art and article by Havi Rojer
A masked figure stands at the edge of a forest unlike any on earth. Instead of trees, giant fungi stretch towards the sky, folding and unfurling in strange, mesmerizing patterns. Glowing spores float gently around a young woman named Nausicaä, who carefully catches one in a glass vial. She walks deeper into the strange forest, stopping to marvel at the shed exoskeleton of a gargantuan, insectile creature. Only one thing about this scene feels familiar: Nausicaä never removes her mask. However, this is not due to a respiratory virus. Instead, in this fantastical world, the air itself is poisonous to all of humanity.
This is the opening scene of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a 1000+ page manga epic by Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is best known as the director and creator of Studio Ghibli films. While many Ghibli movies incorporate political messages into their plots, none are as blatantly obvious as Nausicaä, which was Miyazaki’s first full manga and, later, a film that allowed him to create Studio Ghibli. The basic plot of Nausicaä (without giving away any spoilers) centers around a scattered humanity’s attempt to survive in a far-off future world that was poisoned by their ancestors. The poison, called “miasma,” is especially concentrated around fungal forests, like the one in the opening scene. Human settlements are built far from these deadly growths, yet everyone must still wear gas masks whenever they leave their villages, or else they will die a slow, painful death. The bleakness of Nausicaä’s world seems inescapable.
This year, we have seen rapid change in our own society. Less than a year ago, wearing masks in public (at least in the US) was a little strange at best. Now, they are ubiquitous. Our whole world has turned upside down in the past few months, but we have changed to meet it. However, despite the progress we have made in dealing with the pandemic, we are still on track towards a world like Nausicaä’s for different reasons. Miyazaki may not have seen COVID coming when he wrote Nausicaä thirty years ago, but he tackled the increasing threat of climate change with undeniable prescience. We are still killing our planet, even as we actively work to prevent a virus from killing us in the meantime. Our masks are a necessary precaution, but even once we eventually make it through this coronavirus pandemic, we may still have to wear them for the same reasons as Nausicaä, when our polluted earth becomes inhospitable.
The fact is, we need to treat the threat of climate change with the same gravity we give to COVID. The crude oil and lumber companies that are causing the worst harm must be put on lockdown until we can establish a viable way to live off the earth without destroying it. Our home is quickly sickening from a plague that we are amplifying, and we are running out of time before the fantasy world of Nausicaä becomes our reality.
The characters in Nausicaä have not given up hope. The world around them may be poisonous, but they continue to fight for the survival of themselves and their loved ones. They build meaningful relationships and invent new technology to better persevere in their challenging environment. The world itself has turned against them, and although their bodies have not adapted, their way of thinking, living, and interacting has. We have to do the same.
Miyazaki ends the story on a note of uncertainty. Will the characters be able to survive the challenges ahead of them? Will they destroy themselves before the world does? Either way, as the story ends, Nausicaä turns to the people around her with the only true words she can offer them:
“No matter how difficult it is, we must live.”
No matter how difficult the journey ahead is, COVID in the short-term, and climate change in the long-term, we can only continue to live and work to make the world around us better. For now, at least, that must be enough.