“This is not your world:” Extinction and Utopia in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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This paper was originally presented for Gothic Nature III: New Directions in EcoHorror and the EcoGothic, in October 2020. 

For nearly forty years, Hayao Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic animated film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) has stood as a preeminent work of ecofiction. Set a thousand years after the destruction of civilisation by industrialised warfare, on an earth now covered by a toxic mushroom jungle, the film follows Princess Nausicaä as she attempts to bring an end to a war which threatens both her agrarian community and the future of humanity itself. The critical reception of Nausicaä has tended to read it as an eco-fable, depicting what Donna Haraway describes as the earthly salvation of “peace between humans and other-than-humans.”[1] What this reading ignores, however, are the far darker themes of the manga series upon which the film is based, in which the film’s dreams of natural harmony swiftly give way to the nightmares of mutation, manipulation, and extinction.

As I will argue, the Nausicaä manga (1982-1994), continued by Miyazaki in the decade following the film’s release, systematically undoes the utopianism of its cinematic adaptation.[2] While the film ends with Nausicaä’s messianic rebirth as the mediator between humanity and nature, the manga continues on to disturb the very notions of an independent ‘humanity’ and an undisturbed ‘nature.’ Nausicaä discovers not only that the ‘natural’ world of the mushroom jungle is itself an anthropogenic creation meant to purify the earth, but that the pure earth would be uninhabitable for she and her fellow ‘humans’—because they too were altered to live in a toxic environment. As the monsters of the antediluvian world emerge from their crypts to destroy the earth once more, Nausicaä battles to save a world without a future.

As a tale of extinction rather than salvation, I argue that Nausicaä functions less as an eco-fable than as a work of ecological Gothic. Specifically, this paper aims to show that the moments of horror in Nausicaä are built upon the utopian expectations of ecological fiction, and the abject ruin of those expectations in a world in which the very conceptions of humanity and nature are no longer tenable. I will begin by delineating some of the differences between the film and the manga, before moving on to examine the decidedly Gothic character of the latter text, and the complex interplay of utopia and anti-utopia found within it.

Promises of Salvation

What is it that makes the film version of Nausicaä so appealing as an eco-fable? In its barest form, the plot of the Nausicaä film hinges upon the relation of three elements: the monstrous forest, the survivors of humanity, and the girl who crosses the threshold between them. Without getting too distracted in the minutiae of the film’s plot, we may detect this dynamic in both the wordless opening scene, in which Nausicaä navigates the forest not as an intruder but as a kindred spirit, and in the dramatic climax of the movie, when Nausicaä is reborn as the prophesied “Blue-Clad One” who will save humanity from itself.[3]

The opening sequence establishes the stakes of the narrative in its simplest form. We witness the tranquillity of an undisturbed nature, we marvel at its enormity, and we watch as Nausicaä glides through the vast forest. But this primordial oneness is not to last—the sound of gunfire and the rumbling of insects announces the core conflict of the film: the division between nature and humanity, between natural oneness and an ever-dividing, conflict-stricken humankind. The oneness of nature is shattered by human interference. But it is this rift which Nausicaä ultimately heals, when she makes peace between the warring human factions and the swarms of insects about to lay waste to human lands. Although an interloper in the forest, Nausicaä figures as a middle term between humanity and nature, by which the two worlds are made whole once again.

No wonder then, that the film has been lauded for its utopian imagination. In the manga, however, no such resolution is to be found. This is not because the events of the film do not transpire in more or less the same fashion—in fact, the plot of the movie is told in the first two hundred pages of the book’s thousand. However, as the story continues, the book expands upon the core elements of the film, and adds a second, hidden level to its seemingly binary conflict. The story ceases to be about humanity, nature, and the hands which reunite them, and instead transforms into a far more complex tale about the failure of that utopian moment of reunion to take place.

The most telling difference between the film and manga is in the role of the forest, and therefore the role which Nausicaä plays as the mediating figure between nature and culture. It is revealed early in the movie that the plants of the forest are not toxic in themselves, but, when nurtured with purified water, cease to emit their toxic fumes.[4] Later, in the depths of the forest, it is revealed that the trees are themselves working to purify the earth, as they extract aeons of pollution from the ground and crystallise into fresh, fertile soil. “The forest itself was created to cleanse the world,” reasons Nausicaä.[5] This is seemingly another utopian moment, when the means of our extinction are revealed as a source of our future salvation—but, as if by sleight of hand, we find the central terms of the film growing unstable.

Revealed as a purifying force, as a tool left by antediluvian generations, the toxic jungle ceases to be a natural environment at all. Manufactured by human hands before the destruction of their civilisation, the forest no longer stands in opposition to the human world, but instead folds into it, becoming one more remnant of the hubris that destroyed the world. What at first appears as a world without humanity, or a nature undisturbed by human hands, is revealed as the foremost product of ecological disturbance. In other words, the ‘nature’ of the toxic forest was always already disturbed, and its relation to humanity was never truly one of simple opposition, but one of complex and intertwined ruptures in the relation between humanity and the earth.[6] The sublime imagery of the forest expanded by artificial means and the statements of various characters that “It is the insects who are saving this planet” or “Humans became obsolete long, long ago” indicate the extent to which nature is collapsed into the widened political story of the manga, which admits no clear distinction between nature and humanity.[7]

Obeisance Before Extinction

But there is another turn of the screw, and another rupture in the human-nature binary. Just as the primordial oneness of the forest is revealed as an artificial landscape, serving the purpose of long-dead masters, its opposite term—humanity—is similarly undermined. As the story continues, it is revealed that the human population of Nausicaä’s world is, in fact, not strictly human at all. Nausicaä discovers that, many centuries before her time, the last of the old civilisations modified their peoples so that they may live within the new, toxic environment. “Human beings transformed the human body to suit a polluted world.”[8] What this means for the denizens of the post-apocalypse is that not only were they never human—a term which, like nature, now becomes ungrounded—but that their bodies were adapted for the unliveable environment, and in the process made unsuitable for the pure world beyond the forest. Nausicaä realises that “we cannot live without the poison” and although “the world is beginning to be reborn” by means of the forest’s purifying process, “our bodies cannot tolerate that purity.”[9] The forest’s gradual purification of the earth is not a miracle cure, but the final nail in our coffin. When the lands beyond the forest are described as “a place that can only be visited in spirit” yet “somehow represents hope” we may recall Kafka’s infamous declaration: that there is “an infinite amount of hope—but not for us!”[10]

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It is in this dual decomposition of both human and non-human nature that the Nausicaä manga moves from the uncomplicated eco-fable of the film to another style, which, I argue, is better identified as a style of eco-Gothic. The Gothic is readily visible in the imagery of the manga’s later volumes, which deploy a sort of body horror centred on an ‘abhuman’ subjectivity. As Kelly Hurley defines the term, “the abhuman subject is a not-quite-human subject, characterized by its morphic variability, continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other.”[11] The abhuman encompasses virtually all of the characters of the manga, from the artificial warriors and antediluvian monstrosities used to wage a renewed apocalyptic war, up to Nausicaä and her companions themselves, who must come to terms with the fact of their own inhumanity.

Another aspect of the Gothic becomes apparent when we move from the disturbed structure of the human-nature binary to the changed role of their intermediary, Nausicaä. No longer a prophet of peace between nature and humanity, Nausicaä’s role in the narrative takes on a far more ambiguous tenor. Whereas in the film she is gifted with a preternatural affinity for the forest, and is in possession of a conviction which is able to change those around her and save them from destruction, in the manga she is increasingly beset by doubt. As she travels through war-ravaged lands, she encounters cultists who celebrate the end of days, declaring: “The end of this world of suffering has come.”[12] “We, the cursed race, will be consumed by fire, and a new world will be born.”[13] To them, “the Blue-Clad One is not a savior but a god of death,” come to relieve this world of its torment.[14] In the place of the film’s hopeful message of redemption emerges a truly Gothic speculation on the void. As Devendra Varma writes of the mystical pessimism of the Gothic, it is “in an ecstasy of communion [that] the Gothic spirit makes humble obeisance before the great Unknown: fear becomes acceptance, and senseless existence fraught with a dark, unfathomable, sacred purpose.”[15] No longer an unambiguous saviour of humanity and nature, it is this spectre of extinction which Nausicaä must learn to face.

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Utopian Negativity

What does all this mean for our reading of Nausicaä’s narrative? If we are no longer safe within the conventions of the fable and its miraculous ending, but are instead surrounded by the far more ambiguous archetypes of the Gothic, where does this new, darkened narrative lead? First, on a formal level, the narrative of the manga supplants each significant element of the movie’s plot with a horrifying double: nature becomes unnatural, and the human becomes abhuman. What at first appears as a simple lesson on mediation between warring principles suddenly becomes ungrounded, as the seemingly essential terms of nature and humanity are revealed as figments suspended over the abyss. Second, on a philosophical level, the manga is a full-throated rejection of easy exits, exemplified by Haraway’s reading of the film as an eco-fable. We are led through a series of negations, as the simple narrative of the film gives way to the complexities of the manga, which draws toward a conclusion that attains its own Gothic resolution.

Nausicaa triangle disturbed

What entices about the film’s ending is its miraculous resolution of the seemingly interminable war between humanity and nature, as Nausicaä takes up her role as a messianic figure, simultaneously the daughter of nature and the mother of a new human world. The manga, however, refuses to allow an uncritical acceptance of this messianic narrative. In the final pages, it is revealed that the prophecies of the Blue-Clad One, the miracles which followed in her wake, and the purpose of her existence were all manufactured by the same archaic powers that created the forest and altered humanity. The ultimate antagonist of the manga is not the forest or even the warring lords, but the dark force which resides in the crypts of the ancient city of Shuwa. There, Nausicaä discovers the last remnants of the old humanity, preserved by forgotten sciences for the day when they might re-emerge to populate a purified earth.

The crypt has obvious Gothic connotations, and its residents are a clear analogue to the patriarchs of Gothic fiction. Haunting the world that they have made, exercising their diabolical control over its workings, they present the heroine with a choice: serve them and their goals of domination, or perish. Nausicaä’s response, in the manner of the Gothic heroine, is to dispel their Faustian bargain as the trickery of ghosts. She cries: “You are nothing but shadows” and denounces their intentions to “go on deceiving us until the very day you plan to destroy us.” “Why?” she asks, “Because no matter how much knowledge and technology you have, you will need slaves to do the work for you on the morning you replace the world?”[16] In the same moment that Nausicaä rejects her role as prophet, she effects an escape from the rigor mortis grip of the past. The utopia of salvation, the promise of a pure earth, is dispelled as the myth which tightens the bonds of ancient masters.

It is in this rejection of naïve utopianism that Nausicaä finds a truly utopian moment, which lies not in miracles but in disenchantment. In taking on the role of a Gothic heroine instead of a false prophet, Nausicaä rejects all the subterfuge of the old masters and embraces a conscious, disenchanted relation to the earth and its people. The Nausicaä manga finds its narrative conclusion at precisely this point: having torn down the idols of the past, a liberated ‘humanity’ (or posthumanity?) is faced with the vertiginous drop into history and the long work of shaping their own future. Nausicaä refuses all prophets and puppet-masters, and on the final page is carried off in a mass of people about to shape their own destiny, even on a planet ravaged by the tyrants and owners of the past. In this anti-utopian rejection of the world born anew, a truly utopian wish is expressed: to see clearly, even our own destruction.

The manga’s final confrontation between the stultifying forces of the past and Nausicaä’s open-eyed embrace of a dying world draw into focus the new dynamic that takes the place of the film’s conflict between humanity and nature. Whereas the film’s narrative structure centres on a simple binary conflict and its eventual resolution, the narrative of the manga requires an additional dimension to reveal the depths hidden beneath this now ungrounded binary. Growing out of the complementary terms of humanity and nature, this new structure may be spatially mapped by a semiotic square (see below). From out of the two opposed terms of nature (in its primordial oneness) and humanity (in its warring multiplicity) emerge two contradictory terms: the non-human life of the abhuman and the non-natural life of the artificial landscape.

Nausicaa square

Whereas the climax of the film centres on the unity of opposites, and the impossible utopian resolution of their conflict, the final pages of the manga turn to the neutral space at which the two negative terms meet. This space affords no happy resolution, and no simple moral to be told, but offers a radical negativity that sweeps away all the spectres of the past. As they are dispelled, the voices of the crypt cry out, “That is nihilism! Nothingness!” and Nausicaä responds: “Extinction has long since become a part of our lives.”[17] Far from being a nihilist acquiescence to death, and further still from being the eco-fable of the movie, Nausicaä’s position is one of freedom from all the illusions which kept her in servitude. Believing that neither the myths of humanity nor nature will suffice to save us, Nausicaä declares her allegiance to life itself, in all its ambiguity. “Suffering and tragedy and folly will not disappear in a purified world. They are part of humanity. That is why, even in a world of suffering, there can also be joy and shining light.”[18] In the place of the film’s impossible unity of opposites emerges a new image of utopia: an ethical reversal, love out of darkness, and the triumph of negativity in the face of all false hopes.

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References:

[1] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 151.

[2] Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (San Fransisco: VIZ Media, 2012). All citations of the manga refer to the two-volume Deluxe Edition, abbreviated henceforth simply as Nausicaä.

[3] Nausicaä, 1.204.

[4] Nausicaä, 1.80.

[5] Nausicaä, 1.132.

[6] As much as it makes a simple environmentalist message untenable, this disturbance of the idea of nature does not preclude ecological readings of the text. We may refer to the present understanding of ecosystems as systems of disturbance: “Humanists, not used to thinking with disturbance, connect the term with damage. But disturbance, as used by ecologists, is not always bad—and not always human. Human disturbance is not unique in its ability to stir up ecological relations. Furthermore, as a beginning, disturbance is always in the middle of things: the term does not refer us to a harmonious state before disturbance. Disturbances follow disturbances. Thus all landscapes are disturbed; disturbance is ordinary. […] Whether a disturbance is bearable or unbearable is a question worked out through what follows it: the reformation of assemblages.” Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 160.

[7] Nausicaä, 2.175; 2.170; 2.195.

[8] Nausicaä, 2.481.

[9] Nausicaä, 2.439; 2.481.

[10] Nausicaä, 2.438; Kafka cited in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 116.

[11] Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3-4.

[12] Nausicaä, 2.126.

[13] Nausicaä, 2.63.

[14] Nausicaä, 2.372.

[15] Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame (New York: Russell & Russell, 1957), 15.

[16] Nausicaä, 2.506-8.

[17] Nausicaä, 2.511.

[18] Nausicaä, 2.512.

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