This graphic novel is as rich a world-creation as any I've seen. It contains surprising plot twists which often hinge on some character's psychological growth, and new and interesting life-forms which evolved from genetic engineering experiments.
"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 the miasma they exhaled, and so the earth was slowly submerging beneath that decaying sea .. A thousand years had passed since the mammoth industrial civilizations of the past had diminished, and faded into the dark vastness of time. It was the closing of the Ceramic Era."
Set in the post-apocalyptic kingdom of Torumekia, it begins in the Valley of Wind, where our soon-to-be heroine Nausicaä is flying around in her mehve (a glider). She gets a telepathic message of pain and anger, and sets out to find its source. It took me awhile to get into the story, but when I did, I was hooked.
Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind is full of political intrigue, subtle psychological interactions, war strategy, and big explosions in the air. It also contains surprising episodes with the numinous, including encounters with an evil man both in ordinary physical reality and in non-ordinary reality, where he appears as dark energies; a surprising journey down the gullet of a giant bug leading to the Buddhist PureLand; and another trip to a trickster place where nothing is as it seems. Encounters with holy beings are here, as well as with political beings masquerading as holy. The best parts, though, are these:
1) Many of the strongest characters, including the protagonist heroine, are young women and girls. The male characters are seen first challenging them and then becoming respectful aides-de-camp. Furthermore, these women are allowed to be nurturing - in one scene, Nausicaa takes in orphaned children - but are not seeking wife-and-motherhood as the inevitable triumphant end to their adventures. They have important work to do, and their very femaleness leads them to do it differently than a male character would.
2) The author does not beat you over the head about good and evil - each being is portrayed as having both elements. Miyazaki has accomplished the rare feat of creating a piece of fiction which revolves around warring factions and is centered on the adventures of a small-village eco-heroine, in which nevertheless you as a reader are not allowed to purely hate any of the characters. The concept of satyagraha subtly emanates from the piece, as Nausicaa's encounters with the various characters reveal their complexity both as individuals and as beings in cultural context. Neither they nor the affairs they find themselves wrapped up in are simplistic, so you can't easily dismiss them as `the bad guys'.
3) The story promulgates a vitally needed animistic message, without being sickly sweet about it or overly proselytizing. The entire book is based on the idea that we're in a post-apocalyptic world due to unthinking actions, which continue on in some of the scenes. When one faction releases a biological weapon, all the characters are forced to deal with the consequences of that action. Manga is a wonderful medium for getting vital messages like that across without bashing people on the head. Further in the story, the concept of earth attempting to regenerate itself using its own intelligence appears. Animals, including those used as `warhorses,' become valued and life-saving friends. And in the ongoing war to breathe, it's not simply put as `good humans - bad bugs', or `bad humans - look what we did'. The Ohmu, a type of giant forest insect which look a lot like a mountain with multiple eyes and horns, or like some mutant armored potato bug thing found in a traditional Japanese B-horror movie ("Invasion of the Giant Insects!"), are portrayed here as being extremely deep-thinking and wise beings, who act altruistically more than once. They are, for my nickel, the most interesting new fictional species to come around in years.
4) The way Miyazaki deals with the Ohmu, as well as with many other elements in his story, is to let the reader unravel the puzzle herself. Many characters are afraid of the Ohmu, and it's only through Nausicaa's adventures that we learn to think differently. This subtlety is most refreshing in a genre which is more often full of overt tits leaning over a sinkful of machine guns.
Other interesting living inventions are the conscious weapon "God-Warrior," which shoots plutonium when angered, the weirdly created Heedra, the forests of fungi, and the loyal mounts known as "horseclaws." The book is also rich culturally, including such peoples as the Wormhandlers, who wrangle insects and are sort of the Untouchables of the times; the Forest People, who wear heavy gear and are the only ones that can survive deep in the miasma; the Vai Emperor and Torumekian overlords; the Dorok tribespeople; and the monk caste guarding the Holy City of Shuwa, where all the trouble began.
The only part which bounced me out of the necessary suspension of disbelief was the ubiquitousness of the heavy flying machines. In a land where industrial civilization has been gone for thousands of years, there's an amazing preponderance of heavy artillery. Besides the machine guns, the rival forces do a lot of zooming around in these clunky air transport machines - including the inventive "flying jars" - but nowhere is the matter of refueling addressed. In a work which pays a great deal of attention to everyday nitty-gritty details - people get dirty and hungry, clothes fall apart, the quality of air masks is questioned - this is a big one to overlook.
Miyazaki makes use of fantastic fiction's lauded ability to convey warnings of things to come if we continue with business-as-usual, such as genetic engineering; and he does it in a way that I find shocking through its very subtlety: "They say that once, man remolded the plants and animals to his pleasure, like clay. Most of the new species they created have vanished over the years, but some are still with us today. According to the legends, even horses used to be mammals."
Nausicaä herself becomes sort of a Christlike/St. Francis figure, speaking telepathically with the hated and feared giant insects, working to end the wars, and uniting the disparate factions in love for the planet's survival. She makes friends of everyone, from a feral squirrel-fox to the former Dorok Emperor. Mythology builds up around her, as she seems to fulfill prophesies of a "blue-clad one" who will come and heal the world. She also has a teacher, Master Yupa, who is a cross between Yoda and Aragorn, and whom she repeatedly impresses. But in good manga fashion, her prophesied blue outfit consists of boots and a miniskirt, and she does all of this mystical stuff while performing slick aerobatics in her personal glider and carrying an assault rifle.
Besides the American graphic novel editions, there are also two versions of Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind out on video: one which remains fairly consistent with the book series, and one which thins it out to Disneyesque proportions. Unfortunately, the former only appears in Japanese, with no subtitles. I'd suggest renting that one anyway - just read the books first.