Hayao Miyazaki is more known as a film director than as a mangaka, and judging by his own comments, he prefers it that way. In a essay included with my edition, he confesses to having "no talent for comics" and seems to have finished Nausicaä purely out of a sense of duty. It was almost surreal to read that, as the book I held in my hands proves him wrong.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a fantasy/science fiction story about our planet, after our industrial civilization is destroyed in a cataclysmic war, called "The Seven Days of Fire". Despite the environmental destruction caused by industrialism and war, humanity survives, though the industrial civilisation is never rebuilt. According to the prologue, industrial civilisation lasted for about a thousand years, and in the comic itself, we learn that a thousand years has passed since its destruction. As industrial civilisation began around 1800, I guess that means the comic is supposed to take place around the year 3800.
After the apocalypse, a forest begins to grow on the polluted wastelands left by the humans, whose plants gives off a toxic miasma, called the Sea of Corruption, which takes over most of the land. Humans are forced to live on its periphery on the little land that remains, where they form small kingdoms, primarily using aircraft for transportation. The title character, Nausicaä, is the princess of one of these small kingdoms, called the Valley of the Wind. As the manga begins, war breaks out between two empires, The Torumekian empire and The Dorok empire. By necessity, The Valley of The Wind is allied to the Torumekians and Nausicaä is required to fight for them.
Thus begins an epic and thrilling, but philosophical adventure, that I will leave the readers to discover for themselves. For Nausicaä is one of the best comics I have ever read. To begin, it has simply beautiful and very detailed artwork with amazing designs, that pulls the reader into the complex world that Miyazaki constructs.
For that matter, the world-building in this manga is simply wonderful. One of Miyazaki's inspirations in creating it was Tolkien, who was the first great world-builder in fantasy, and it shows.
Miyazaki's imagination is seemingly limitless in its ability to create new and original places, animals and plants. The Sea of corruption in itself is a powerful thought, and the immense insects who live in it are among the most original creatures in fantasy. Several times while reading, I was struck by the sense of wonder, which is the hallmark of all good fantasy and science fiction.
The world is compelling and believable, although it is somewhat illogical how everyone keeps using aircraft in this non-industrial world, seemingly without having to worry about fuel at all. But as usual in Miyazaki's works, the flying scenes are wonderful and his love for flight radiates through them, so one can't really complain.
This is all tied together by a strong and intelligent story, with simple, but profound themes. Miyazaki may be accused of preaching, as his thesis, while subtle overall, is obvious to the discerning reader, but as it is a very good sermon, this stands in its favour.
The manga is especially strong in its clear depiction of the horrors and madness of war. It shows how war is nearly always caused by cynical greed instead of the supposedly noble causes warmongers always claim to be inspired by. As Peter Hammil puts it: "every bloody emperor claims that freedom is his cause". (and while we are on the subject of war and violence, I must say that this comic is the perfect refutation of the idea that one can not create a thrilling adventure story, that is also against violence.)
As in many of Miyazaki's works, the main character is a young woman, a subtle feminist statement by itself. But as you might have guessed from my synopsis above, the ecological message is paramount here. And it is a message of such rare beauty and power, that I won't even attempt to reproduce it here.
And finally, there are the wonderful and likeable characters. Miyazaki's characterization are one of his strengths. In Nausicaä he manages to create an (almost messianic) role-model, who embodies his message of empathy with all living things, but who also has human faults and foibles. But my personal favourite character is Kushana, the Torumekian princess, a warrior woman involved in the power struggles of her empire, but who slowly becomes influenced by Nausicaä peaceful views. And this is only two of the many wonderful characters in this comic.
Part of the reason for this is Miyazaki's rejection of the traditional western concept of good and evil people. There are characters who perform evil actions, but they are not themselves wholly evil and unredeemable (and of course the heroes are not wholly good either, although Nausicaä comes very close to that). This makes for complex characterizations. Often Miyazaki will introduce someone or something that seems evil, only to slowly reveal more or develop the character, so that the thing or character not only seems not so evil, but actually loveable. Often I found myself feeling sympathy for a character I hated a few hundred pages earlier.
And that is the greatness of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It not only advocates universal love for all living things, even those who seem contemptible and disgusting, but makes the reader also feel that love.