Musical Symbolism in Studio Ghibli’s ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ (1984)

‘Everyone depicts nature as being charming. But it is
something more fearsome. That is why I think there is
something missing in our current view of nature.’
– Hayao Miyazki1

Screenshot from Nausicaä valley of the wind (1984)

Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), is set in a dystopian future where nature is something to be feared. Mankind’s pollution of the planet has caused a toxic jungle to take over much of the land. The insects that inhabit this jungle, when they feel that their land is threatened, have the potential to grow enraged and attack human civilisation. These conflicts do not end well for humanity. It promotes a warning that if nature is not respected, there will be grave consequences.

Valley of the Wind also marks the first in a long line of productions where Miyazaki would work with composer Joe Hisaishi to help embellish his ideas and ambitions. Visually, human civilisation and nature are highly distinct. In human territories we are presented with typical farmland, buildings and machinery, whilst the jungle is something completely unfamiliar. The strange plants and insects appear almost alien, bearing almost no resemblance to anything in the world we know today. Hisaishi emphasises the differences in these two realms by constructing two vivid and contrasting musical styles.

Screenshot from Nausicaä valley of the Wind (1984)

Humanity is predominantly associated with typified orchestral music. Familiar film score clichés such as dramatic marches for war and soaring strings for celebration allow the viewer to recognise and associate with the human cultures portrayed.

Screenshot from Nausicaä valley of the Wind (1984)

The music for the toxic jungle, however, is full of electronic tones and minimalist themes that aid in providing a sense of abnormality and other-worldliness. One automatically associates an orchestral instrument with a human performer, but, without an in-depth knowledge of computing, a synthetic tone is more ambiguous. These ideas can be clearly noticed early on when Nausicaa, the protagonist, is exploring a cave within the toxic jungle. All around her lie strange plants and insects. In the soundscape, we hear fading and delayed sine wave pulses that create a shimmering effect of abnormality and beauty. Hisaishi links these pulses to diegetic sounds, allowing them to fade in and out with the howling of unidentified animals. The result is an illusion that nature itself is in control of the music. It is not bound by human timing or instrumentation and the viewer cannot be sure what will become of it. It aids in establishing nature as alien, separate from humanity, that despite its beauty, promotes a sense of wariness through unfamiliarity and uncertainty.

Screenshot from Nausicaä valley of the wind (1984)

The reasons for this wariness are clearly realised as the Tolmekian culture take actions to destroy the toxic jungle. These events provoke the rage of the jungle. A hoard of large, furious insects known as ohmu race out to attack humanity. When people battle these creatures, the music favours the insects. The electronic tones return in a techno-minimalist fashion, scored in a steady, fast 4/4 tempo wit a four note descending ostinato. This generates a sense of incessant rampage and overpowers any of the human orchestral music that might be present. It makes it clear to the viewer that nature has the advantage. It is unstoppable and fighting it cannot end well.

Another notable feature relating to this conflict within Hisaishi’s score is the use of silence to emphasise a sense of impending doom. Towards the climax of the film, whilst humanity awaits the oncoming attach of the ohmu, the score is silent. The creatures themselves can be seen on the horizon as a red glow, approaching slowly. The conflict music described above has already has a strong significance in the viewer’s mind at this point, and the lack of any music forces us to wait with the characters. We know that the ohmu are coming, with their incessant rampage, but the question is when?

Hisaishi has created two strong audio worlds – the orchestral and understandable world of the humans, and the overpowering electronic realm of nature. However there is a third element that needs to be discussed.

Screenshot from Nausicaä valley of the wind (1984)

Although tied with the human realm by birth and character, the protagonist Nausicaä plays a different role. She is an eco-warrior, opposed to violence, seeking to live in harmony with the toxic jungle. The music associated with Nausicaä is orchestral by nature, connecting her to humanity, but it is also positive and uplifting. Her theme is fairly high register and sustained notes with relaxed ornamentation suggest a sense of peace. The use of a major key and rising motifs, in turn, help to inspire hope. The instrumentation varies from soaring legato strings to light piano tones with a relaxed tambourine beat. Overall, the timbres and scoring techniques provide a positive sense of peace. It could be argued that this is the only truly positive music in the score, as other music either consists of representations of war (i.e. marches) or the electronic music of the toxic jungle (either too invasive or otherworldly for the viewer to associate with fully. In turn, it forms a catharsis for the viewer, a reprieve from the oppression of other music. It occurs at moments where balance has been restored between man and nature (often at Nausicaa’s doing), allowing the viewer to rejoice the character’s triumphs with her.

If we consider the quote at the opening of this article, it is clear to see how Hisaishi’s score helps to build on Miyazaki’s beliefs. Nature is depicted as beautiful, both in image and in score, but it is also something alien and uncomfortable. It is something that humanity needs to be wary of and not take for granted, or we may be punished in an unstoppable manner. It also suggests that peace with nature is possible, if treated with respect, and it is only through these means that we can ensure the future of humankind.

1Hayao Miyazaki, Starting Point 1979-1996, trans. Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt (San Francisco, CA: VIZ
Media, LLC, 2009), 417.