Over the past decade or so, Hayao Miyazaki has been linked closely with the Walt Disney Company, primarily due to his films being distributed in the United States by Walt Disney Home Entertainment and the unabashed cheerleading of Pixar chief John Lasseter. I have been generally slow in embracing Miyazaki, more out of laziness than lack of enthusiasm. Thus, when given the opportunity to review the new Blu-Ray release of one the director's earliest efforts, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, I decided it was time to extend my animation education into areas heretofore largely unexplored.
Though released under the Studio Ghibli brand, Nausicaa actually preceded the creation of that now famous Japanese animation powerhouse. Shortly after the film's release in 1984, Miyazaki teamed with fellow director Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suziki to form Studio Ghibli. The studio released Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky in 1986 and Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. I personally rate Grave of the Fireflies as one of the very best animated films ever made, Japanese, American or otherwise.
Nausicaa was Miyazaki's second directing effort, following The Castle of Cagliostro, released in 1979. It has a somewhat controversial English language pedigree; it was initially released to American audiences as Warriors of the Wind in a heavily edited English-dubbed version that severely compromised Miyazaki's original vision for the film. It led to Studio Ghibli later insisting on a "no edits" edict for foreign releases of their films. Buena Vista released a restored edition of the film on DVD in 2005, which included a new and much more faithful English language track, and also the original Japanese language version with subtitles. This week's release upgrades that edition to a high definition Blu-Ray format.
Although Miyazaki is generally held in high regard, his work is not quite as universally acclaimed as one might assume from Lasseter's glowing accolades. Even superficial research will produce a wide range of varying opinions, especially among animation scholars such as Michael Barrier, Michael Sporn and Amid Amidi. In a similar vein, my reaction to Nausicaa proved more reserved than I expected. It was an interesting film but quite underwhelming in visual dynamic and technique. I found much of the animation to be static and lacking energy; backgrounds were often sparse and minimal and character animation was generic at best. I simply could not find the level of quality that I have heard others enthusiastically describe. Miyazaki has since made films that I sincerely admire for all the things I found lacking here. It's not a bad film and does indeed have many merits, but it is by no means a masterpiece.Also released this week from Studio Ghibli was Tales from Earthsea, directed by Goro Miyazaki, who is the son of Hayao. Curiously, it was only released in standard DVD format. The film adapts material from author Ursula K. Le Guin's classic fantasy series and was released in Japan in 2006. Disney did a limited theatrical release of the film last summer. Le Guin fans will find the movie a distinct departure in story from the first four Earthsea books it purportedly adapts. Le Guin herself was especially disappointed in the film in that regard.