“After a thousand years of darkness, they will come, clad in blue and surrounded by fields of gold to restore mankind's connection to the Earth that was destroyed.”
On April 11, 2022, the Coolidge Corner Theater held one of their “Science on Screen” events that featured a talk by Boston University Biology Professor, Pamela Templer, and a showing of the 1984 Hayao Miyazaki film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
At Boston University, Pamela Templer specializes in ecosystem ecology, examines the benefits of urban ecosystems and forests, and runs the Templer Lab which focuses on the effects of environmental change. Templer’s talk before the film gave a wonderful and educational insight into the importance of forest ecosystems in the fight against climate change. After starting off by commenting on the increasing levels of toxic fuel emission into our atmosphere, Templer then explained the necessary role trees play in taking up carbon-dioxide emissions. These toxic fuel emissions and correlated increasing global temperature lead to harmful environments for forests and tree growth. Coupled with urbanization and deforestation, it is easy to see the problem at hand when it comes to keeping our forest ecosystems thriving.
Research done by Templer and her colleagues highlighted this problem. They found that warmer global temperatures led to less snowfall, and thus a lack of built in soil insulation for plants that was normally provided by snowbeds. “Smaller snowpacks led to increased soil frost, which damaged tree roots and led to a 40% drop in carbon uptake,” said Templer. She then addressed the parallel argument that even if warmer temperatures are negatively affecting tree health in the winter, wouldn’t they provide a better environment for trees in the summer? Refuting this argument, she noted that her and her team’s research found that the trees whose roots had been frozen in the winter due to a lack of snow had half the amount of carbon uptake in the summer compared to trees’ roots that did not freeze.
Templer’s talk was the perfect introduction to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a film inherently centered around the issue of climate change and urbanization. The film is set in a post apocalyptic future where a war called “The Seven Days of Fire” destroyed modern civilization a thousand years prior. Along with this destruction came the creation of the Sea of Decay, a “toxic” forest and insect ecosystem that spreads across the world and is protected by the insects and animals within it. Vast desert-like environments now encapsulate most of the Earth with plots of “toxic” forest interspersed throughout the world. This perceived toxicity is portrayed through spores lining the forest and being the signal of the forest’s proliferation into a new territory. The outlier of this desert environment is the Valley of the Wind, a society that has decided not to embrace industrialization and rather relies on and respects its relationship with nature. The Valley of the Wind is full of luscious trees and fertile farmland that provide for the citizens of the valley.
Throughout the film, you follow Nausicaä, the princess of the Valley of the Wind as she tries to prevent the second scorching of the world and the destruction of the Sea of Decay by rival factions, the Tolmekia and Pejite. From Nausicaä’s journey, you learn that the Sea of Decay is not an encroaching world-ending catastrophe but rather the planet’s effort at saving itself, providing water to the humans, and an environment for insects and animals to live. Unlike the people of the Valley of the Wind, the Tolmekia and Pejite people hold onto the misunderstanding of the “toxicity” of the forest and are hell-bent on stopping its spread through setting the world ablaze and rebuilding society with machinery and technology. It is not until Nausicaä risks her own life to show compassion towards the forest and its insects that the people dedicated to destroying it begin to understand the forest's benefits. Much of Miyazaki’s filmography centers around the interaction between humans and the natural world, in which humans are the unknowing antagonists, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind only serves as another example of this theme alongside Miyazaki’s other films like Princess Mononoke.
Portrayed in gorgeous hand-drawn animation, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind emphasizes the raw beauty of nature, specifically in moments where Nausicaä is exploring the forest. In one scene, Nausicaä discovers the shell of one of the forest insects, an ohmu. Overtaken by its scale and intricacy, Nausicaä takes the moment to admire the ohmu shell. Nausicaä’s moment of admiration also allows the viewer to appreciate the beauty of the film’s animated depiction of the ohmu and of nature.
Accompanying this hand-drawn animation style, the score by Joe Hisaishi and Haruomi Hosono splices elements of electronic music into an instrumental core that creates a sense of hope in the coexistence of technology and the environment. This moving score on top of the beautiful depictions of the forest environment only supported the film’s advocation of conservation, environmentalism, and reforestation.
These lavish and detailed images throughout the film made it impossible not to have Templer’s introductory talk in the back of your head during the film, and the lasting feeling of hope at the end of the film aligned with how Templer ended her introduction. After presenting some of, what sounded like, dooming data on the state of our forest ecosystems, Templer concluded her talk with how people could make change. Specifically, she noted the importance of urban tree planting, urban forests, and the immense benefits of supporting and joining environmental groups like Speak for the Trees. The fight is not over. Environmentalists have not lost. What is most important now is to stand up in the face of adversity to “restore mankind's connection to the Earth” just as Nausicaä did; because, at the end of the day, “Trees are more than scenery. They’re a social justice issue.”