I asked for manga suggestions a couple of months back, and one that came highly recommended (including by a bookseller at my local comics shop) was Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I honestly can’t remember if I’ve even seen the animated film version, but the comic has become a new favorite, to me wholly worthy of the label masterpiece. It was so masterful that I was befuddled by Miyazaki’s self-effacing note at the end claiming that he had no talent for comics.
I was also befuddled that several hosts of the podcast Mangasplaining (also a new favorite) hated it. Or if hate is too severe of a word, at least strongly disliked – and disliked for some of the same reasons that I loved it: the density of its panels, that made it hard for me to breeze through like so many other comics, forcing me to read in multiple sittings and savor; and the purity of its protagonist.
On the latter: the criticism is that Nausicaä herself is too good, too pure – too lacking in flaws. The story goes against modern screenwriting and story conventions, that our hero must heal some internal wound in the process of solving the external dilemma. But like the panel-density thing, I see Nausicaä’s purity as a feature, not a bug. I think there’s something to be said about characters who model moral behavior from the get-go. Characters who are headstrong and obstinate and don’t change much because they actually are right, and their rightness is championed by those around them.
I understand wanting to reflect internal wounds and struggles. Readers – particularly kid readers who themselves feel wounded – need those mirrors. But I also remember the “priceless vase” episodes of afternoon kids’ shows I’d watched growing up. You know the ones, where the main character(s) knock over some family heirloom or museum artifact and spend the majority of the episode trying to repair and replace it, trying to hide their guilt and shame, only to finally confess to the adults at the end and discover that they are forgiven, and still loved.
What’s most salient about those episodes, for me, isn’t the ending but how much screen time is devoted to the cover-up. I wonder if for some impressionable young minds, the amount of attention given to the cover-up emphasizes the wrong part of the story, makes us feel in at least a small way that shame and guilt are preconditions for love and forgiveness.
As usual, The Simpsons made this critique long before I did. But even that Simpsons joke has us infer the right action. What if instead, immediately after knocking over the priceless vase, our protagonist owned up to what they did? There wouldn’t be a story, you’d say. And you’d probably be right. But doesn’t the un-storyworthiness of it deprive us of something vital?
We should absolutely champion characters who overcome, through great trials, their internal struggles. But I think it’s also worth championing characters whose internals are already whole, whose empathicness and sense of right is not hard-won but there from the start. They’re the kinds of characters found more commonly in myth and religion, but also in everyday life – people, real and imaginary, who when you meet them expand your own personal Overton window. Who by example help you see healthier possible ways of moving through the world. Characters like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Driving back from dinner at my mom’s the other day, I tried to talk all this out in the car with Julia, who, in her infinite wisdom, said that maybe it was better to widen the view. To look not just at these individual protagonists but at the constellation of characters around them, working on the reader as an entire system.
Talk about windows expanding!