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Maxime Miranda in Minimis: Swarm Consciousness in Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

By Adnan Mahmutovic and Denise Nunes

The relationship between human beings and nature starts with insects and ends with insects.
—Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia

Hayao Miyazaki’s manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind presents an attempt to think with insects. By dramatizing the discontinuities, contradictions, and gaps in the space between humans and insects, which Jacques Derrida calls “the abyss,” Miyazaki presents a staggering challenge to human imagination. However, this challenge also constitutes a promise when it comes to thinking with animals and otherness in general. We find interesting resonances between the way Miyazaki’s character Nausicaä gazes into “the abyss that is the heart of the Ohmu [a giant insect kind]” (Vol I 183) and the way Derrida states that looking into the “bottomless gaze” of the other “offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human” (12). There is indeed a vast area of difference between what we have come to define as the “‘I-we’ and what we call animals” (Derrida 30), but instead of accepting this limit as an absolute, one has to ask what would happen to the limit “once it is abyssal” (ibid. 31). In no way does Derrida seek to erase differences between humans and animals. He excludes the possibility of a definitive difference. For instance, the ability to speak is often taken as the ultimate limit, the unbridgeable difference, but Derrida does not want to base inter-species relationships on what the animal can or cannot do. Rather, he asks us to focus on the way the animal demands a response, a relation or event which is extremely prominent in Miyazaki’s work, as, for instance, Princess Mononoke (1997). There is no single encounter with animals that does not elicit some form of response, and often even a certain level of communication, that does not call for profound (re)positioning of human characters. Animals—primarily insects in Nausicaä—call for a response because, as Mathew Calarco states, “they have the capacity to interrupt one’s existence and inaugurate ethical and political encounters” (106).

In Insectopedia, Hugh Raffles writes that we “simply cannot find ourselves in these creatures … It is a deep dead space without reciprocity, recognition, or redemption” (44). It is even difficult to imagine them as animals, which is why they have so often figured as aliens in science fiction. This abyssal difference has caused them to frequently be met with disgust, an inclination that some environmental scientists hope to change in the near future, since they suggest that we should invite these creatures to the dinner table.1 Yet, because of this difference, they are also so “prosaic and so exotic, … so social and so solitary, so expressive and so inscrutable, so generative and so opaque, so seductive yet so unsettling” (Raffles 3). Insects are interesting in that their worlds, as Claude Nurisdany and Marie Pérennou argue, lie “somewhere on the edge of our perception…. We must keep our imagination alert as we enter this world and be prepared to set aside our most firmly held beliefs” (quoted in Dodd 97, our emphasis). We may find this setting aside through acts of imagination and compassion at the core of Miyazaki’s work.2

Nausicaä produces a sense of wonder that is simultaneously directed towards the micro world of the insects and the macro world that is the biosphere. This wonder starts with endeavors to communicate with or think with insects, the micro. Miyazaki illustrates how this sense of wonder at the micro level of engagement has the potential to expand perception and understanding of the interconnectedness of life inhabiting the biosphere, and eventually produce ethical responses that define coexistence of species on the planet. Nausicaä asks what would it mean to take insects seriously and to allow for the possibility of abyssal forms of communication. By emphasizing decentralized interactions among human characters, and, most importantly, between humans and insects, Nausicaä invites creativity into the analysis of differences that divide human and insect worlds. It shows that humans can experience intimacy in momentary encounters with insects, encounters that color both how the insects are perceived in their own worlds, but also how the entire planet can be imagined. Most importantly, these encounters do not result in a reduction of difference to something manageable or controllable. Instead the focus is on exploring the potentialities inherent within such differences.

Amy Murphy describes Miyazaki’s story as “a post-postmodern world—one where nature returns once Western industrial progress has reached its own fatal demise” (7). The story takes place a thousand years after the so-called “Seven Days of Fire,” which saw most of human technology disappear and the earth transformed into a wasteland. The Sea of Corruption (Fukushōi), a giant toxic forest, has pushed humans to the peripheries of the landmasses, completely changing the global landscape.3 Humankind lives in small divided kingdoms and all share a religious belief that the “blue-clad one” will come and save them from the terrible fate that awaits them in the toxic miasma that spreads from the forest. Although there is hardly any world to own, different kingdoms still wage wars against each other. Only insects and plants can survive in the areas of high toxicity. A few other animals exist, such as the bird-looking horseclaw, which humans use for riding. An insect creature called Ohmu, which resembles a gigantic louse, is the most important secondary character. When Nausicaä looks into the abyssal heart of the Ohmu she starts a communication that resonates across both human and insect worlds and develops into an ethical relationship with the planet.4

The ethical relationship to the planet in the manga is dramatized through the image and notion of the “swarm.” Swarming is how we human beings have imagined insect societies. The metaphorical value of swarming is also one the most prominent features in portrayals of insects in literature and literary criticism (Brown; Connor; Sleigh; Preston). Eric C. Brown writes that while the metaphor of the insect and insect swarms was one fraught with disorder and chaos, due to its connection to Biblical plagues of Egypt (29), it was nevertheless more common to think of insect societies as “the poetic models for ideal, organized communities, clockwork colonies of perfect governance and efficiency” consisting of a central figure of authority (often a queen) who governs a highly organized society of mindless drones (Brown 21). Still, given that insects challenge what Graham J. Murphy calls “the dominance of liberal humanism’s focus on individual identity and selfhood” (273), fictional depictions of insect societies have been used to display certain societal fears regarding conformism and lack of individuality. Richard J. Leskosky notes that the 1950s “marked the first great flowering of big bug films” and attributes this to the great social insecurity felt by most Americans and the many fears “stemming from the Cold War—fear of invasion, fear of conformity, fear of nuclear war or nuclear contamination, and a general fear of otherness” (327). Books and movies have identified many of these fear factors. In works like Starship Troopers (1959), insect invasions were the “Cold War metaphors for our anxieties about communists taking over the world” (Lockwood 39), and they came to “represent not only the living cogs of industrialism but also the submissive followers of despotism” (ibid. 47). Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich argue that the achievement of the beehive state “is a nightmare embodied in many dystopian works of our time” (46), because “the hive or machine becomes the symbol for the things in human social life that can render us helpless, insignificant, unhuman” (49). Imagined insect societies have been common in dystopian novels precisely because they so effectively display these fears. Ladd Ehlinger’s Hive Mind (2010) is one famous example. Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang is often quoted in relation to imaginations of insect societies (Sleigh; Preston). Similar ideas are found in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938). Disney’s recent feature, Big Hero 6 (2014), which hinges on a fight between a sole heroic figure and swarms of miniature robots controlled by one mastermind, follows in the rather long tradition of popular fictions that characterize the swarm as a centralized form of society with a central authority controlling drone-like populations.

In the ways it reimagines insect and human worlds, Miyazaki’s manga seems to critique the notion of centralized swarming behavior. Instead, it showcases what entomologists have called decentralized “swarm consciousness” as a way to expand perception from individual worlds towards a sense of planet and what could be called planetary responsibility. In order to analyze how “swarm consciousness” is activated in the manga, it is necessary to understand the concept’s scientific implications, beginning with the mysterious insect Umwelten of Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). The Umwelt, as presented in A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, and commonly translated as “environment,” is based on the perceptive and cognitive capacities of unique creatures. All creatures, “be they beetles, butterflies, gnats or dragonflies who populate a meadow, [have] a soap bubble around them, closed on all sides, which closes off their visual space and in which everything visible for the subject is also enclosed” (Uexküll 69). No two Umwelten are alike and all Umwelten are equally limited because each creature has its own specific perceptive signs by which they perceive objects, which in turn activate a unique response in the subject. Uexküll uses the tick as an example because it only has three perceptive and effect signs, which means that it is not hard to understand its Umwelt. Since each creature lives in a sphere which contains only the objects that are meaningful to it, “each and every living thing is a subject that lives in its own world, of which it is the center” (ibid. 45). All creatures live in equally meaningful worlds that are limited, which makes any attempt to hierarchically position different worlds in relation to one another completely irrelevant (ibid. 221). Adam Dodd states that the “insect world,” which is a common concept that has been used since the 18th century to indicate a certain “cognitive distancing” between human beings and insects (98), is not to be confused with Uexküll’s Umwelt since it is not an actual world. Instead, it is a “dynamic entanglement” of both nature and the human imagination “a world that sits unstably … on the fringe of the human Umwelt itself” (ibid. 99). This means that even though the aim is to experience the insects’ worlds or Umwelten, humans are unable to move beyond their own Umwelt, which means that the insect Umwelten humans imagine are, in the end, always limited human projections. Therefore, the notion of “swarm consciousness” pushes us into defining it as both Uexküll’s Umwelt and a product of the human imagination. As such, it can (1) encourage taking insects seriously, but also (2) deemphasize the centrality of scientific knowledge because any form of knowledge of insect worlds is always inevitably a human projection.

“Swarm consciousness”—also called swarm intelligence, swarm theory, hive mentality, the hive mind—is a decentralized form of organization. There is no central authority, what has most commonly been seen as the queen, so the “[g]uidance of the group is achieved by uninformed individuals aligning their direction of movement with that of their neighbors” (Beekman et al. 19). For Simon Garnier et al. such “interaction networks and feed-back loops among individuals” result in a dynamic society that can count on different individuals reacting to situation specific cues (19). While biology works with empirical knowledge, “swarm consciousness,” as a principle or a mode of inquiry, instead suggests that empirical knowledge may result in increasing the divide. Uexküll has been critiqued for being naïve because it seems to be pointless to regard animals as subjects. What we regard as naïve is the way he limits the tick’s world to just three perceptive signs. Instead of trying to know the tick’s world and as a consequence limiting it to a scientific, anthropocentric framework, it could be possible to approach this foreign world in a less reductive way, which is why the idea of the Umwelt could gain from being seen through the lens of “swarm consciousness,” which encourages greater openness to acts of imagination, even in scientific thought.

Insect worlds do not have to be knowable in a way that is useful. Insects do not have to be “knowable” for us to be able to think with them. Within the vast difference between human and insect worlds there is potential for changing and challenging dominant perspectives; as such thinking with insects is more geared towards fostering a profound ethical response—which should, at least in Miyazaki’s work, constitute a sense of the planet. There may or may not be trans-species communication and understanding, but this must not be the necessary condition for an ethical engagement with the micro of the insect worlds and the macro of the biosphere. While the insect Umwelten remain unknowable, our reflection on them nevertheless has the potential to distort our own Umwelt and thus create a change in perspective, which is exactly what happens, time and again, in Miyazaki’s work.

For example, the scientifically oriented Charuka, who serves the Emperor, is trying to use science in order to take power over nature and ensure human supremacy. The Emperor uses his science division to create a type of fungus spores that will activate “the residual poisons in the soil” and thus poison the land (Vol I 428). Charuka eventually concedes to Nausicaä’s way of communication, whose goal is not the possibility of controlling the great insects, but a sort of community of differences. Attempting to know the subject at hand is reductive in that it limits the utter difference of the insects and turns them into something that can only be the object to the human subject. For instance, Peter Carruthers’ anthropocentric investigation into the degree of mindedness possessed by certain insects leads him to the conclusion that even similarity does not warrant sympathy (275), because “invertebrates make no direct [moral] claims on us” (296). For Carruthers the exclusion of insects from the moral community is an a priori fact unaffected by either similarity or difference. In contrast, for Lockwood, “distasteful insects … can be sources of entomophilia if we use our imaginations” (153). Even Uexküll himself states that it is possible to glimpse the Umwelt of another being, but this is a pre-rational experience that is experienced more powerfully than it can be dissected (233). It must be noted that just because “swarm consciousness” deemphasizes the centrality of scientific knowledge, it does not cancel its value. Such consciousness is not a simple leap from rational science into irrational mysticism. Miyazaki’s Nausicaä, for instance, conducts her own experiments with organisms which lead her to specific discoveries which are then supported through her inexplicable communication with insects (figure 1).5

Figure 1

The problem with reliance on scientific rationality is that it compresses “the entire buzzing, howling, gurgling biosphere into the narrow vocabulary of epistemology” (Manes 15). It is in the perceived silence surrounding the human subject “that an ethics of exploitation regarding nature has taken shape and flourished” (ibid. 16). The silence is, however, not an actual silence, but one that has been created by an a priori limitation of what it is that can be regarded as a speaking subject, as well as what it is that can be regarded as a valid form of communication. Instead, we “need to dismantle a particular historical use of reason, a use that has produced a certain kind of human subject that only speaks soliloquies in a world of irrational silences” (ibid. 25). Considering “swarm consciousness” in relation to Miyazaki’s work, and literature in general, means to look for those decentralized moments of interaction between humans and insects, when the human perception of insect Umwelten changes, and as a consequence so does the individual’s Umwelt.

In “Storyworld / Umwelt: Nonhuman Experiences in Graphic Narratives,” David Herman argues that “narrative affords a bridge between the human and the nonhuman … stories provide this link not merely by allegorizing human concerns via nonhuman animals or engaging in anthropomorphic projections, but also by figuring the lived, phenomenal worlds … of creatures whose organismic structure differs from our own” (159). Herman distinguishes between coarse-grained and fine-grained representations of nonhuman experiences (166). Coarse-grained representations, such as animal allegory and anthropomorphic projection, “encompass nonhuman experiences but remain anchored in humans’ own interactions with their environment.” Fine-grained representations are Umwelt exploration, which “anchor interpreters in (a conception or model of) what it is like for nonhuman agents to interact with their environment on a moment-to-moment basis.” Umwelt explorations show “a concern with nonhuman ways of encountering the world” (167). Employing “medium-specific properties of graphic narratives,” Miyazaki profoundly explores the way “swarm consciousness,” through certain forms of communication, can bridge the gap between insect and human worlds and allow glimpses into the insects’ Umwelten (160). These glimpses will in turn give rise to what we will discuss as the planetary responsibility of the main character.6

Now that we have established the importance of Umwelt theory and “swarm consciousness,” we need to say a few words about the relationship between the micro and the macro, which leads us to Mitchell Tomashow’s “experiment with scale and perspective” (3). In Bringing the Biosphere Home,7 he argues that a deep immersion within the uniqueness of life that surrounds us will expand our Umwelt (93), as well as cultivate a sense of wonder that has “long been at the heart of environmental education” which will lead to “praise, compassion, and an ethic of care” (46). The purpose is to make environmental issues more tangible by allowing our environment to create a basis from which a greater vision of the planet can emerge (8). Tomashow’s approach, rather common in environmental discourses, is called into question by Ursula K. Heise, who argues that an overemphasis on the local, or what we call the micro, will overlook important insights of today’s global organization. The problem lies in defining the local (because it inevitably becomes a cultural construction of place), and it is problematic to assume that “individuals’ existential encounters with nature and engagements with intimately known local places can be recuperated intact from the distortions of modernization” (54). Heise favours starting with “a sense of how political, economic, technological, social, cultural, and ecological networks shape daily routines” (55). Such planetary understanding is achieved through “abstract and highly mediated kinds of knowledge and experience” (62). For Heise, “the local itself is thoroughly unfamiliar to many individuals, and may be epistemologically as unfathomable in its entirety as larger entities such as the nation or the globe” (41). We are left with two alternatives: Tomashow’s emphasis on the intimacy with the local as a precondition for cultivating an ethical stance towards the macro of planet, or Heise’s abstract knowledge of global interconnectedness.

Our reading of Miyazaki’s manga, as illustrated by figure 2 where Nausicaä tries to save an individual Ohmu larvae which one group of humans tried to use as a bait against the swarm, pushes us to favor Tomashaw’s sense of the micro as the basis for a sense of the planet. In an interview with Yom Magazine, Miyazaki says, “If we see generalities from the top of a mountain or from a plane, we feel it’s hopeless, but if we go down, there is a nice road running about fifty meters, we feel this is a nice road … we feel we can go on.” Furthermore, he says, “Things which we think are characteristics of humans, such as feelings, even they might be shared with the simplest virus in this world.” Shifts of perspectives are frequent and often sudden in the manga. The multimodal character of the manga allows for an immediate perception of the contrast between the micro and macro. The wider shot gives the viewers a sense of a swarm of indistinguishable copies of the Ohmu. When the Ohmu are drawn as hardly different from the sand, a character says that the entire seaside is buried in the insects. This perspective is contrasted to Nausicaä’s micro encounter with the individual larvae. She is trying to communicate with the baby insect as the means of saving the swarm. We see that the big picture, that is saving the swarm and understanding the larger issue with their behavior, begins with the intimate moment with the small creature.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the unique way a panel in a graphic narrative can both create a sense of time passage (a temporal sequence), and a possibility to view the entire sequence simultaneously. This makes it possible for the reader to assume several perceptual positions, truly see the juxtaposition of a centralized and a decentralized point of view.

Miyazaki’s characters who start with abstract notions of the planet are the ones who wage wars, who use resources to reshape the planet without any understanding of what it all means for both humans and insects. Heise’s argument depends too much on technology as a mediator of planetary complexity and interconnectedness. There is no shortage of critique of such an approach in Miyazaki. Following the impact of his imaginative rendering of human-insect interaction, we argue that an ethical stance towards the planet has to be emotionally felt to be powerful. “Swarm consciousness” starts with intimacy achieved in actual micro encounters. While humans can theoretically think in large scales and temporal frameworks, which Miyazaki shows through a number of different human individuals and organizations—from the military to the religious cults—human capacity to care seems to diminish the bigger the world becomes. It is within the micro encounters, such as when Nausicaä cries over the death of individual creatures and insects (Vol I 412), that life can become more tangible, and as a consequence, increasingly significant. “Swarm consciousness” is then the macro within the micro. However, the passage is not that simple. One does not achieve a sense of the planet and develop an ethical framework by having one successful communication with an insect, such as in Nausicaä’s first encounter with the Ohmu. Just as it is impossible to achieve an intimacy with individual creatures by only considering the macro, one does not gain a sense of the biosphere through a single encounter with the micro. Rather, an ethical stance is more of a process that develops in an ongoing oscillation between the micro and the macro. What we emphasize is that the process starts with intimate micro encounters, rather than a more abstract sense of the planet, and that it does not stop at some point when some imaginary, ideal, planetary ethics is achieved. What is most important is, in fact, the open-endedness of this process, the fact of its constant development through micro encounters.

Let us look at the scene where Nausicaä at first assumes what appears to be the default interpretation regarding the insect swarms: they are “incredibly angry” (figure 3).

Figure 3

When she changes her perception from the vast and blurry swarm to the one individual insect, she understands that they are not enraged, but actually terrified (Vol I 507). Though the insects have no human expressions to communicate anger or fear, Nausicaä is able to read other signals they use to communicate. The same thing happens in an encounter with the individual Ohmu she met earlier in the plot (figure 4). She interprets the change of the color of its eyes as sadness rather than rage, which is confirmed through this Ohmu’s communication to her.

Figure 4

Nausicaä’s way of slowly expanding her understanding of the planet and the different species takes place over a long period of time, and it never really ends. There is no point in which her sense of the biosphere is a finished product. It is a process of change through a deep engagement with the micro and the macro. It is the movement of her imagination, as in the scene where the reader is forced through the unique possibilities inherent in the medium to see both the swarm and the individual at the same time. This is what happens: the readers can see Nausicaä recognize an individual Ohmu at the same time as she can see the networks of their organization (Vol I 42, Vol II 107 and 132). The fascinating effect of the graphic narrative is that the Ohmu are drawn in a way that corresponds to the common way of rendering insects, as a mass of clone-like creatures (figure 2). The readers cannot but adopt this view because Miyazaki does nothing to help them distinguish between individual Ohmu, but Nausicaä can tell the difference. This creates an interesting effect in that readers then have to adopt two perceptual positions, one of not being able to tell the difference and another of having to face the fact that there is an individual difference, probably as great as the one between Nausicaä and Kushana. Kushana is a leader figure, a fearless warrior, who constantly seeks to be the center of action and maybe even replace her father as the regent of her realm.

The most important aspect of their form of communicating is that it is a communication through means not entirely explained. It is true that what Ohmu conveys to Nausicaä comes in the form of utterances, but these are rendered in a way that is clearly metaphorical. The reader understands the conventional speech bubbles are forms of translation of a type of communication that is neither in a spoken language nor purely telepathic.

The moments of communication are not limited to the linguistic realm and therefore help us breach the barrier of spoken communication. This is particularly important in relation to Nausicaä, who communicates with the Ohmu through touch (Vol II 75). The touching is a form of preverbal physical communication (figure 5). There is an image of a bubble, which is the same shape as the Ohmu’s speech/thought balloon. This moment presents the limits of what we can rationally conceive of as communication. It forces human characters towards the imagination through which it is possible to expand their perception of possible forms of interspecies interaction and, as a consequence, of the planet.

Figure 5

In order to downplay the difficulty of communicating with the insects, Miyazaki frequently shows a certain impossibility of interaction between human tribes and sects, whose particular ideological and linguistic make-ups often make them look as worlds more apart than Nausicaä and the insects. For example, when Nausicaä and Asbel encounter a foreign tribe they try to speak to them, but because Asbel cannot understand their accent they start fighting (Vol I 142).

The potentiality of the manga lies in that it can present speculative encounters with the utter otherness, which resists scientific conceptualization. Tomashow argues that a particular gaze is necessary in order for humans to experience a perceptual shift into the micro perspective: “[t]he quality that is most worthy of emulation and the deepest source of place-based environmental learning is the deliberate gaze” (83). It is in

those speechless moments, when you’re surrounded by such grandeur and fragility, you feel as if you are bearing witness to the magnificence of creation. You gaze through the aboriginal abyss. … There is no need for explanation. There is only this ineffable experience. It is glimpses such as these, inexpressible as they are, that provide the deepest context for environmental learning. (Tomashow 57, our emphasis)

Such “spiritual reflection” is crucial for making the biosphere more tangible (Tomashow 4). In these ineffable moments one is cultivating “feelings of humility, praise, respect, and reverence for the grandeur of the biosphere” (121), because it is understood that “that you are witnessing a complexity and richness of life experience that you can barely grasp” (65). This form of experience inevitably changes the perspective from the micro to the macro, which is exactly what we see rendered in the artwork of Nausicaä (Vol I 131, figure 6).

Figure 6

It is not only the difference of insects that frightens us, but also their indifference: they simply do not seem to care about us (Raffles 185). This supposed indifference is only imposed on insects from the human point of view. However, because “there is a deep space without reciprocity” between humans and insects, this once again returns to the human desire to know, and as a consequence, when faced with an insect, we fail to acknowledge that we will never be able to, or need to know them. In Nausicaä, it is possible to discern exactly how human centered the idea of insect indifference is. Because of the interconnectedness between different Umwelten, nothing that lives on the planet can be said to be truly indifferent. In fact, it is the humans who are indifferent to the planet and everything that lives on it, including their own kind. It is the Ohmu who initiate a communication that will eventually stop the war. They are the ones who actually offer a rational explanation why their sacrifice is necessary to save the planet. This decision, most importantly, is based in the fact of their “swarm consciousness,” their being-with the planet, rather than just on it.

In order to emphasize the fact that the swarming communities of insects are not to be perceived as mindless copies that follow some single governing dictator-like entity, Miyazaki creates another threat, a human-made mold, which is a blob-like virus that swallows everything it touches. The forces that stop this mold are the swarms of insects, in particular the Ohmu. This works against the notion of insect indifference, because it is the insects that save the planet from the havoc human science has wreaked on the eco-systems. The Ohmu act rationally as a swarm consciousness, and the humans act irrationally because they only think of themselves. This inversion is indeed Miyazaki’s trademark in his entire oeuvre, but in our view most prominent in Nausicaä.

Miyazaki’s manga shows a number of different ways of relating to the planet in that several major characters both articulate their conceptions of the world they live in, and also act accordingly. In terms of “swarm consciousness,” which is mostly related through the characters’ decentralized interactions with insects, the main divide lies between Kushana’s centralized view and Nausicaä’s decentralized vision. Kushana struggles to understand Nausicaä’s way of seeing the world, and is often amazed by her sincere love for all life on the planet, because Kushana’s path is the path of hate and blood (Vol I 412). This is because hatred conceals, whilst opening the heart reveals. This is why Nausicaä is able to acknowledge a new form of interspecies communication, which leads to the kind of gaze that Tomashow calls for.

However, there are moments when even Kushana shows a potential to work with “swarm consciousness” (only to disregard it later). When her troops are caught in the swarm of insects, she sits in the midst of the chaos, with her arms around two of her men singing a lullaby to soothe them (Vol I 492). In this moment of seeing the individual, the micro, she could let go of the hate, but she reverts to the path that is “set out for her” (Vol I 51). In other words, Kushana is able to decenter herself, but her hate draws her back to her previous state of mind. While she continuously fluctuates between the center and the path shown to her by Nausicaä, it is only in the postscriptum, where Miyazaki mentions her refusal to assume the throne (Vol II 533), that a possible permanent character transformation might have occurred.

Nausicaä herself represents “swarm consciousness” in two ways: (1) despite being the prophesized “blue-clad-one” (figure 7) with a power to communicate with and control all manner of creatures, she does not use her influence to create a center of political or religious power, but focuses on interactions with everyone she meets (she even regrets being born a princess (Vol I 69)), and (2) it is through these interactions, which are characterized by a drive to understand every living thing through its unique Umwelt, that she is able to show a new way of seeing and relating to planetary life. Nausicaä cannot become part of a political center because to her there are no centers and peripheries. When she flies off on her mehve (German for “seagull”), she does not scout the world with a particular military or political purpose, but rather to gather deep, intimate knowledge of the planet’s condition and the processes it is going through. It is through these encounters that she understands that human beings are the real pollution, that the miasma is a part of what it means to be human, and that the insects are committing mass suicides to use their rotting corpses to clean the planet. She even manages to adopt and transform a warrior god (an old organic cyborg that can produce nuclear power), which some characters reanimated for the purpose of winning the war. She is a “girl from the valley of the wind [that] puts on a Dorok dress dyed for her by the Ohmu [blue blood], and prepares to depart in a Torumekian warship” (Vol I 222).8 By rejecting the center, Nausicaä focuses on interactions that she would not have been able to interact with had her mindset been conditioned by divisions between peoples, insects, and plants. All of Nausicaä’s vastly different interactions remove the idea that the abyss that opens up in encounters with different creatures a priori decides how it is possible to relate to them.

Figure 7

Helen McCarthy argues that Nausicaä is simply a protagonist who seems to live “in a different dimension” (78), and because of this she can challenge “the closed minds and hearts of those who will not look at nature without fear or prejudice,” and teach them to experience it with a “sense of wonder and curiosity” (91). Indeed, Nausicaä does not show love of some abstract notion of the flow of life, but a deep involvement “with every individual living thing” (Vol II 243). The emphasis on individuality and the micro as a means of understanding the community/swarm, and thus the macro of the planet, is essential because Nausicaä considers every organism she meets as a life form worth interacting with, even a squirrel-fox that bites her at their first encounter (only to become her traveling companion). It is through this kind of love that she is able to affect the people that she meets and cause (prophesized) change in their way of relating to otherness. When Asbel meets Nausicaä in the beginning of the story: “[a]ll this talk about the blue-clad one and the Daikasho … I just don’t understand. But one thing I do know … the Ohmu are great and wonderful creatures. A girl risked everything to teach me that” (Vol I 269). Nausicaä helps Asbel realize that the Ohmu do not have to be thought of in antagonistic terms. Figure 8 shows this sense of wonder as Asbel stands in front of the Ohmu with Nausicaä in his arms (Vol I 269).

Figure 8

In figure 8, it appears as if there is a light emitted from somewhere between Asbel and the Ohmu. But there is no light. Rather, this is a graphic representation of the encounter itself, just as conventional speech bubbles are somewhat refashioned to suggest a different form of communication. It was by meeting Nausicaä that Asbel acquired a new way of looking at the Ohmu, realizing that difference is not what determines the ethical dimension of the encounter. Figure 9 shows an encounter in which he clearly sees the Ohmu as something dangerous while the reader can see, through Miyazaki’s juxtaposed images, that the Ohmu is saving Nauisicaä from a fall.

Figure 9

Nausicaä’s way of looking into the world of the insects can bring about a new form of attention towards the micro Umwelten. While most characters think that the “Ohmu are nothing more than insects” (Vol I 237), and that “[i]nsects and humans cannot live in the same world'” (Vol I 128), Nausicaä thinks everyone is a part of the larger ecosystem, whose centuries-long transformations are better understood by the long-lived Ohmu than by the humans. Her transformation begins with Nausicaä looking through the eye of an Ohmu that has shed its shell, wondering what kind of a world the Ohmu sees through its twelve eyes (Vol I 11). She acknowledges that there is a different perspective and a different world, one that she is not privy to, but which is just as real as her own. When she sits on top of the shell (figure 10), the deadly miasma—which she later discovers is caused by human-produced toxicity of the soil—becomes like snow. Instead of focusing on the dangerous aspect of the miasma, she chooses to see it as a healing agent. Imagining the point of view of the Ohmu transforms the forest in her eyes and she is able to even remove herself from the center of her own thinking (Vol I 11).

Figure 10

A sense of wonder, of the kind that Nausicaä shows, allows us to glimpse what makes different species “unique and magnificent” (Tomashow 2). Since Nausicaä decenters the human Umwelt in the moments of ethical decision vis-à-vis the biosphere, she reveals to the reader this uniqueness, both of different species and individuals. What needs to be emphasized at this point is that Nausicaä does not ignore the abyssal differences between the human world and the insects’ worlds. Her wonder, and her imaginative ways of communicating, stem precisely from these ungraspable differences. Nausicaä’s care and concern for insects does not reduce their difference. The knowledge she has of the Ohmu is not used in order to further human goals (e.g., through use of technology), which is characteristic of all other human characters, such as the warring tribes. However, she understands that to have this knowledge is not to know their world because there is more potential within it than she is able to discern.

The central transformative moment towards greater swarm consciousness takes place when Nausicaä truly enters into the abyss of difference. The Daikasho, which is the great migration of insects, causes the Sea of Corruption to spread, since the insects’ bodies become seedbeds to the forest. Nausicaä decides to join them, die and “become part of the forest too” (Vol II 143), but the Ohmu do not want Nausicaä to die and encapsulate her in a protective bubble (Vol II 151, figure 11). This scene partly mirrors the earlier scene where the Ohmu protected her from the fall. The familiarity creates a sense of relationship between the Ohmu and Nausicaä.

Figure 11

Nausicaä, the Ohmu, and the forest, all become closely intertwined and therefore one could say that a sense of the biosphere is compressed into this moment. In the earlier scene, where she sits on top of the Ohmu, she can feel some planetary processes and even “sense the sound of the trees sprouting” (Vol II 147). As she is swallowed, she enters into the dangerous abyss between the worlds and the true vastness of this different perspective is emphasized. The Ohmu “opened their heart to her. … There are those who have achieved sympathy with the Ohmu, but none have peered into the abyss that is the heart of the Ohmu. / The mind of a fragile person would be destroyed by the sight of that abyss” (Vol II 183/184). This new perspective forces her towards the realization that all humans exist with multiplicity, because to look into the heart of the individual Ohmu is to see the entire species: “Each of us in the whole, the whole in each of us. Our hearts speak across time and space” (Vol I 125). When Nausicaä communicates with the Ohmu, it is clear that she is not talking to some central figure, like the bee queen. Rather, since the Ohmu are connected through decentralized processes, talking to one Ohmu is like talking to the entire swarm. However, this does not prevent her from distinguishing between individual Ohmu.

Furthermore, since the Ohmu are insects that live symbiotically with the Sea of Corruption, there is the connection to the planet, and by communicating with them Nausicaä develops their decentralized vision of the planet, which shapes the way she interacts with humans, even the hostile clans and cults, and any other types of living creatures and inanimate things. Following Tomashow, we might argue that Nausicaä, as a human, has an ability to imaginatively expand her Umwelt beyond her “organismic limitations” (Tomashow 94). While the overall reasoning seems sound, we want to take an issue with his notion of expanding the human Umwelt. If humans, specifically, have this capacity, this throws us back into the trap of human exceptionality. This is exactly what we reject by using “swarm consciousness,” as it is presented in Miyazaki’s work, is not about the expansion of Umwelt, because like any other animal, humans remain trapped within their own perceptual bubbles. Miyazaki shows this beautifully when he has Ohmu initiate communication with Nausicaä, rather than the other way round.

If it is not about the expansion of Umwelt, how is it possible to understand what happens in the encounter with this ungraspability? Uxeküll uses the metaphor of bells, each of which is “connected to the outer front through a nervous bell chord, and here it is decided which outer stimuli are allowed to ring a bell and which are not” (166). When a subject reacts to something in the Umwelt it is because that thing has the right tone, which strikes a chord within the subject. “Swarm consciousness” is about fine-tuning the Umwelt. Nausicaä says, “Our lives are like … sounds. We come into being, resonate with each other … then fade away” (Vol II 442). It is a new awareness of that which is already there in the Umwelt, but that has been overlooked. Miyazaki’s rendering of failure of communication between humans is a case in point. “Swarm consciousness” as fine-tuning comes about when we “shift between the large and the small” (Tomashow 95). We are not talking about the microcosm that contains the essence of the macrocosm. Rather, it is the perceptual oscillations between the micro and the macro that aids a development of “swarm consciousness” and a certain ethical stance in relation to both the macro and the micro. Again, we want to stress that “consciousness” does not refer to a fixed state of the mind that is achieved once and for all, but rather a particular way of relating to other beings.

As Miyazaki’s characters increasingly realize the potential of different worlds, their own Umwelt becomes a part of this multiplicity and their status as just one species amongst many is further emphasized. In the final pages, once we learn that it is the humans who are the pollution, it becomes clear that the restoration of the planet will require a disappearance of the human species. When Nausicaä finds the pure garden, a mystical shepherd tells her the human body “has changed to suit a polluted world. … Have you never thought it odd that humans can survive exposure to the miasma with only flimsy masks to protect them?” (Vol II 439). Nausicaä then asks, “So you’re saying we cannot live without the poison?” This encounter will later cause her to speak of purity and contamination as necessary parts of life. Once the Sea of Corruption has purified the planet, the humans will die because they will be unable to live in a pure world. This is where an impending choice is affected by her developing “swarm consciousness.” Nausicaä can either save all the people that are alive at the moment, or make sure that the human race survives by starting a process that will create a new and purified human (but exterminate all now-living humans). She decides to do the first thing and accepts that human time is limited and, perhaps, not meant for this world in the end. This decentering of humans is caused by her communication with every being she has met, be it warmongering humans or humungous insects, small squirrel-like creatures, or apparitions.

The story concludes with the characters’ realization that instead of positioning the human as the apex of creation, humankind becomes one species amongst many. Seeing the grander perspective with “feelings of humility, praise, respect, and reverence for the grandeur of the biosphere” encourages “an ethic of care for the fabric of biodiversity, for the whole Earth project, beyond the chauvinistic needs of the human species” (Tomashow 121). When human superiority is challenged like this in literature, it opens up spaces that allow other worlds to become significant, and as these worlds become significant, they cannot be said to be indifferent because all the different Umwelten are harbored by the planet and therefore fully dependent upon it. And it is only when we have come to the end of the story that all of the characters in Nausicaä become the blue-clad-ones of the prophecy and Nausicaä’s friend exclaims: “[l]ook I’m not as blue as you, but I guess these spots make me something of a ‘blue-clad one’ myself” (Vol II 532). All of them become like the prophet who was supposed to help people crate a new connection with the earth and save them from a life in the toxic miasma. When all of them become prophets, they can all realize that it is not someone else that will reestablish their link to the planet, but each individual becomes responsible for it.

By dramatizing Maxime Miranda in Minimis—the greatest wonder in that which is the smallest—Nausicaä shows that an ethical stance towards the planet arises from small encounters and a will to think with insects (and animals in general). The process starts with intimate micro encounters, rather than a more abstract sense of the planet. It does not stop with an achievement of an ideal, planetary ethics. It is the open-endedness of this process of change through a deep engagement with the micro and the macro, this process that shows the limits of imagination in the face of the abyssal difference between humans and insects, which pushes towards an expansion of one’s ethical relationship to the planet. Nausicaä shows that the insects are always there, forever infesting our worlds and our minds, helping us reimagine our planet.9


[1] See Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security published by the UN.

[2] Most research on Nausicaä seems to be on the anime, that is, the film version of the story, which covers only the first two chapters of the original manga (Murphy; McCarthy; Hendrix; Ruh; Rifa-Valls). Shigemi Inaga only briefly touches on a few aspects of the manga and focuses on relating these events to Miyazaki’s ideology and postwar Japanese society, but does not offer a coherent analysis of the entire story.

[3] What we here call a forest is really a complex ecosystem of plants, insects, and fungi that encroaches on everything.

[4] Helen McCarthy relates that in his childhood, Miyazaki “read a traditional Japanese folktale called The Princess who Loved Insects [Mushi mezuru himegimi], the story of a medieval princess who was fascinated by all living things, especially insects. … Years later, browsing through Bernard Evslin’s Dictionary of Grecian Myths, he encountered Phaecian princess Nausicaä … Evslin’s image of the fleet-footed, brave and merry Greek princess merged with that of the Japanese heroine” (McCarthy 75).

[5] A note: in the original, the images we display should be read from right to left. The digital copy of the volumes we use in this article were unfortunately reversed and for this reason they are to be read from left to right.

[6] Nausicaä was the official WWF ambassador of 1984.

[7] Tomashow uses “the term biosphere in its broadest and most literal sense, to convey the idea of a “sphere” of life (“bio”) that surrounds the planet, its influence stretching from the highest reaches of the atmosphere to the inner depths of the earth’s core” (Tomashow 2).

[8 ] Dorok and Torumekia are two kingdoms at war with each other. The Valley of the Wind is a peaceful kingdom that was forced into the conflict.

[9] We would like to thank Dr. Claudia Egerer and Dr. Francesco Alessio Ursini for their help with this research.

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