EDIT: I apologize for the delay, but as I was writing this yesterday, my daughter decided to somersault out of her bedroom window, so her mother and I spent most of the day in the emergency room. She (and we) are more or less fine, but it has resulted in a bit of a delay.
I think I’ve already mentioned (but am too nasally congested to confirm) that I have regularly been in the position to recommend a manga text to other comics scholars who want something “indicative” to teach in their classes, without needing to delve into the absolute quagmire in which I regularly perform the backstroke. On the few occasions I don’t roll my eyes and try to take the request in the spirit which it was made, I always say, without even pausing to consider, “Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” [hereafter Naushika]. Many are aware of a film by that name and assume that I don’t know the difference between manga and anime (“how gauche!”), though most simply respond with a quizzical “wat.” I am always disappointed by this reaction and immediately go back to rollings of eyes and takings not seriously.
But it is hard to find one single manga text that is more widely known (in Japan) or more heavily treated in scholarly critique (in Japan). The character Naushika regularly topped polls in the 80s and 90s for favorite character, and when Naushika finally ended its run in 1994, it was an event that rippled throughout Japanese pop culture. Its themes encompass a wide variety of still relevant topics such as ecological disaster, how one deals with the hidden secrets of a civilization or culture, what it means to die, and how to be human when in all likelihood soon there will be no more humanity. When I first suggested writing a piece for Classics and Comics about Naushika, the editors, for whom I have the greatest respect, were doubtful as to whether or not it was even worth reading. I managed to finally convince them for the followup volume, but convincing people to take this comic seriously has been a rather difficult struggle, and one whose difficulty continues to perplex me.
The Crypts of Ancient Knowledge
I would be the first to admit that Naushika is a difficult text: difficult to get into, difficult to decipher, and, most importantly for yours truly, difficult to discuss without quickly getting sidetracked. In the piece mentioned above (which will appear whenever the lethargic gods of academic publishing deem the volume to be ready), I get into some detail as to what makes Naushika difficult, namely the way it conceals (even as it hints at) the relationship between this text and its several pasts. It’s entirely possible–and many have–to read this text as a kind of ecological fable, about stewardship of the environment at a time when humanity’s own mistakes have rendered that environment fundamentally hostile to the continued existence of the human species. It’s also possible to read Naushika the character under the rubric of Saitō Tamaki’s sentō bishōjo or “beautiful fighting girl.” It’s also possible to read Naushika as an allegory of the clash of civilizations (in the refigured “East” and “West” of the Dorok and Torumekian empires) or a coming-of-age story or a tale of familial hardship and so forth. There are many perfectly reasonable points of entry into Naushika, but what frustrates anyone of them is the degree to which they are all intertwined. So, if on top of that, one were to argue that there is a highly coded subtext to the whole thing, I’d imagine a reader might just throw up her hands in frustration.
The subtext “one” might identify has to do with the story’s orientation toward the artifacts of the past, especially those artifacts of technology that were both the source of humanity’s current problems and a muted but pervasive presence subtly manipulating all of humankind’s remaining peoples. Most of the revelation of this fact comes at the end of vol. 6 and throughout vol. 7 (the final two volumes), but there are hints at this inevitable revelation on the very first page.
The inside cover of the seven volume collected edition of Naushika (though not the issues of Animage in which it first appeared) reminds the reader of catastrophic event called “the seven days of fire” that occurred a thousand years back in Naushika‘s past. At that time, “giant god warriors” (kyoshinhei) bathed the land in fire, destroying much of the existing plant and animal life, and shortly thereafter died off. In the third panel of the first volume, we see Naushika fly past a pair of these god warrior’s heads, now overgrown with the toxic-spore-bearing plant life that make humanity survival in this post-apocalyptic world such a strenuous affair. I love this image, because it is a wonderful metaphor for how these remnants of the past function in the text: largely concealed and only apparent to those who already know what they are. Naushika nonchalantly glides past, because, as we see in the subsequent pages, the ancient hulks of the god warriors are not her primary concern.
Naushika: I should be able to fly with just one of these… / kachin BOOM / Got it! It’s so light! / so beautiful…
Now, you may be wondering why, given that there is a perfectly serviceable translation of Naushika in print, I would resort to my old ad hoc translations. Well, no offence to Matt Thorn, but I will need to pay far closer attention to the language of the original than his translation seems to. Not that I think Mr. Thorn is to be taken to task for his choices, rather the one [authorized] translation as it stands is a clear manifestation of what I always emphasize in translation seminars, that the practice of translation basically amounts to a series of bad choices. No one is exempt from this.
As in those introductory panels, it is Naushika’s indifference to the god warriors that later undermines her relationship with the one remaining giant, and it is the subtle changes in the god warrior’s speech patterns that herald the climactic conflict between the master of the crypt’s paternalistic “desire” to preserve what humankind was (the muted presence alluded to earlier) and Naushika’s maternalistic “desire” to use the crypt’s own technology (i.e. the god warrior) to destroy its lingering presence and thereby preserve humankind as it is, even if that means the species’ inevitable passing from this world.
This is a good point to note just how different the Naushika film and manga are. Though begun at roughly the same time (Miyazaki and Suzuki Toshio, the film’s producer, differ as to what preceded what), the film premiered in 1984, while the manga, with intermittent starts and stops for Miyazaki to work on the deservedly famous animated films that established him as one of Japan’s greatest living directors, ran for another decade in the pages of Animage. Moreover, those volumes that continue on after the part of the plot the film covers drastically rework it, likely in response to the film’s rather uncomplicated messianic ending: Naushika saves everyone, everyone cheers, music swells, hope lingers on. Naushika’s status as a savior in the manga, however, is predicated on a profound lie. Naushika commands the god warrior to destroy the crypt, which it does, and conspires with one of the people of the forest (i.e. the toxic forest), Selm, never to let anyone know that the knowledge preserved within the crypt may be the only means for humanity to survive once the world has been “purified.”
How Robots Grow Up
In the Naushika film, the god warrior is a senseless thing, little more than a tool, commanded by Kushana to annihilate the rampaging giant insect Ohmu. Even as it performs this task, it falls apart. The manga’s god warrior, though, has a subjectivity all it’s own, and the rapid development of its speech represents a kind of accelerated psychological development. Though the reader’s first glimpse of this giant comes comes in the first volume, where it is being quarried from the ground, it isn’t a salient part of the narrative until the end of the sixth volume, where it immediately imprints upon Naushika.
Kyoshinhei: ……it’s…mama / yes! you were my mama!
Kyo: good–mama not here very scary……
Though the god warrior’s identification of Naushika as its mother was purely a coincidence of her holding the giant’s control module, nevertheless she accepts this role, albeit in a rather perverse form.
Naushika: Yupa-sama! Kushana-san!
Naushika: This child is the same as a newborn babe / This child and I will go to Shuwa.
Kushana: to Shuwa!
Naushika: this child is my child; together we will go there to close the doors of the crypt.
The god warrior’s speech, entirely in katakana as it is, could be read one of several ways, but it is likely meant to emphasize both the childish and the robotic/mechanical nature of its expressions. For, in doing so, it hearkens back to another famous moment of robot “birth,” the creation of Tezuka Osamu’s character Astro Boy by Dr. Tenma.
Tenma: Can you see me? / If you can see me, respond.
Tenma: Not like that! / Try to speak with the words in your memory banks using your voice module.
Astro: Ye…s… / I…can…see…you……
Tenma: Yes! Excellent! / Tobio [Astro’s given name]… I am your father. / Try saying “father.”
“Tobio’s” speech, entirely in katakana as it is, also plays on this ambivalence between childish and robotic speech. Moreover, it should be more than obvious that the god warrior’s enforced imprinting on Naushika is the mirror image of Tenma’s projection of his recently deceased son on this newly made robot, both in the inversion of genders (mother vs. father) and in the inversion of which half of the parent/child duality is forcing the relationship. Oddly, though, Naushika is also being put in the role of the child inheriting her “parents'” legacy. Seeing this is far more complicated and requires an in depth familiarity with classic mecha texts.
The iconic image of Shōtarō commanding #28 to fight crime is eerily analogous both to Kushana directing the god warrior in the Naushika film and Naushika manipulating it into destroying the Crypt at Shuwa. The differences too, though, are telling, especially when #28 is a silent machine much more in the mold of giant robots and mechanical suits that are, more or less, mere extensions of their controller’s will. The manga’s god warrior, on the other hand, has a will of its own, and Naushika regularly finds herself in the position of trying to calm it down or convince it to do her bidding. The relationship between this ersatz mother and child is more interpersonal than “man and machine” might imply.
God Warrior/Ohma: [I am] Ohma! Child of Naushika of the Valley of the Wind! / Ohma, a warrior encircled by a halo, shall serve as arbiter.
Another important change is signaled here in the god warrior’s language: it has moved from being a childlike beast, hunching and roaring, to a fully erect arbiter of justice speaking classical Japanese (or a reasonable approximation). Thorn, in his translation, has “gird in rings of light” here which, while it conveys the archaic nature of the language, fails to get across the religious implications of the word kōrin (which is, perhaps, literally “light rings”), a technical term for the halo or fiery nimbus in the iconography of various world religions. The god warrior isn’t just handing down judgement but divine judgement, in keeping with the second character in kyoshinhei 巨神兵, i.e. “god” or “divine being.” This movement from beast to heavenly creature, notably, skips over the classic middle ground of medieval theology, human being.
Ohma, like #28, is an uneasily inherited artifact of the past. Shōtarō’s father created #28 during the second world war as a weapon to fight the Allies. The robot never having been put into service, after his father’s death, Shōtarō uses it instead to fight crime. Thus a tool of war is converted into a tool of justice. Ohma too, created by the ancient civilization that the knowledge embedded within the master of the crypt is meant to preserve, was created for a different purpose, to pass judgement on humanity in the “seven days of fire,” now re-purposed by Naushika to destroy the very thing that engendered it. But while #28 does little to remind one of the war for which it was made, in Naushika the horror of the Pacific War and the Japanese experience thereof is kept front and center, every time the god warrior’s beam weapon is shown to be nuclear in nature.
Reading Naushika, I imagine “mecha” is not the first thing to spring to mind, but it both draws heavily upon and revises established classics of the mecha milieu. More than that, Naushika has had a clear impact on subsequent mecha texts, though not so much manga as anime. Anno Hideaki, who got his first break as an animator for the god warrior sequence at the end of the Naushika film, draws heavily upon the themes and even the character designs of Miyazaki’s manga. Until recently, I hadn’t even noticed the similarities between the EVA units and the god warriors, but when brought together, it seems almost obvious. Given how in the second episode of Shin seiki evangerion Unit 01’s armor peels off over the eye and is revealed underneath to be organic in nature, it’s not exactly far-fetched to claim that in many ways the EVAs are akin to god warriors in futuristic armor. Additionally, the dramatic turn in the climactic episodes of Gasaraki (a show it seems no one has even heard of anymore, despite being produced by legendary real-robo innovator Takahashi Ryōsuke) comes when the titular gasaraki armor is revealed to be a conduit into the present for a long past alien race, in a scene clearly reminiscent of Naushika’s encounter with the specters of the past in the crypt of Shuwa.
I apologize, if this post has run needlessly long, but Naushika is a text that I have both professionally and personally been heavily invested. I cannot discuss it at anything but great length. Moreover, all of this is necessary to counter the dismissive attitude that sees the Naushika manga as a perhaps impenetrable curiosity, for, far from being outside the manga mainstream, when read closely, Miyazaki’s text is revealed to be profoundly embedded within manga history, particularly the history of mecha, and heavily invested in what Japanese media culture was and would become.
Next week: a tale of two Ghost’s, “Cartesian” philosophy of mind, and the dual origins of illustrative style in mecha manga
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