Hayao Miyazaki’s epic cli-fi story Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind wedged itself into my heart at an early age. I think I can thank Toonami’s Miyazaki marathons for my first exposure to this captivating post-apocalyptic climate fiction tale. After I sampled the perfection of Miyazaki’s movies during these summer specials as a kid, I began watching them all with my brothers and best friends growing up. Later on, I carried my love of Miyazaki into college as my friends and I began hosting regular Miyazaki movie nights. In my post-graduation life now, I find Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films to be ultimate comfort rewatches. If I’ve got Kiki’s Delivery Service, Whisper of the Heart, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, From Up On Poppy Hill, or Nausicaä on in the background, I am at peak contentment.
There’s something about Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, though, that has stuck with me long after I’ve finished watching. This beautiful, emotional, atmospheric, and haunting story about a world 1,000 years in the future ravaged by war and pollution has etched itself into my memory and given me much to think about.
Craving more of the intoxicating world of Nausicaä, I decided to start reading the manga series Hayao Miyazaki wrote before his 1984 film adaptation. While reading, I became struck by what an incredible addition Miyazaki has made to the cli-fi, or climate fiction, genre. He wrote this story in 1983 and was truly ahead of his time for the powerful environmental messages he wove into its landscape. In the past couple of years, the cli-fi genre has exploded, with more and more books filling shelves and cropping up in discussions alongside climate change. With this in mind, I decided to dig into what an influential and groundbreaking cli-fi classic Miyazki wrote with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
A Little Background On Nausicaä
Nausicaä takes place in the future where earth has been destroyed by war and pollution and a toxic jungle has begun consuming the planet. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Vol. I, Miyazaki writes, “The Sea of Corruption was the new world…an ecological system born in the polluted wastelands created by civilizations long past. Only the great insects could live amongst the giant fungi and miasma they exhaled, and so the earth was slowly submerging beneath that decaying sea” (p. 20).
Despite the direness of the setting, I find myself quite enthralled by the suspense and epic worldbuilding of this climate fiction. Miyazaki goes on to describe the little kingdom on the outskirts of the world that Princess Nausicaä lives in called the Valley of the Wind. In this small haven, the ocean winds have provided some level of protection against the poisonous spores of the Sea of Corruption. Outside of the Valley, ancient cities lie buried beneath the earth, and spores from the toxic jungle spread relentless tendrils out into the world to claim more cities.
When legendary swordsman Lord Yupa discusses the state of the world with Nausicaä’s father, the King of the Valley of the Wind, he wonders at the why behind it all, saying, “If the forest is God’s punishment for man’s pollution of our world, then what reason is there to destroy the plants and birds? They’ve been here far longer than we,” (p. 86). These questions hang in the air over much of the story’s first volume. It is the uniquely gifted Nausicaä who will discover more answers as she studies the complex and mysterious ecosystem of the toxic jungle and attempts to keep the peace between warring nations and the dangerous creatures of the forest.
So, What’s Cli-Fi All About Then?
J.K. Ullrich sheds light on the climate fiction genre in a 2015 piece for The Atlantic, writing, “Often called ‘cli-fi,’ the genre, in short, explores the potential, drastic consequences of climate change.” Ullrich goes on to discuss that while the genre isn’t new, cli-fi has surged in recent years, explaining, “Jules Verne played with the idea in a few of his novels in the 1880s — but the theme of man-made change doesn’t appear in literature until well into the 20th century.” Ullrich (2015) adds, “The British author J.G. Ballard pioneered the environmental apocalypse narrative in books such as The Wind from Nowhere starting in the 1960s. But as public awareness of climate change increased, so did the popularity of these themes…”
Despite the concept of climate fiction harkening back to the days of Jules Verne, more recent discussions of climate change have sparked further interest in the genre.
The Importance of the Cli-Fi Genre
Why is cli-fi important then? In a 2021 Writer’s Digest article, author Marjorie Kellogg distinguishes why reading fiction in this field, not just nonfiction, can have a lasting impact on people. Kellogg describes how “fiction can offer scenarios of how we might deal with these drastic changes on a personal level — as individuals, as a society, and as a species. A well-told tale, involving characters a reader can identify with, will bring home the reality of climate change, especially to the non-scientist…”
While nonfiction may describe how climate change is caused and how it affects the world, it doesn’t ignite quite the same emotional response in the reader as a work of climate fiction might. Within the pages of climate fiction stories, we can more fully envision a world impacted by climate change and consider both its ramifications and possible solutions to prevent and remediate it. Through the characters, we can feel all of the feelings, too.
The Lasting Legacy of Nausicaä In the World of Cli-Fi
According to his essay “On Nausicaä” published in the first volume of Nausicaä’ of the Valley of the Wind (1983), Hayao Miyazaki drew inspiration from both the musically-gifted Phaecian princess Nausicaä in Bernard Evslin’s Japanese translation of a Greek mythology dictionary, and an aristocratic daughter who loves insects in the Japanese stories The Tales of the Past and Present.
Tor writer Leah Schnelbach (2017) adds an extra layer to this mix though, citing the tragic pollution of Minamata Bay in the 1950s-1960s as another influence for Miyazaki’s movie planning. Schnelback (2017) notes that, “The interesting thing to me is that Miyazaki took a horrific injustice that is known throughout Japan, and chose to look past the immediate tragedy. He commented that his imagination sparked because, since no one would fish in the Minamata Bay anymore, sea life there had exploded. He became interested in the way Nature was adapting to the poisons that had been dumped into the bay…”
Instead of focusing solely on the horrific consequences of pollution, Miyazaki explores how the environment can work on healing itself. This distinction truly causes Nausicaä to stand out in the world of climate fiction. And yet, despite the hope for healing amidst the devastation of the world, an atmosphere of melancholy still weaves its way through the narrative.
In volume 1 of Miyazaki’s Nausicaä (1983) manga, Nausicaä ponders, “I’m sure the forest itself was created to cleanse the world…It takes into its body the pollution left in the soil by the old civilizations, turns it into harmless crystals, then dies and turns into sand…if that’s true, then we humans are doomed…Maybe it’s beautiful down here, but what good is a lifeless world where even the insects can’t live? If we humans are the real pollution…” (p. 128).
I love that while Miyazaki plants hope within his heartbreaking story, he also emphasizes the gravity and grief of the matter. Two things can be true. We can hope for a healed world while also mourning the ways in which it has been destroyed.
Hayao Miyazaki, Ahead of His Time
What has stood out to me the most from watching and reading Nausicaä is that Hayao Miyazaki was really ahead of his time with this story. In a piece for NASA, Erik Conway (2008) explores the early usage of the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that people began officially using these words when describing the environment, and Miyazaki published Nausicaä just a few years later in 1983. Miyazaki’s Nausicaä provides such a powerful and moving climate fiction narrative, and I think its impact will continue to reach us in the years to come. I hope that as people read and watch Nausicaä, their hearts will also be touched by this tragic, inspiring, and emotional classic.
Before the wind carries you away, you may want to check out more epic cli-fi reads like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: