By Bob Clark
The overlap between the manga and anime industries in Japan is an interesting thing to consider for how relatively rare it is in the way that comics and animation are produced worldwide. Japan obviously isn’t the only country in the world where both mediums thrive, but in a sense it’s the only one where they do so side by side, and where talent can cross between the two rather freely. In the United States you’ve got plenty of world-famous animation studios, comic-book presses and daily cartoonist syndicates, but these things are all pretty much separated by the distance of an entire continent– Disney in California, and Marvel, DC, hell even Mad Magazine based over in New York. In Europe, while there’s still room for art-conscious cartoons and animated films here and there, you don’t have quite the same kind of deeply rooted industry for it in the same way that lets illustrators like Herge or Moebius become household names. Hell, even Canada’s got the occasional big-name in terms of comics with guys like Dave Sim or Bryan Lee O’Malley, but I doubt you’re about to see them or others follow the path of Norman McClaren anytime soon.
It’s only really in Japan where you can see the biggest names of comics and animation mix and mingle with relative ease. Obviously, geography is a part of the picture– whereas in America you have the comics industry (associated with print) mostly on the East Coast and animation (associated with cinema) on the West, in Japan you just don’t have the space to put between the two disciplines. Beyond that, there’s also the way in which intellectual properties cross from one field to the other, just as they do in the US, though with speed unheeded by time or distance– countless classics of cinematic and especially television anime started out as serial manga publications, and just about every major original anime project at some point has a manga adaptation running alongside it or afterwards to keep interest in the franchise (in the case of something like Evangelion, you can have several mangas). But what’s most interesting is how the migration of ideas fosters a migration of talent, as well– Osamu Tezuka, Leiji Matsumoto and Katsuhiro Otomo all worked on celebrated manga and anime projects during their careers, often coming up with some of their most celebrated works by doing them in both mediums.
In the case of Tezuka, it’d be useless to insist his major contributions were anything but his works in comics– yes, Astro Boy and Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion) helped define anime both at home and abroad, and his occasional avant-garde experiments hold merit as well, but for the sheer volume and depth of his whole body of work as a mangaka, it’s difficult to appreciate the scale and dimensions of his influence in terms of national and international style. Otomo today is best known as a writer and director of cutting edge animation, such to the point that it’s really only the most dedicated otaku who bother to hold up works like his original Akira manga to acclaim over his own cinematic adaptation, or seek out works like Domu as evidence of his overal breadth and talent as a creator of comics– probably the most interesting way about his body of work is how his best sensibilities come together in his anime anthology projects, especially something like Memories, where early manga stories of his find themselves adapted by himself and Satoshi Kon for stunning, harrowing short-subjects.
Matsumoto, though mostly unknown in the United States, nevertheless has produced some of the most celebrated works of both manga and anime throughout his career, being responsible for Galaxy Express 999 on the one hand and works like Space Battleship Yamato (aka “Star Blazers”) on the other, but while he remained a primary hand in both fields, you don’t quite see him adapting his own work in the same way that Otomo did for Akira, the stalwart anime journeyman Rintaro handling the directorial efforts for the Galaxy Express films. For another case of doubling duties between manga and anime of proportions similar to Otomo’s massive productions, you have to look to Hayao Miyazaki’s first original film, and the long-running comics series that it spawned– Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Following his tenure on Japanese television and his feature debut with the Lupin III movie Castle of Caligostro, Miyazaki made this first original theatrical animated effort while also penning and illustrating a manga serial, possibly to drum up interest in the new property.
Looking at these two versions of the story side by side, what you have is not quite an example of somebody merely adapting the first few chapters of a longer work (as one might initially think after a cursory read and viewing), but rather a chance to see the same basic world, characters and conflicts play out with degrees of variation, both of them works in progress from beginning to end. Obviously, there’s a great deal more narrative to be found in the full seven volume telling of the Nausicaä manga, continued long after the completion of the anime for a full run of 12 years throughout various other Ghibli productions, and seeing Miyazaki play out his story to the fullest possible logical conclusions of what the original chapters implies at times reaches for a kind of epic feeling one seldom gets in sci-fi or fantasy. At its best moments, reading the manga feels close to the feeling one gets from reading the full text of Frank Herbert’s Dune series after being introduced to it via the David Lynch film, or even reminds one of what the Star Wars series might’ve been like if Lucas had only gotten a chance to make one feature, leaving the rest to spin out in whatever medium would have him. What begins in film as a rather simplistic if imaginative fairy-tale set in a post-apocalyptic landscape gradually turns into a more daunting and increasingly bleak tale of the full human and environmental cost of warfare.
Indeed, it’s the warfare that makes the strongest impression while reading the manga, even with the time one has to marvel at the lush, detailed illustrations Miyazaki provides for his densely populated forests, the likes of which look like the sorts of things that James Cameron could only find at the bottom of the ocean (no matter how hard he tried to fabricate them in Avatar). In a way, the chastely brutal levels of violence throughout the manga, seldom bloody but always wrenching for the figures who wind up shedding that blood, seems a proper mirror image to the strangely mutated natural landscape of this fantasy world, one that has evolved into one as nasty, brutish and short-lived as the existences humans forced upon themselves in its distant past. Living in a world best both by pollution and devastation from ages past and a new generation of feudal warfare, Miyazaki’s young princess Nausicaä does her best to straddle the border between humanity and nature while being aided and hindered in her quests by a cast of dozens, most of whom wind up variously joining some kind of tentative allegiance with her, as they seek to bring order to the world by any means they see fit. As Nausicaä criss-crosses from one side to the other in a war whose factions are too numerous to keep track of here (and often even hard to keep up with on the page, itself) and whose casualties are frequent and vivid enough to make one question the worth in saving humanity at all, we see her and the various characters revolving around her descend into a blinding kind of despair that almost finds heroism in giving up hope.
It’s here where we see some of the best work that Miyazaki has done, and his most memorable imagery, despite all the wondrous fantasia he’s produced in cinema since. At times, the collection of imagery he selects to distill war down to its inhumane essence comes close to the same kind of sequences that Kurosawa and co-director Ishiro Honda concocted for the late-period masterpiece Ran, the fiery series of human suffering as pitiable and harrowing as any of the devestation wreaked by the latter filmmaker’s early kaiju behemoths. It’s easy to detect the influence World War II has on his imagination, with its series of battles filled with honorable but doomed soldiers, and whole countries depopulated by the casual collateral damage of doomsday weapons and blighted landscapes. On film, and in anime especially this sort of thing becomes hard to stomach, as we’re always invested with the fate of even short-lived characters thanks to the temporal nature of the medium, but in the static nature of comics, it becomes much easier to bear. In one sense, this can almost detract from the significance of a story (one can imagine what Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies would lose without watching the slow decline take place onscreen, but reduced to an endless before-and-after series on the page) but at times can help the longer, ongoing narrative be punctuated by instances of sorrow, rather than being dominated by them (even Barefoot Gen, in comics, has to be as much about surviving hardships as suffering them).
What cinema is capable of presenting in time through the art of montage, comics is able to do in space through the art of collage, and especially on the far more non-linear picture plane of Japanese manga. By focusing on the awful human cost of war in fleetingly shaped panels, frozen like snapshots in time but sharpened to dagger-slivers on the page that make one feel as though you’re peering through a thick wall just to catch a glimpse, he makes some of the best use of the comics medium to put down pictures that remain forever on the page, and in the memory. His sequential set-pieces, though sometimes a little hectic and uncertain of direction (especially in the early volumes– the more distance he has from the production of the film, the stabler his hand appears to be), carry a sense of motion and weight that are common in manga, but with a delicate hand at details one is more wont to find in European comics. Indeed, it’s easy to see the influence in these pages from the French sci-fi master Jean “Moebius” Giraud, something that becomes even more apparent when watching the film play out much of the same action and world in living color, where the film at times resembles some of the illustrator’s stories from Heavy Metal magazine projected at full movie scale.
There, as Nausicaä navigates her way through a surreal world of deserts, jungles and alien life-forms that are often animated by large cut-out pieces to accommodate their sheer size (like the beasts of Fumito Ueda’s game Shadow of the Collosus, doubtless influenced by this anime/manga, almost a landscape unto themselves), one is reminded of the alien territories that Moebius and other illustrators explored together with the French animator Rene Laloux. Miyazaki plays up the surreal quality of his manga’s story on film by using color in lyrical ways that the black-and-white print publication could only hint at, enriching the mythology of the narrative in more concrete examples of showing, rather than telling. Though it’s obviously unable to cover the same kind of narrative ground that the manga did over its 12 year span, Miyazaki mostly compresses and expands portions of the first two volumes to settle on the work’s most iconic moments, rather than attempting to present a digest version of the whole epic story he had in mind as Otomo did with Akira. As such, the film of Nausicaä manages to invest as much weight in its tale as the manga, and occasionally a bit more, fleshing characters and conflicts as far as possible within its limited running time while adding new dimensions to them not found on the page.
For almost everything cut out, something is there to either stand in for its place emotionally or intellectually– Princess Kushana’s change from stern military pragmatist to proud, but honorable cyborg war-monger is surprisingly subtle, and aided well by the full scale and resources of vivid anime production. We may not get to see her painful backstory of growing up in a royal house of murderous plots everywhere, her mother driven mad by taking poison intended for her, but we do get to see her lead a jaw-dropping charge against an onslaught of ravenous toxic insects with a giant, fleshy-robotic God Warrior weapon at her command in a sequence animated by Hideaki Anno himself. It’s easy to spot some of the influence that working on Miyazaki’s film would’ve had on Anno’s future works in anime with the epic body-horror and explosive action of this sequence, but it’s even more telling to see the ways in which his works are guided by the manga as well– Kushana’s backstory and personality are reproduced sometimes note-for-note in the character of Asuka Langley Soryu in Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s worth remembering that at one point Anno had wanted to direct a Nausicaä sequel focusing on the Kushana character, only to be nixed by Miyazaki. Just as other elements of the Evangelion narrative were influenced by its creator’s botched attempt at directing a sequel to the box-office failure of Royal Space Force: Wings of the Honneamise, it’s impossible to imagine what Anno’s magnum opus would’ve been like if he’d been given the opportunity to play in his mentor’s sandbox instead of building his own.
In a very real sense, the same can be said for how Miyazaki continued creatively past the film of Nausicaä, never looking back to provide further adaptations of the manga, and instead channeling his energies into one cherished original film after another. All throughout his early efforts it’s easy to see a continued interest in aviation that began with this work, and it’s possible that classics like Castle in the Sky or Porco Rosso might’ve been mere afterthoughts if he’d bothered to transport the full extent of his vision of aerial warfare from the page to the screen, instead of doing something new entire. Even his environmental themes, so eloquently expressed throughout the manga, find themselves put to film in ways far more vibrant and immediate in works like Princess Mononoke, which at times feels like a perfect distillation of his concerns for nature and mankind alike in ways that Nausicaä is at times more disturbingly ambiguous about. With her savior-mentality persona and her action-heroine figure, the character of Nausicaä on the page is one that doesn’t fully carry the weight of traditional suspense when it comes to whether or not we think she’ll survive her encounters, or win out in her quest– those already seem foregone conclusions, thanks to her innate strengths. Instead, the bigger question is what quest she will decide to win, and what purpose she intends to serve– to save the forests, or save mankind.
It’s to Miyazaki’s credit that he keeps this question an active one, no matter how troubling, throughout the manga, but as the repetitions and wheelspinning of the narrative become more and more apparent over the epic pagecount, one can’t help but wonder if his creative energies wind up being drowned in just the same kind of nihilism he props up as the true antagonistic force for Nausicaä to counter. There’s more clarity in the film of the story, and in Miyazaki’s career in animation as a whole, which makes his decision to move past the tale of the manga in favor of original works even more satisfying. At times one might wish that other fantasists could leave well enough alone or at the very least find a way to balance their epic aspirations with their more idiosyncratic interests– much as I adore the latter-day Star Wars prequels or Evangelion rebuilds, I can’t help but wish we’d see more from the more radical roots of Lucas and Anno than a mere experiment here or there. Still, those projects at least have afforded more creative zest and appeal than you’d likely find if the full breadth of the Nausicaä story were recounted in animation– we already got the lions’ share of the best parts of the manga put to the screen, and the rest have found their way into arguably even stronger works throughout the whole of Miyazaki’s career. It may not be as much of a masterpiece as anything that would follow in its wake, but both the anime and manga are certainly the work of a master, and essential to a full appreciation of his talent.