June 13, 1985 (?)
On June 13, 1985 (or possibly some other day – more on that later) a strange post-apocalyptic animated fantasy arrived in American theaters. It told the story of “a spirited princess named Zandra,” who flies around on gliders and airships and saves her kingdom, The Valley of the Wind, from “forces of evil” including but not limited to giant bugs called Gorgons who come from The Toxic Jungle.
People may not have known it was a Japanese film, released there in 1984, now shortened by nearly 25 minutes and dubbed into English, with the names of some characters and creatures changed. Today we know it in its original form and title – NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND, the second feature film by the globally revered writer/director Hayao Miyazaki (MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, PRINCESS MONONOKE, SPIRITED AWAY). But back then it was some mysterious thing called WARRIORS OF THE WIND.
It begins “somewhere in the world one thousand years from now,” in what looks like a snowy forest. A man in a wide-brimmed hat and gas mask with dangling bladders that make him look like a walrus – Lord Yupa – rides an ostrich, also wearing a mask. Strange giant insects fly overhead. We meet Zandra climbing on the discarded “shell of a giant Gorgon,” taking its eye lens to use as a window, when she notices a commotion in the distance. She finds Yupa – such a close family friend she calls him “Uncle Yupa” – being chased by a Gorgon.
The Gorgon – which you may know by its superior original name of Ohm or Ohmu (depending on the translation) – is a unique cinematic creation. It’s sort of an armored caterpillar or maggot, hundreds of feet tall, with a swarm of wiggly legs reaching out from under its mouth and 14 eyes that turn from red to blue after Zandra calms it and sends it back to the Toxic Jungle.
Yupa calls her “almost magical” for this persuasive power she has with animals. She has the same effect on a wild fox-squirrel he caught that bites her and then immediately becomes a loyal pet who stays with her for the rest of the movie, often on her shoulder or tucked inside her shirt.
Zandra brings Yupa to her dad King Zeal, who is dying from spending too much time in the Toxic Jungle. A blind old lady who lives with them (but is never named or explained) thinks Yupa could be the subject of a prophecy that “from the skies a noble soul wearing a blue robe will stand in a golden field and tie the strings of the earth together” to create peace and clean air. But he thinks that’s silly.
It seems like Zandra does way more for her kingdom than anyone asks her to. That includes stuff like hypnotizing a giant gadfly (about the size of an elephant) and leading it away, because “if we’d had to kill it we’d’ve been attacked by thousands of them.” But one night when “the wind’s buildin’ up and it’s got a strange kinda smell” they realize a “Temekulan cargo ship” covered in “loki bloodsuckers” (swarms of giant maggots) is about to crash into the Valley, so she flies on her “cloud climber” to try to guide them, and when that fails she picks through the flaming debris and finds the shackled Princess Lestel of Placeda just as she dies.
Also found in the wreckage is some sort of giant pulsating ball of flesh. They figure out that the Temekulans captured a living Fire Demon that has been sleeping underground since the Seven Days of Fire that destroyed most of civilization. Kind of an LV-426 situation here, except instead of this lifeform causing havoc on its own, the army of Temekulans invade and kill the king. Zandra fights back, but Yupa convinces her to surrender to Temekula’s Queen Selena, who announces the two kingdoms will work together to burn and destroy the Toxic Jungle.
“The old witch,” as somebody calls the blind lady, points out that anyone who ever tried to destroy the jungle triggered a holocaust from the bugs. Zandra agrees to the plan anyway. “Please, try to understand. This is the price we must pay for peace.” Everybody cries.
So Zandra and her unarmed citizens are helpless as Temekulan Queen Selena uses their land to gather an army of tanks and raise the ancient Fire Demon to attack the Toxic Jungle. But Zandra discovers that nearby Placeda purposely attracted a swarm of bugs to attack the Temekulans (causing that wormy crash at the beginning, I think), thus destroying their own city, and now some survivors have kidnapped a baby Gorgon and are flying it along like a carrot on a stick to lead a herd of the big ones to the Valley to fight the Fire Demon.
So Zandra does something beautiful. We can compare it to Pocahontas saving John Smith, and it has echoes in Babe saving the pitbull and Rey (whose early scenes in FORCE AWAKENS seem more than a little inspired by this movie) healing the giant snake – mythical acts of peace and compassion that turn around violent conflicts. She glides in with her arms spread – nice Christ imagery there, Princess – allowing herself to be shot multiple times as she jumps on a gunship and frees the baby. Then she calms it and physically blocks it from crawling into the Acid Lake (burning her own boots). In the process she gets its blue blood all over her, and though they miraculously never underline it in dialogue, her robe is stained blue so she can fulfill the old woman’s prophecy. She wins the trust of the baby Gorgon, but what about the adult ones stampeding toward the Valley?
Today when an animated film is imported from overseas, even if it’s dubbed, we’re usually aware of where it comes from. Back then they didn’t want you to think about it. In the summer of 1985, most Americans who were aware of Japanese animation knew it from Speed Racer, Astro Boy, Star Blazers, or maybe Robotech, which had been airing for a few months. That’s if they even realized those shows were Japanese. A Wikipedia page of anime released theatrically in the U.S. only lists six before WARRIORS OF THE WIND, and half of those were in 1961. (It’s missing GALAXY EXPRESS, though, so there could be others.)
Many of the American animated features released in the first half of the ‘80s were made cheaply and/or used existing characters like Charlie Brown, Pogo, Bugs Bunny, the Care Bears or He-Man. But there were also some attempts to push the envelope of what could be done in the medium (TWICE UPON A TIME, AMERICAN POP, HEY GOOD LOOKIN’), and there was a movement of fantasy animation both for kids (THE SECRET OF NIMH, THE LAST UNICORN) and adults (HEAVY METAL, FIRE & ICE).
The marketing suggests they wanted WARRIORS OF THE WIND to be part of that last wave. The poster I used at the top is pretty cool – kind of a fantasy painting depiction of things from the movie: Zandra/Nausicaä, her glider, her pet, a Gorgon/Ohm, some airships, flying bugs, Lord Yupa on his steed. But I’m fascinated with this other one, which might be the video poster (it’s definitely the art used on the VHS copy at Scarecrow Video). We see a version of Nausicaä at the top, but then they have “a band of young warriors” consisting of four characters not from the movie at all – a guy with a rifle riding a pegasus, a robot in a Dr. Doom cloak shooting a laser gun, an off-brand Luke Skywalker (also with rifle) and a human-sized Fire Demon with light saber, riding on a giant Fire Demon, who has wings? I guess maybe those are the metaphorical “wings of their greatest challenge” mentioned in the tagline. Don’t get mad, but I just got so excited about the ridiculousness of this thing that I ordered one.
The credited producer of this version, Riley Jackson, specialized in English dubs, having done them for STORM OF THE PACIFIC, MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN, KING KONG ESCAPES, ALL MONSTERS ATTACK, THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, HIGH SEAS HIJACK and THE ONE ARMED EXECUTIONER. But there’s a credit for “creative consultant” David Schmoeller, who some have reported as the voice director and editor. He does not have other jobs like this in his known history, but he’s a notable cult horror director. At the time he’d already done TOURIST TRAP, and in a few years he’d do the first PUPPET MASTER.
WARRIORS OF THE WIND was presented by Manson International, who gave the world the original GONE IN 60 SECONDS, LASERBLAST, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 and MIAMI CONNECTION, and it was distributed by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, whose other 1985 releases included ANGEL, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, THE INITIATION, C.H.U.D. and BODY ROCK. See, since anime hadn’t conquered the west yet, only the exploitation guys thought about importing it. Remember, it took Troma to release MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO in American theaters!
The original unedited NAUSICAÄ eventually made it here, both subtitled and in an improved 2005 dub made by Disney, with Alison Lohman (DRAG ME TO HELL) voicing Nausicaä. She’s much better than the uncredited and forgotten-to-history WARRIORS OF THE WIND actress, who I noticed sounded quite a bit like Rocket J. Squirrel before reading that a fan once sent a copy to June Foray to ask if it was her. (She said it wasn’t.) That said, the dubbing on WARRIORS OF THE WIND is pretty standard for the time, and way better than the kung fu movies I’ve been watching lately.
For this review I was able to watch a rip of the WARRIORS OF THE WIND VHS on the Internet Archive. I’d seen the real movie, but it had been years, so I felt like I was able to watch it with pretty fresh eyes. Then I went back to the original version on Blu-Ray to compare. One weird thing removed from WARRIORS is all the talk about spores floating around – that’s what looks like snow, it makes the setting more unique, and it’s the reason they all have to wear masks outside of the Valley. (I think of those spores often during allergy season, and now during Covid.) By cutting this material they lost one of the best and most meaningful images in the movie: Nausicaä laying under the salvaged Ohm lens, watching the spores fall onto it like snow. That she’s admiring the beauty of these things that can kill her, and literally seeing the world through the eye of an Ohm, will turn out to be pretty significant.
In NAUSICAÄ there is no Toxic Jungle, there’s just the Forest, which is part of the Sea of Decay which, it’s made much clearer, is slowly spreading across the other countries as they provoke bug attacks, and the bugs die on their land and sprout spores. That’s what Lord Yupa has been studying in his travels. The Valley’s unique geography makes it the only place left where you don’t have to wear a mask, bringing to mind our current reality of climate change and climate refugees (not to mention our pandemic masks). But Nausicaä figures out that the trees of the Sea of Decay are actually taking in man’s pollution and converting it into clean air – that’s why it’s disastrous to try to burn them.
Nausicaäa in this original version is a scientist. There’s a scene where Teto (which is what she names the fox-squirrel) leads Yupa to her secret laboratory where she’s grown non-poisonous versions of plants she brought back from the Sea of Decay to try to create medicine for her father. There are also visions and memories of her childhood, more time spent with various supporting characters, and little connecting bits that make the story (and especially the ending) make so much more sense. It’s worth noting that there’s not talk about “the forces of evil” in the opening text, and during the end credits we get to see the invaders being sent away, and life improving in the Valley. It really is vastly superior to what they initially released here.
So ever since people here were able to see, or at least know about, the original NAUSICAÄ, the WARRIORS OF THE WIND version has been infamous, rightfully shamed as a needless bastardization of a great film. But I’m trying to look at these movies from a Summer of 1985 perspective, so I have to say… in that vacuum this must’ve been a really cool movie. “Zandra” is still an appealing character, doing most of the things Nausicaä does that make her so likable. The score by Joe Hisashi is still very effective (and includes some cool synth and drum machine jams that I thought might be SHOGUN ASSASSIN style rescoring, but they were always there). Even having shed much of its nuance and detail it’s a good story, taking place in a unique and imaginative world. It has so many cool, highly detailed vehicles, weapons and creatures. We don’t see enough of or know enough about the Giant Warriors the dub calls Fire Demons, but we do get to see the cool-as-hell animation of one being commanded into battle as he can barely crawl and his skin is dripping off his bones.
There’s enough of the original film’s imagination and beauty intact, and it’s so different from anything offered in American animation at the time, that it must’ve been pretty amazing for whatever kids lucked out and got to see it.
But I don’t think there were very many of those. The release was limited enough that I haven’t found it on any box office charts, and I can’t find any newspaper reviews from the time. Almost every reference to the release I’ve been able to find is a paraphrase of what Wikipedia says about it, and even that is unsourced.
So I should mention that I haven’t verified to my satisfaction when this actually came out. The most concrete info I could find was this piece from anime blogger Dave Merrill, because he searched microfiche at his library and found two actual newspaper ads from an October, 1985 release. The reason that doesn’t knock it off my summer retrospective is that those ads are from Canada. Interestingly, as he notes, it was playing on 8 screens in Toronto alone, like a regular ol’ mainstream movie release.
IMDb, Wikipedia and other internet resources list a release date of June 13th, 1985, but that would be weird, because it was a Thursday. Animation historian Jerry Beck dates it April 15, 1986 on his master list of U.S. theatrical releases of animated features, but that was a Tuesday. Searching with that date led me to a pdf of an old newspaper listing for a place called The Family Theater on a Marine Corps base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, where it screened on Wednesday, April 9th, 1986. But the rest of the movies playing that week were 1985 releases (and one from 1982), so I’m confident its original release had to be months before that.
And I found one piece of evidence that we Americans got it earlier than October: this page translated from Japanese says that Miyazaki didn’t know they’d made an edited version until he saw it mentioned in an article in September. So I’m going to stick with June of 1985 and assume that there were a few kids somewhere whose parents took them to see this after (or instead of) THE GOONIES. Even in this truncated form it’s a nice addition to 1985’s library of weird fantasy movies to inspire the imaginations (and maybe nightmares) of children around the world.
Miyizaki considers NAUSICAÄ his most personal work. It started as a serialized manga that he wrote and illustrated, continuing a decade after the completion of the movie. The movie is a simplified version of approximately the first two chapters, but there were five more after that.
Last year Miyazaki allowed the production of a kabuki play based on the entire run of his manga, but I’m not sure it will ever happen on film. I think it would be amazing to see that world adapted into a live action movie, but he’s reportedly had many offers from Hollywood and always turned them down, perhaps in direct response to WARRIORS OF THE WIND. His displeasure with that whole thing inspired subsequent deals forbidding edits or name changes (and a famous story about sending PRINCESS MONONOKE distributor Harvey Weinstein a sword with a note that said “no cuts.”)
So I guess they’ll just have to do a live action adaptation of that poster. I don’t think he owns those characters. I’m excited to find out what’s up with the pegasus.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.