Nausicaä and the Noise of the Earth

Nausicaä takes flight alongside one of the insects from the toxic jungle, known as the Sea of Decay.

This week I finally watched Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).  What a fantastic film!  Of course, I am a huge Miyazaki fan, and consider just about every one of his works to be masterful achievements.  Even his more “family-oriented” productions have an artistry, complexity, and a social and political commitment that are largely beyond compare in North American entertainment.  Nausicaä is, in many ways, a prototypical example of Miyazaki’s oeuvre, with its courageous young female protagoinst, its thematic focus on ecological crises, the central role of images of flight, its apocalyptic tone.

In the Sea of Decay.

The narrative takes place in a future in which human beings have scorched the earth in a devastating “Seven Days of Fire”.  This precipitates an ecological disaster that has left much of the planet either a desert wasteland or, more threateningly, a toxic jungle of strange fungal trees that spew deadly spores and a poisonous miasma, where reside gigantic insects that are quick to turn on human interlopers.

Nausicaä is a young princess from the Valley of Wind, an oasis in the desert where the inhabitants live under constant threat from the insects, the encroaching jungle, as well as from the two belligerent military empires that surround this small fringe principality.  She has a mysterious sensitivity toward living things in general: we discover that she is a gifted botanist and has an intuitive power to relate with animals.  Most importantly, she shares a special connection with the giant insects, including the Ohmu, enormous flea-like creatures who serve as the spiritual guardians of the forest.

Ohmu attack!

As for the plot, which I won’t dwell on here, the crash-landing of an imperial ship sets off a chain of events in which Nausicaä encounters individuals from the warring empires, journeys deep beneath the sea of decay to learn its secrets, and, finally, prevents a battle between her people, a stampeding herd of enraged Ohmu, and a small imperial army who have awakened a genetically-engineered weapon known as the Giant Warrior, or God Warrior, a humanoid creature whose kind were responsible for the Seven Days of Fire.

What intrigues me about Nausicaä is the way in which it links up a discourse on the catastrophe of war with a discourse on ecological catastrophe, drawing out a conceit that the two are indissoluble.  The film helps to shed light on the political ecology that Michel Serres develops in The Natural Contract and in the newer volume on pollution, Malfeasance.  In the opening pages of The Natural Contract, Serres recalls one of my favourite episodes from the Iliad, in which Achilles, roused from his tent by the death of Patroclus, rampages across the battlefield, filling the river Scamander with the corpses of Trojan soldiers.  The waters are so befouled with the bodies of the dead that the banks burst and the river god himself emerges to pursue Achilles, flooding the plains of Troy in the process.  The soldier initially flees from the Scamander, but prays to the gods for aid.  Athene and Poseidon grant Achilles strength to face the river, and Hera calls upon Hephaestus to “Explode in a burst of fire” (Homer 21.380), which he does, laying waste to the plains:

                                                    Hera’s command—
and Hephaestus launched his grim inhuman blaze.
First he shot into flames and burned the plain,
ignited hordes of corpses, squads Achilles slaughtered—
he scorched the whole plain and the shining river shrank.
Hard as the autumn North Wind hits a leveled field
just drenched in a downpour, quickly dries it off
and the farmer is glad and starts to till his soil—
so the whole plain was parched and the god of fire devoured
all the dead, then blazing in all his glory veered for the river—
an inferno—the elms burned, the willows and tamarisks burned
and the lotus burned and the galingale and reeds and rushes,
all that flourished along the running river’s lush banks
and the eels writhed and fish in the whirlpools leapt high,
breaking the surface left and right in a sheen of fire,
gasping under the Master Smith Hephaestus’ blast
and now the river’s strength was burning out,
he panted the god’s name . . . (21.388-405)

There is much I will leave unsaid about this scene of the Iliad, in which the queen of the gods commands her son, crook-legged god of technics, the master of the forge, of fire and metallurgy, to inflict a holocaust on the Ilian plain and immolate even the unburied dead.

In any event, Serres invokes this moment of Homer’s epic in order to raise a question of how we understand the place of battle, as well as how we cast the participants of war: “Must we distinguish two battles: the historical war waged by Achilles against his enemies and the blind violence done to the river?” (Natural Contract 2).  What is the relation of the combatants to the world in which they do combat?  Unlike Homer, we most often make backdrops of the rivers and plains where war takes place.  In the “spectacles” of warfare, Serres writes that,

the adversaries most often fight to the death in an abstract space, where they struggle alone, without marsh or river.  Take away the world around the battles, keep only conflicts or debates, thick with humanity and purified of things, and you obtain stage theatre, most of our narratives and philosophies, history, and all of social science: the interesting spectacle they call cultural.  Does anyone say where the master and slave fight it out?

Our culture abhors the world.  (Natural Contract 3)

With the erasure of the world and the purification of historical conflict as human conflict, the violence done to the world withdraws from attention as well.

But we never speak of the damage inflicted on the world itself by these wars, once the number of soldiers and the means of fighting grow in strength.  With the declaration of war, the belligerents do not consciously accept this damage, but in reality they tolerate it unawares.  There’s no clear consciousness of the risks incurred, except, sometimes, by the wretched, the third parties excluded from noble struggles: that picture of the field of corn devastated by the knightly battle, we don’t remember anymore if we saw it as an illustration in old history texts or in those books to which the schools of the past gave the marvelous name, “object lessons”. . . .

Does the contemporary retreat before a worldwide conflict come from the fact that from now on what is at stake is things rather than people? and the global rather than the local?  Is history stopping in the face of nature?  At any rate that’s how the Earth became the common enemy.  (10)

The Earth is the common enemy, but not a formally acknowledge one.  Serres emphasizes that war is, formally, a legal institution, requiring formal declarations to begin and concluded with truces and treaties.  As a legal political phenomenon, it is a regulated form of violence, as opposed to the “pure violence” of lex talionis.  War is co-constituted with the social contract, means of violent confrontation that is governed by prior judicial agreements.  The world, on the other hand, is the excluded third which the legal combatants do battle against in common in order to settle their dispute amongst each other.

A discussion of noise becomes vital to his argument at this point of The Natural Contract, which makes for interesting reading from a media-theory standpoint.  For Serres, noise is the common enemy that two (adversarial) interlocutors agree to combat as they attempt to make themselves heard.  He presents an interesting philological discussion that links noise to fighting and that can, in turn, lead us back to Nausicaä:

And we no longer remember that the (now quite rare) word noise, used (in French) only in the sense of quarrel—in the expression chercher noise (to pick a quarrel)—that this word, in the Old French from which it comes, meant tumult and furor.  English took from us the sense of sound while we kept that of battle.  Still further back, in the original Latin, the heaving of water could be heard, the roaring and lapping.  Nauticus: navy, nausea (do we get seasick from hearing?), noise.  (8)

The world of nonhumans, of things, our common enemy as we fight amongst ourselves, that which we contemn, which we try to drown out and scorch barren so that human history can proceed, this is the noise of the battle, the roar of the surging water and, I’m sure, the howling of the wind.

“Excelling in ships.” Nausicaä rides Mehve, her jet-assisted wing glider, pursued by imperial corvettes. Somewhere there is a dissertation to be written on Miyazaki’s aircraft designs.

In the Greek, Nausicaä means “excelling in ships,” and Miyazaki’s character lives up to her name as a gifted aerial pilot who can “read the wind intuitively.”  She reads the noise of the wind, but also the noise of battle.  Following a pivotal scene early in the film, where she displays her fighting prowess (as well as her capacity for blind rage) by slaughtering a room of heavily armed imperial guards with a cane, Nausicaä is a committed pacifist; however, she understands war and is able to navigate the various conflicts in which she finds herself embroiled because she can read and exploit the shifts in a battle.  (Her insights into military strategy and her ability to take advantage of the confusion that arises on the battlefield are emphasized much more in the manga.)  More to the point, Nausicaä is the noise, the noise of the world, of enormous insects buzzing and fungal spores bursting, the noise that interrupts or jams the conflicts between human beings.

Nausicaä and the wounded Ohmu youngling.

The final scene, which I briefly mentioned above, is crucial in this connection.  Nausicaä’s people are holed up in a derelict ship while an imperial army, equipped with tanks and heavy artillery, and led by the emperor’s daughter, Kushana, prepare to wipe them out.  Meanwhile, the opposing empire has provoked the rage of the Ohmu by capturing and mortally wounding one of their young.  They have strung up the young insect and hung it bleeding from the bottom of a flying machine, using it as a lure to guide the stampeding herd of enormous insects toward their enemies.  As the stampede approaches, Kushana prematurely unleashes the God Warrior, a grotesque, hulking mass of dripping flesh that drags itself toward the battlefield. In a scene that recalls the “grim inhuman blaze” Hephaestus launches on the Scamander at his mother’s command, the God Warrior unleashes a number of devastating energy attacks on the Ohmu, though it is unable to slow their numbers before completely decomposing.  In the midst of all this, Nausicaä manages to hijack the machine carrying the baby and sets down between the onrush of berserk insects and the helpless human combatants.  She is struck by the herd, but the return of the young Ohmu quells the others and ultimately brings an end to the threat on all sides.  Though Nausicaä is mortally wounded, the insects revive her, fulfilling an ancient messianic prophesy.

Just as Hera ordered the crippled Hephastus to lay waste to the onrushing river Scamander, Princess Kushana unleashes the God Warrior against the stampeding Ohmu.

The point I would like to make is that Nausicaä suspends the hostilities between people with the noise of the Earth.  She puts the Earth front and centre as the common enemy that is violated with impunity, as it is subject to no legal contract or alliance.  Part of Serres’ agenda in The Natural Contract is much the same as Nausicaä’s here: to call for a formal acknowledgement of the excluded third and to suggest we forge a contract with the world of nonhuman entities so that the violence done to that world can be institutionally stabilized and, ultimately, brought to an orderly end.  Nausicaä holds out the promise of such a contract, the actions of the Ohmu in healing the princess hinting at the beginnings of alliance between the human beings, the forest, and its insectile denizens.  That is not to say that the film ends unambiguously.  The people of the Valley of Wind are forced to burn their own crops and trees when the imperial troops inadvertently bring toxic spores to the valley.  In the epilogue that plays during the final credits, we see the villagers send the troops packing, but there is no indication of a final end to the human war.  While the narrative arc indeed reaches closure, there is no guarantee that the cycles of violence are over.

Ever since I read The Natural Contract a number of years ago, the problem I have had with Serres’ proposal for a legal agreement lies in the fact that, no matter how much abstraction and linguistic play he may apply to his argument, he still derives his notion of the natural contract from the tradition of social contract theory running from Hobbes through Rousseau.  The humanistic conceits of social contract theory inevitably presuppose a mutual (though not necessarily symmetrical) acknowledgement and recognition among the contractors.  Is it not a further violation to subject the Earth to a legal institution formed in a very specific society of human beings, of which it holds no knowledge?

The problems of Serres’ position in The Natural Contract, specifically surrounding the notion of war as a legal institution, are compounded by the new paradigms of conflict that have arisen in the decades since its initial publication in 1990, paradigms that have thoroughly destabilized the juridicial structures of warfare.  In Malfeasance, which appeared in French in 2008, Serres updates his position in light of a globalized world of ever-more tenuous and permeable borders:

However, in the new space without borders implying a new state of no-right, war is over. . . . Now nonlegal, violent relations are erupting, which we call terrorist, and which had already emerged during the Terror in France.  The war is also ending because an unrivaled contemporary superpower cannot prevail, even at gigantic expense, over one of the weakest nations.  How much would a confrontations with an identical power cost?  The old wars are no longer affordable.  The old power and the old wealth are useless.  The end of this historic war, the legal one, leaves us without rights, which is the riskiest of all possible dangers.  The disappearance of spatial limits announces the end of legal limits.  The end of war hands us over to unrestrained violence, at the risk of apocalypse.  (Malfeasance 81-82; original ellipses)

The unrestrained violence he speaks of here is not simply the violence of military conflicts, of international and intranational terrorisms, of occupations, apparent democratizations, security measures, and civil conflicts.  It is the violence wrought by an integrated world market.  It is the violence done by pollution of all sorts, which is always borderless, or border-destroying, and indicative of our enmity toward the world.

The war against the world replaces, integrates, summons, adds . . . and terminates all the wars among men.  Peace with the world requires peace between men.  We will be saved from apocalypse if an only if all the humans of all the countries unite without borders to make the world their partner.  (Malfeasance 84; original ellipses)

Of course, this solution is much too grand, and for that reason, far to vague, to be of much practical use.  Even if the totality of human beings could unite in peace, the question remains as to how they would make the world their partner, a world, moreover, that is not itself singular but comprised of an infinitely variegated multitude of entities, many of whom we have yet to discover, each with its own ontology.  A peace treaty with the Earth thus faces an enormous problem of representation, in all its political, epistemological, and aesthetic senses.

In Miyazaki’s film, the Ohmu serve as representatives of the toxic jungle from which they hail.  They are clearly intelligent and able to communicate with human beings, if not speak in the linguistic sense (they do speak in the manga, emphasizing their rationality).  That is the privilege and the power of speculative fiction and the narrative genres of the fantastic.  I don’t think we are so lucky in our “war of everyone against everything” (Natural Contract 15).  The so-called natural world, the world of everything, is unable to (or, to be more agnostic about it, simply does not) acknowledge us with the intentionality and self-possession required of the juridicial institution of the contract.  (As if we ourselves are capable, in every instance without exception, of such mutual recognition!)  How does one communicate, let alone forge a partnership, with the noise itself?

Nevertheless, the first step of our political and ethical task seems clear.  As both Miyazaki and Serres suggest, we must chercher noise, not just pick a quarrel, at which we are already more than proficient, but look for the battles we are waging at the same time we battle amongst ourselves.  We must discover ways to listen better for the ecological tumult that sounds, often in silence, between our own quarrels.

The silent tumult.

Works Cited

Serres, Michel. Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution? Trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. Print.

Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract. Trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Pulson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

Miyazaki, Hayao, dir. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind [Kaze no Tani no Naushika]. 1984. Buena Vista, 2005. DVD.

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6 thoughts on “Nausicaä and the Noise of the Earth”

  1. Thanks for this fantastic analysis, I read it in August and then again today after watching a screening of Nausicaa at a small theatre. Each time I view the film, another deeply prescient and (for lack of a better word) important facet strikes me in a shocking way. This viewing yielded the futility of man’s industrial material technology as the medium of attaining balance and salvation – the easily missed reference to the wrecked spacecraft at the edge of the Acid Lake, “the one they say went beyond the stars”, – human aspirations of flight and space travel a wrecked husk of corroding metal among many, steadily reclaimed by the Earth. An operational modality completely dismissed in the West, man not some Thing outside the natural order, the suggestion that only through a symbiotic relationship with “The World” rather than its subjugation can humanity access further dimensions and transcend physical limitations; the Ohm are healers, capable of inducing visions, communicating on a telepathic, “shamanic” level, they are an interface to a Gaian planetary overmind with which man has lost contact, a loss of connection that prefigures mankind’s self destruction.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Nice observation on the wrecked spacecraft. There’s something intriguing about the relationship that those in the world of Nausicaä hold to the past. There are those, like the inhabitants of the Valley of Wind, who scavenge or “mine” for materials and technologies from the ruined civilization, but who seem to me to use those things to forge a new culture. On the other hand, there are those like the Tourmekians, who wish to resurrect the old civilization in its own right. There is something here about living intimately with a history, a largely forgotten and irretrievable history, but using that history as the storehouse for new ways of living, rather than as something to repeat or relive.

      The Gaian theme is certainly a huge part of the film, but is even more powerful, I think, in the manga. Have you read it?

    1. Insofar as they both address themes of ecological endangerment, for sure. Though as far as I’m concerned, and my apologies if you’re an Avatar fan, Cameron’s film isn’t even in the same league as Miyazaki’s. While Nausicaä is certainly not Miyazaki’s most subtle work, the world it presents is still far more nuanced than the starkly moralized world of Avatar. Cameron practically bludgeons the audience with his fim’s message for three hours, using a cast of stock characters to push the point home. Miyazaki introduces much more ambiguity with much more complex characters. Unlike the snarling, scarred commander or the slimy corporate toady looking for unobtainium, no one in Miyazaki’s film emerges as the stark villain. (As an aside, I laughed out loud in the theatre the first time I heard them talk about unobtainium; it’s so ridiculously blunt as to be almost insulting to the audience.) Princess Kushana, for instance, is beautifully developed as a tragically wounded warrior who acts out of an idealistic hope for her people and who commands their sincere love and devotion. If there is one problem I did have with the film, it is that princess Nausicaä herself is almost impossibly capable, courageous, and compassionate, though the early scene where she goes totally berserk points to an inner conflict that deepens her character. In many ways, she is comparable to Ellen Ripley from Cameron’s Aliens, though, again, the world Ripley inhabits is a very Manichaean one.

      I know that Cameron keeps tabs on the world of anime, and the influence in Avatar is pretty clear, I think. A closer comparison would be Princess Mononoke, which is one of Miyazaki’s very best works. I would be more than surprised to hear that Avatar takes no influence from it. But I don’t feel that Cameron learns any lessons about how to build a world and characters with much moral complexity in the same way Miyazaki does.

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