For those of us in the anime (japanese cartoons) community, the name Hayao Miyazaki is like Steven Spielberg is to film lovers: pure genius. The name almost certainly (if not certainly) gives avid fans a guarantee for a fantastic ride with each frame so detailed a person could hardly look at it as anything less than art and stories that play our hearts like skilled musicians, leading viewers along perfectly whether through hardship or great, whimsical fun. But shining just as brightly among the jaw-dropping art and heart-felt stories are Miyazaki’s characters, many of whom are strong females and none of which are to be missed, be they “villains” or “heroes.”
One of my absolute favorite Miyazaki films is one of his earlier films by the name of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind created in 1984 (it’s actually an adaptation of a manga of the same name also created by Miyazaki). The story centers around an inquisitive young woman in a postapocalyptic world ravaged by deadly toxins. The people of this world set some time in the future share it with a race of giant insects that are largely feared by the people. (You know how people react to an itsy-bitsy spider in their house? Just imagine how they’d feel if that spider was as big as them!) Of course, our heroine, Nausicaa is more curious about these creatures than she is afraid and often ventures into the forests they inhabit, living a peaceful life in her quiet valley. But everything changes when a plane from another country crashes in Nausicaa’s people’s valley.
Introduced through this story are many great characters, but the two I’ll focus on are the protagonist, Nausicaa and the antagonist, Kushana.
Nausicaa makes a wonderful heroine for many reasons. Of course, as I said, Nausicaa is adventurous and courageous; She enters forests filled with toxins and potentially dangerous insects with her gas mask on and curiosity as her guide, exploring and searching for new materials to use. But Nausicaa isn’t the reckless and often stupid type either. There’s a brain under that skull and she doesn’t waste it. Nausicaa is inventive and quick to realize her situations which helps her more than once throughout the course of the story. She can also use a gun and a sword, but her strength doesn’t come from that; in fact, one of Nausicaa’s greatest qualities is that she could use violence, but instead struggles for peaceful solutions (although not in the holier-than-thou, blind-to-reality missionary sort of way).
The other thing I love about Nausicaa (and many of Miyazaki’s other female protagonists) is that she can’t really be placed under any stereotypes. She’s certainly not a girly girl, but I wouldn’t call her a tomboy either and Miyazaki never resorts to cheap, sexy heroines. I believe that this is partly due to the fact that Nausicaa wasn’t created in a fashion that limited her to her gender; in other words, her gender is not her identity. Nausicaa is Nausicaa, simple as that. She’s not a cookie cut out, but a unique, one-of-a-kind character who truly seems human.
Kushana, too, is unique so it should come as no surprise to hear that she’s an opposite to Nausicaa in many ways (of course, maybe you guessed that from the fact that she’s the antagonist). Kushana shows some of the same strength and resilience as Nausicaa, but while Nausicaa has almost a child-like purity to her at times, Kushana is a hardened adult. She’s lived (a little) longer than Nausicaa and from the looks of it, it hasn’t been a picnic as she already has a number artificial limbs (again, Miyazaki isn’t vain about his female characters) and a toughness well-developed.
The other major difference between Nausicaa and Kushana is that while Nausicaa vies for non-violent options, Kushana seems embedded in the violence. She’s in charge of the foreign military that invades when that mysterious plane crashes in Nausicaa’s valley. Kushana can be quite ruthless in contrast to Nausicaa’s mercifulness, taking hostages and fighting until it truly is over. Yet Kushana isn’t some half-crazed villain with no soul and a cackling laugh like nails on a chalkboard; another one of the strengths of Miyazaki’s films is that in some ways, there are no “villains,” only characters with different methods or objectives. This gives the stories a deeper taste like chocolate with a touch of cinnamon; it’s good, but only gets better with that bit of contrast.
And you know what just hits these two characters out of the ball park for me? Both Nausicaa and Kushana are princesses! Now that’s the kind of princess we need to see more often. So, thank you Miyazaki for making real, three-dimensional characters who aren’t restricted to the stereotypes of their gender (female and male) or other set roles that show us what real characters are made of.