We Must All Be Heroes: On Hope for Climate Justice in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) | Studio Ghibli
Studio Ghibli

If inhaled, the air could kill her. 

The masked explorer hops across a field of blue-green mushrooms, stiff and wide as trampolines, into a clearing perforated by white streams of light. Dragonflies glide above as she stumbles upon the fresh tracks of an Ohmu, a massive black multi-eyed beetle. She follows the tracks through the forest until she reaches its empty shell. To anyone else, it would look like a haunted house—the windows of its many eyes watching. But Nausicaä marvels at its perfect condition, as if it’s a silver castle waiting to be explored. Its shell seems unbreakable, so she removes an eye casing to be taken back to the village and made into tools. Nausicaä holds the transparent dome over her face, observing the spores floating like snow overhead. 

She closes her eyes and relaxes as they blanket her, murmuring, “They’re so beautiful.”  

***

Here, Princess Nausicaä is a bright-eyed, radically hopeful teenager in a time when the remaining human population is violent out of despair and arrogance. In a world 1,000 years into the future, industrial civilization has burned at the hands of God Warriors, colossal humanoid creatures capable of nuclear destruction. What is left are tiny nations of warring, starving people scattered across a seemingly endless desert, and the Valley of the Wind, Nausicaä’s wind-powered village that sits on fertile land near a lethally acidified lake. When poisonous spores from the Toxic Jungle drift into human territory, they feed on organic material and infest whole cities. Unlike desert cities, however, the Valley of the Wind is protected by incoming Northern winds that keep the spores at bay. But everyone faces the threat of the Jungle hosts: insects that are as large as houses and humanly vengeful. They attack dangerous intruders and will charge out of the Jungle to rescue their own when they’re harmed by humans, destroying everything in their path.

When I read through news articles, I see young climate activists with the same determined gaze as Nausicaä. The world they’re growing up in is falling apart, and they can no longer depend on their parents’ and grandparents’ generations to speak up for them. These activists demand that their governments save the environment, and in turn, save their futures. They insist that we have to turn to renewable energy, divest oil and plastic companies of political support, and restrict carbon monoxide production any way we can to slow global warming.

Greta Thunberg’s words—our house is on fire”—echo in my mind as I watch the Tolmekians insist that they can burn away the Toxic Jungle and its inhabitants by weaponizing a giant Warrior. It’s clear to Nausicaä that incinerating the creatures won’t work, but the Tolmekians should know this. Again and again, mankind has torched the Toxic Jungle in vain, hoping to start anew and save themselves from the natural world. We, too, hold matches in our hands: corporations burn the Earth’s fossil fuels for energy and plastic production and politicians support them as if they are fire-proof. We’re adding fuel to the fire, and if we don’t make pivotal changes now, we won’t survive.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Climate defeatists see the flames and say it’s too late, there’s nothing that can be done. They say the end is here, but then again, the ending is ongoing. In Nausicaä, the world has been ending for a thousand years. While nations like Tolmekia and Pejite battle over weapons of mass destruction, the Valley of the Wind turns to renewable, clean ocean winds to power their homes. They farm and use water from their wells, avoiding the Acid Lake and using only small amounts of fire. Although the villagers too fear the Jungle, they feel safe in the Valley. Their only real threat is from nations who kill, threaten, coerce, and treat them as collateral damage. 

Those who have lost hope in restoring the Jungle to what it once was have not studied the Jungle as Nausicaä has. She discovers that clean water and soil taken from deep underground produces non-toxic plants, so it isn’t the flora in the Jungle to blame, but what they are nourished by. Before she’s able to use that information to create a cure, or share her message with others, her father is assassinated by the Tolmekian princess—the same commander who seeks power to not only destroy the Jungle, but to rule over the rest of the human race. The Tolmekian commander is only one of the many rulers who defaults to violence to protect her own future instead of allowing herself to hope for restoration.

This is only too easy to imagine in the present day—world leaders choosing selfishness and violence over collaboration and compassion. We can’t start anew with the planet, so we can’t empower those who rely on destruction. Although Nausicaä’s father is a peaceful ruler, he is resigned to his perception of the Jungle, especially as his body weakens from its toxins. Instead of being an optimistic ally to Nausicaä, he too has lost hope in nature’s ability to heal and in their power to fix it. This was humanity’s second mistake, but the first was polluting the earth almost beyond saving during reckless industrialization. We’ve already taken the first step toward the end of the world; we have to make sure we don’t continue down the same path.  

*** 

When Nausicaä falls through a sandy area of the Toxic Jungle, she wakes up maskless in an underground cavern. She explores until she crumples, crying out of joy: she’s realized the solution for humanity’s survival is helping the Toxic Jungle return to its natural state. The small mountains of sand, the water flowing through the rotten trees, and the clear, rushing river in the cavern demonstrate that the flora have evolved to absorb air pollution, petrify, then crumble to purified sand. This is a sign that the world could progress to a clean, healthier state. The insects have evolved into aggressive, vengeful monsters to protect the forest’s chances for success—the clean earth and water running underground to each nation’s wells. Had the Toxic Jungle been bombed, humanity’s water supply would have been eliminated, and there would be little chance of survival.

Our tools for survival, similarly, are depleting from all angles. The majority of freshwater is contained in glaciers, which are melting at an alarming rate, and 30% is found underground, casualty to ore processing and chemicals like pesticides. Less than 1% is found in lakes, swamps, and rivers, and is polluted by plastic, groundwater pollution, and waste. Although air pollution has been more regulated over the past 40 years, cities that are heavily populated by factories and power plants encourage their residents to wear masks. Nevertheless, many die from the air quality. Our remaining trees have not yet evolved to absorb the entirety of our mistakes, so pollution continues to destroy our atmosphere. The planet warms, the polar ice caps melt, and the cycle continues. Our very own Toxic Jungle peeks out from behind the curtain. 

The Toxic Jungle

In the years prior to the film’s release in 1984, the world had an acid rain scare. We found out when clouds absorb air pollution, the chemicals that rain down degrade soil, damage trees, and acidify waterways. In addition, acid rain damages cars and causes heart and lung illnesses. When Japan faced its first acid rain in the 1970s, it irritated tens of thousands of citizens’ eyes and skin and later was discovered to have damaged forests and lakes.  

For decades in Japan, anti-pollution campaigns had been launched against corporations after their waste caused numerous diseases and deaths. In fact, companies had so severely devastated a local bay in northern Kyushu that it was called “The Sea of Death.” This was a time of great industrial growth in the country, so the government focused on gaining the business’ support to stay in power. Without relentless pressure from citizens over the years, environmental laws wouldn’t have been passed, and water and air pollution would not have subsided. 

Aside from political action against corporations, residents themselves had to make changes to avoid polluting the environment. One notable example was the eutrophication of Shiga’s Lake Biwa in 1977. The lake, a main source of drinking water, had been polluted by synthetic detergents to the point of producing a large, red, freshwater tide of algae feeding on the nutrient-rich detergent. Algal blooms absorb oxygen needed for animal life and can cause animal death. Locals realized that they were part of the problem, so they switched to natural soaps and launched the “Soap Movement” to encourage people across the prefecture to do the same. They pressured the prefectural government into enacting the first control on eutrophication in the country.  

The fate of Nausicaä’s world is perhaps so terrifying because Miyazaki was influenced by real life events. The Toxic Jungle is called the Sea of Decay in the film’s English subtitles, and the lake near the Valley of the Wind is almost lethally acidified. From a distance, the stampeding Ohmus appear to be a tide of red lights, killing everything in their path. And although acid rain may not be burning us now, we can’t stand by until it does.

***

Nausicaä may sleep in the castle, but she behaves like the villagers—fixing windmills, scavenging for their tools, and treating them like family. Nausicaä only dresses like a princess when she’s in her castle with her father for a few seconds during the film, and even then, her outfit is a lightly bejeweled version of the female villagers’ outfits. When she does have to take on the role of a leader, she makes choices that protect the villagers, whether it’s being taken hostage by invaders to prevent further death in the village, or by guiding a foreign airship to safety alone on her glider during a dangerous storm. The movie isn’t called Princess Nausicaä—it’s named Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. She is first and foremost a citizen of the Earth. 

Nausicaä is unique because of her empathy towards all life forms, her bravery, and her special connection to animals, seen through her use of non-violent taming strategies. She trusts that animals as well as her enemies have good in them and that they can be reasoned with. Even when faced with violence, she maintains her stance that people and animals only act badly out of self-preservation and fear. Nausicaä wouldn’t be blamed if she didn’t save the life of the commander who ordered her father’s death, but she does so without hesitation. Even her smallest interactions with danger are civil: she always apologizes and often asks for forgiveness from insects when she disturbs them, as one would a human.

The people of the Valley want their newborn to grow up to be like Nausicaä, not because she’s a princess, but because she’s brave, kind, and good. 

Nausicaä

This doesn’t mean she hasn’t been hurt or made sacrifices—not everyone sees her good intentions, and not everyone cares. Nausicaä repeatedly risks her life retrieving and growing poisonous plants to find a cure. She’s shot twice while trying to save a baby Ohmu from being used as insect bait. She puts herself in danger to save a Tolmekian commander’s life, who later attempts to massacre her village anyways. Nausicaä almost makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the Valley and the Tolmekians, and to bring peace to the insects, when she stands before an Ohmu stampede. 

We need to embody Nausicaä’s compassion, bravery, and willingness to make sacrifices if we’re ever to achieve climate justice. The environment doesn’t need us, but every single one of us needs it. Climate change spares—is sparing—no one. We are already beginning to watch coastal areas flood, water supplies and agriculture decline, oceans acidify, and extreme heat and insect outbreaks damage forests. We need to fight and make sacrifices for ourselves, for others, and for the natural world because otherwise we won’t have shelter, food, or water. Nausicaä was willing to die for her people and her world because if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have one.  

In our world, Nausicaä would do much more than vote and influence her father’s policies. She would utilize her individual privileges to rally against the environment’s antagonists with, and for, all of us. 

Nausicaä is a hero, but it’s not enough to want her to lead us, or to wait for her to save us. 

We must become her. 

***

The sky is a blinding yellow, as if the dream takes place inside a fire. Hundreds of shadowy hands reach towards young Nausicaä as she blocks their view of a tree, pleading for them to stay away from her. Out from between her feet crawls a dark baby Ohm, investigating the source of the commotion. She pushes it back into the tree. Her father and the villagers tower over her, sure that the insects have “bewitched her.” She shelters the Ohm with her body, protesting its innocence.

Her father replies, “Insects and humans cannot live in the same world. You know that.” The hands reach for her again and her father rips the baby out of her arms. He holds it at an arm’s length. From a distance, it could be any filthy thing.

The sun is setting. The villagers disappear into the horizon and her father’s voice echoes: “You knew that.” In her dream, Nausicaä is a child, begging and powerless.

Then she wakes up in the present day, grown and looking directly at the solution.

The day awaits.