Friday, January 10, 2014

The Saga of Nausicaä (Part 1 of 3)

When it comes to anime one of the premier studios in Japan is "Ghibli."  This might sound like a strange name, but it's because the word is derived from an Italian noun meaning sirocco, a warm dry Mediterranean wind that blows up from the Sahara Desert.  According to the studio's founder, Hayao Miyazaki, the name was chosen to signify a change (or hot new style) he brought to the industry.  Interesting to consider when you take into account that Hayao Miyazaki's final film before retirement was entitled The Wind Rises.

So what does any of this have to do with video games?  Not a lot sadly...brilliant as he is, Mr. Miyazaki is a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to video game adaptations of his works.  But, now that he has stepped down an opportunity exists for his wonderful creations to thrive in an interactive medium.  And what better place to start than with his very first feature length film, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind.

Technically speaking Nausicaä has already been made into no less than three video games which you can read more about over at hardcore gaming 101.  However, as even the quickest of glances will reveal, these titles were pretty unremarkable and made for pre-8-bit hardware to boot.  As such I will not be discussed them in any further detail here because I'm more interested in contemplating what a modern take on a Nausicaä video game would be like.  To begin with let's examine the various elements of the setting, story, and characters.

First off, time and place.  The world of Nausicaä is set 1000 years after an apocalyptic event know as "The Seven Days of Fire" which brought an end to the "Ceramic Age" and left the earth a depleted and polluted wasteland.  While never officially disclosed TV Tropes claims that the locations seen in Nausicaä are in fact North and Central America, but based on my own research I think that the evidence points to events taking place between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.  The Valley of Wind, in particular, is situated near the boarder of what is modern day Turkey and Georgia.  How did I reach this conclusion?  Well, if you only watched the film then there's not a whole lot to go on, but thankfully there's also an outstanding multi-volume manga of which the movie covers approximately the first quarter.  I encourage anyone who thinks otherwise to look at the maps, take note of the ethnicity and languages of the cultures, as well as consider Hayao Miyazaki's previous works (especially his very first comic "People of the Desert").  Of course you can dismiss everything with the excuse that it's all fiction anyway, but such a stance is reductive to making Nausicaä into a video game faithful to the source material.

So now that we've established time and place let's examine the setting more closely.  The single most prominent feature is a vast swath of foliage known as "The Sea of Corruption," or in less poetic terms "The Toxic Jungle."  The air is clogged with a deadly miasma and giant insects which defend their habitat from any perceived outside threats.  Despite the risks, there are people who don masks and enter the Toxic Jungle in search of resources such as the molted skins of colossal pill bugs called "Ohmu."  These discarded shells are more resilient than any man-made material and are used to craft everything from armor and weapons to dwellings and aircraft.  Even the eye lenses of the Ohmu are used to make windows in lieu of ordinary glass.  Because the Sea of Corruption is in a constant state of expansion it inevitably encroaches on human habitation leading to a stead dwindling of usable land.  The result of this is reoccurring wars over increasingly sparse resources and territories.  Open conflicts are prosecuted by a mixture of traditional weapons and more modern ones.  Because Ohmu shell is capable of deflecting small arms fire it's quite common to see soldiers armed with both guns and swords.  Artillery, cavalry, tanks (actually self propelled guns), and fortifications exist in a kind of equilibrium, each having a viable role on the battlefield.  The most important asset of all though is huge aircraft capable of transporting men and material over great stretches of uninhabitable wasteland.  Additionally, avoiding prolonged exposure to miasma is desirable because people who spend too much time in the Sea of Corruption have their bodies invaded by a "hardening disease" that slowly petrifies the flesh.  It is incurable and generally fatal within a year of diagnosis.

The "Bumble Crow" (based on the real life Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant) and "Air Monitor" (basically a flying dreadnought) are the workhorses of their respective nations, but there are lesser flying machines such as gunships and even Nausicaä's "Mehve" (German for "Gull").  The key to flight is special engines made before The Seven Days of Fire.  These relics of the Ceramic Age can no longer be manufactured and their inner workings are a mystery, although it seems that they use water as fuel and have a hard limit on how much power they can produce.  For example The Valley of the Wind gunship had a top speed of around 340mph (not all that fast for an aircraft) and Bumble Crows travel even slower!  Regardless, pre-cataclysm engines are extremely sturdy and are regularly salvaged from wrecked aircraft or buried ruins of ancient cities.  The classification of aircraft seems to be based on the number of engines used:
  • Barge (no engine)
  • Gunship (one engine)
  • Brig (two engines)
  • Armored Corvette (four engines)
  • Bumble Crow or Air Monitor (six engines)
  • Dorok Flagship (eight engines)
Nausicaä's Mehve uses an engine as well, but it appears to be a smaller type of demi-engine.  As mentioned in the comic Nausicaä's  father, King Jihl, had a cloud climber with similar characteristics in addition to wind-riders of the long ago engulfed kingdom of Eftal.  Other aircraft, such as the Dorok "flying jars" handle similar to helicopters, yet have no apparent means of propulsion.

Much like horses in medieval history, engines and the aircraft built around them are a sign of rank and status.  In the Periphery each kingdom's ruling family posses at least one gunship or in the case of the Kingdom of Pagase, a battle-worn brig called "Old Soldier" (an apt name considering it has seen around two centuries of service).  Rather than face conquest by the neighboring and much more powerful Tolmekian Empire, the various Kingdoms of the Periphery have sworn oaths of fealty, vowing to commit their aircraft and crews to periodic imperial military service in exchange for nominal independence.  It's very much a feudal system mixed with World War 1 style notions of knights of the sky, except in a somewhat different tenor.

To be continued next week....

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