half of the 80s.

Those were an era we’ve got difficulties to fully understand if we didn’t live in it. It is an era which was felt as much darker by people who abode it, an era of crisis, both economical (the post petroleum crisis of 1978), and political (always remember : cold war is not ended, and people were faithfully wondering up until 1989 that it was going to goes for ages on). To add some on this, we had got new scientific topics ; especially, the one of the today well known nuclear winter ; that is to say, the scientific studies of what would happen, should a nuclear war materialize ; and the answer wasn’t pretty, as it would mean a nuclear cloud darkening the whole surface of earth for months, if not years, then the fast extinction of most vertebrates species on earth’s surfaces, bringing a massive zoologic extinction about, the likes of what earth knew multiple times before (the most known being the dinosaurs’ mass extinction). Thus, in fiction, the focus of « apocalyptical stories » shifted progressively from « what happens when the total war occurs », to « what the world would look like after the war occurred ». This was the time of post-apocalyptic stories, a big trend by this time’s science fiction.

When one looks at the anime / manga industry by then, or even of course movies, it’s glass clear how much pregnant this topos was. In 1982, we’ve got the massive hit Mad Max 2, in which the watchers were following little groups of survivors trying to thrive through their principles out. The anime adaptation of Hokuto no Ken was being a massive hit in Japan, with this strange, apocalyptic yet pastoral world on the Cyclopean ruins of the old industrial world. Akira was fast becoming one of the major manga of its time (before its incredible anime movie adaptation in 1988). Reflecting how dark people were seeing their own time, not betting so much on the future, the time was the one of darker stories, contrasting much with the « happier » and « brighter » 90s, the post-Cold War world. It was the time of the « No Future », nihilistic way to think. And on top of that, the first ecological problematics were emerging, questioning the well doing of the industrial civilization, seen up to this date as positive, suddenly terrible both to man and to the world he lives in.

One of the darkest movies of Miyazaki is one of a much darker age, too. Cold war is yet to be ended, if any could imagine an end. The showed scene is one of the few, where nuclear (or armed) escalation between countries is being questioned, as in the end it brings nothing but destruction – human destruction, natural destruction, then in the end, universal destruction, yet to be avoided by the pacifistic actions of princess Nausicaa.

Nausicaa knew a somewhat strange destiny here. Being the first Miyazaki workd in Ghibli, it didn’t be very popular by there, if ever localized before late ; while in the same time, it does have a somewhat old feel in it. Just like Laputa, whenever one watches it today, it does feel strange and somewhat old – not old in terms of picture, considering Ghibli’s work shined in their time until today specifically for being much polished in comparison to the rest of the anime industry (especially, the picture / frame animation much closer to the full animation, alike to the one in the West, whereas the industry usually makes use of limited animation, out both of economic limitation in the first time, then of aesthetic considerations, the limited animation being associated to the anime feel in itself in the end) ; but much rather in its narrative and the way the story unfold.

Of course, there is always this magic name : « Miyazaki ». Whenever you say this, much people got stars in their eyes, and are barely hearing anything else to what you’re saying – it is, as if there were not a thing in this world which Miyazaki had touched, that would be other than beautiful, crafted piece out of the Pure Land. So even though people could be feeling a bit of disappointment at first glance, it is hasty repelled by a social motive : « Miyazaki ought to make wonderful things ». In the end, the phenomenon is no different from any type of hype, except it got social, grassroots acceptance in much of the society, aside from the sole Otaku subcultural cluster.

But just imagine : you show Nausicaa and Laputa to someone who don’t even know the name of those movies, and who don’t have a clue it has been made by Miyazaki. Granted he don’t recognize the distinctive Miyazaki style, what would then happen in its final reception ? Well, everyone is different of course, and one can’t assert anything for sure – but the odds are at, that you’re going to have something closer to that : « this is really pretty and gorgeous. But the story appears to me somewhat cliché. »

The way Nausicaa use the post apocalyptical setting in a way more light hearted, yet deep story thematizing the fall of the industrial civilization, using legendary motifs like in the introduction pretty much reminiscent to a mix between legendary myth and precolombial gravures, is a topos which has been figured as over-classical to many of us, especially regarding japanese games like RPG. But in fact, much of its roots are right here in Nausicaa, then Laputa, which shares much of its theme why the former.

My theory and the main reason I’m writing this article is not for stressing how great Nausicaa and Laputa are as movies, such a subject I think there is way more interesting stuffs on it out there on the internet, but in which regard they are not cliché, considering they have pretty much transformed a whole generation of animators and scenarists in Japan who’ve been profoundly influenced by there two titles, and the main reasons they appear to us so classical, is, precisely, for the very reason they were foundations of classical topoi we were to find in a lot of anime, manga, videogames and novels following their theater release, at least, of course, in Japan.

In other words, I’m pretty much disregarding any consideration toward the intrinsic qualities of the works. To be quite honest, I’m not really fond of Miyazaki’s works, putting aside one or two exceptions ; but on the other hand, I’m always wondering how it is possible, considering the reputation toward him, that what is without any doubt the most important of its works in the history of anime regarding how much they influenced the genre itself, especially Nausicaa and Laputa, and, to some extend, Totoro and Majô Takyubin, titles I often summarize under the « 80s Miyazaki » denomination, are so much ignored with regard to the social and historical importance they embrace.

It has been usually considered by many japanese specialists on the pop culture, that much of the « japanese RPG » trend in video games, have seen their stories way much out of the anime culture than the manga’s. For example, Nakagawa analyzes the Dragon Quest series then its spiritual successors as one tradition out of the shônen manga, with identification to the main character, power building and simpler storyline, whereas the Final Fantasy trend is analyzed as being much closer to anime, capitalizing on the Nausicaa and Laputa phenomenon of the same time. Here for example, a screenshot from Final Fantasy V (1992), where the weakening of the crystals’ power follows a chaos in the fundamental forces of nature, and fears toward disorder in the world.

To says Nausicaa represented in its time a swift in the anime narrative is no exaggeration. Although it didn’t was a comparable social phenomenon, it is not absurd to say that Nausicaa, in its way, represented an important date in the anime history to the like of Gundam, Macross, Megazone 23 or even Sailor Moon, in that it became inspirational for generations of animators, and a foundation for new practices in the anime narrative (then to the whole mediamix structure, especially games, which where very sensible to the « ancient world’s fall » rhetoric). The same way Gundam elevated the science fiction mecha genre to a new degree, with its most serious setting, focusing on war and dramaturgy while not putting aside the « sensational » and technophile side of traditional mecha anime, Nausicaa is an elevation of both the « post-apocalyptic » and « adventure » sub-genres, altogether with Laputa : while keeping some airy feel, never being too heavy while situated itself in a very dense universe, and telling a « holistic » (or even « vernian » in the case of Laputa) adventure from beginning to the end in a vast, strange yet familiar world, it paved the way for a whole trend in the anime narrative, not only in theatrical anime, but also in TV anime, manga, and, in the first time especially, games. The 80s and 90s and pretty full of video games, especially RPG, whose story is directly impacted from Nausicaa and Laputa narrative, from Ys to Final Fantasy. Even the 2000s aren’t full devoid of this influence : Miyajima’s excellent stories for Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss, focusing on the slowly pollution then destruction of worlds by ancient civilizations and the thrive for news not to renewal the errors of their predecessor, is a total continuation of those topics. And it is no exageration to make those topoi back to Nausicaa and Laputa, for that even though they weren’t the first of course to have them, those topics do become especially pregnant in japanese stories after those movies, and they highly participated to made these thematic of common use.

One question I’d like to submit before closing this short reflexion : why was the video game industry especially touched by this influenced, while the anime industry took some time before being really influenced ? One reason could be in the medium itself.

A direct reference to Nausicaa in… Nisemonogatari (2013) ! The way the « divine soldiers » (kyoshinhei) and their memorable appearance in Nausicaa’s introduction is used to depict briefly the inner disorder within the protagonist’s mind is somewhat amusing, but also reflects how much Nausicaa has become part of the collective unconscious within the animeic culture.

While games are stories fully expressed in one block, with a beginning and an end, containing both in itself at the very time the player starts to play (at least in this time), anime didn’t got this chance, as the model of TV anime was still the one of long running series of 50 episodes or so. The trend to shorter series in one or two « diffusion season », from 26 to 13 episodes, focusing much more on the internal coherence of the story and the quality of the narrative rather than character and episodic structures, is a trend that will really take over by the 90s, especially after the Evangelion phenomenon which acts as prototype to this type of narrative, showing new standards and codes for the narrative structure ; but then again, it would be no coincidence, as it well known that Hideaki Anno worked at Ghibli before joining Gainax, taking part in Nausicaa’s animation production, then directed the Fushigi no Umi no Nadia series after hand in 1990, a 39 episode long series written by Miyazaki with much topoi in common (especially with Laputa, upon which it was partiall based), that was itself a new departure on coherent narrative within TV anime, much alike to what Anno was going to bring to the world with its legendary series in 1995.

The case is much complex in the theatrical released anime world. One could say that theatrical anime, although for us exemplified by Ghibli, as it always was based on strong personalities stressing on « creativity » rather than story or character, didn’t had to resort so much on collective consciousness of « attractive » elements (to use Azuma’s concept of « attractive elements ») or common cultural recognition, whether the game industry, still young and searching references outside itself to build up its own medium, found a fitting place in early Ghibli movies.

This sums up the subject, as pf Nausicaa’s historical and cultural influence. Much more could be said by extending the composition to Laputa, and citing multiple examples ; but I decided to put this aside for the time being, although I don’t leave the possibility out to write on this topic someday. For the time being, this should serve as first draft on this topic.



Student in Japanese studies and specializing in story telling and modern Japanese pop culture.

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