Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind may be the quintessential Hayao Miyazaki film—meaning, not necessarily his best, but the most comprehensive assortment of his characteristic themes and motifs. The setting is a staggering feat of creative world-building and visual opulence. Characters include a strong young female protagonist, children, and old people; and while the villains may be more clearly evil than most Miyazaki antagonists, they don’t ultimately evoke hatred or vindictiveness. There are flight sequences and stunning uses of water. Themes include pacifism and environmentalism. The story frankly acknowledges the sadness of loss and fears for possible future losses, but is subtly shot through with hope and grace.

This combination is all the more remarkable since Nausicaä is only Miyazaki’s second film and his first original film (his directorial debut, The Castle of Cagliostro, is based on Monkey Punch’s manga series Lupin III). One might say he began with a showcase of everything, or almost everything, that would become a trademark of his later works. The premise and characters weren’t invented for the screen, though; they originated in the director’s own manga series, of which the film adapts a part. I can’t compare the two, not having read the series, but the adaptation strikes a perfect balance: it stands alone as an independent story, yet also creates an intriguing feel of being part of something much larger.

The premise is among the more startling and ambitious even in Miyazaki’s oeuvre: Industrialized civilization has been dead for a thousand years. An invasive jungle of poisonous plants, inhabited by giant insects, dominates the earth and threatens mankind’s survival. The remaining human communities, for the most part, are either dying or at war with each other. Nausicaä may have the bleakest setting of any Miyazaki film, with the possible exception of Princess Mononoke.

Despite the darkness of its world, however, the story is shot through with rays of light, not least of which is Nausicaä herself (Alison Lohman), princess of the Valley of the Wind. Ranking easily with the greatest of cinematic heroines, Nausicaä has great strength and initiative, but also embodies Miyazaki’s pacifist ideal, emphatically expressing aversion toward killing or hurting anyone. Her strength lies in her willingness to risk or sacrifice herself for others, especially the people of the Valley, but including strangers in need and even the insects, with whom she has a mysterious connection. Her people have absolute confidence in her, which she uses to help them maintain hope and courage, even when she hardly feels those herself.

Nausicaä’s allies are no slouches either, including the legendary swordsman Lord Yupa (Patrick Stewart), tough, one-eyed Mito (Edward James Olmos), and, later, Asbel (Shia LaBeouf), a young fighter pilot from the neighboring kingdom of Pejite. Nor do characters have to fight or fly airships to be lights in the darkness. Ordinary people, notably the elderly Obaba (Tress MacNeille), manage to display courage and compassion that evoke respect and strengthen their neighbors. After all, in such a perilous world, even surviving requires some toughness, and maintaining a community calls for some generosity and solidarity.

Conversely, the proud, hardhearted and self-absorbed worsen the devastation and risk causing further destruction. Chief among these characters is Kushana, princess of Tolmekia (Uma Thurman), whose style of leadership is the polar opposite of Nausicaä’s, as one of the Valley people notes. Kushana’s talk and behavior are a disturbingly clear echo of real-world tyrants and political bullies: standing amid the murder, robbery, and general destruction wreaked by her soldiers, she proclaims that her mission is one of peace, guaranteed to bring power and freedom to all who follow her. A lone voice protests the deadly danger that her plans involve; that voice is soon lost in the chaos, but the listeners later have cause to remember the warning.

Yet even characters who decry the Tolmekians’ cruelty aren’t necessarily innocent of comparable sins, notably perpetrating tremendous violence “for the good of the planet.” Here the film speaks especially to our time, which so often justifies horrors—the slaughter of the innocent, or destruction of what matters to them, or indifference to their needs—in the name of some future good so great that everything must be sacrificed to it. The politics involved here get a little confusing sometimes (who’s attacking whom? why again? etc.), but Miyazaki never lets us forget the stakes. The larger nations around the Valley, caught up in their mutual hatred and their own stubborn convictions about how to fix everything, threaten to destroy Nausicaä’s tiny homeland in their mad schemes and quarrels.

Faced with these nightmares, Nausicaä thrusts herself like Don Quixote’s spear against the windmill of her world’s brutality. Early on, in a terrible moment of crisis, she is briefly overcome with rage; after that she pours her heart and soul into her cry, “All this killing must stop!” She rushes to rescue anyone in trouble, refuses to leave anyone in need, and may threaten with a gun, but never actually shoots a person. During an airship fight, she climbs on top of a ship, attempting—with some success—to use herself as a human shield. Amid a world torn by prejudice and enmities, she extends kindness to people of any and all nations, ultimately including those who have wronged her. She defends her people with all the zeal of her passionate spirit, but refuses to hate those who have mistreated or threatened them.

The contrast between Nausicaä’s way and that of most other people extends to encounters with the giant insects, too. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault; almost all humans quite reasonably regard these creatures as terrors to be avoided at all cost. If an insect’s anger is roused—especially if it’s an Ohmu (rhymes with home), the largest and predominant species—its onslaught is practically unstoppable. Nausicaä, however, has a mysterious ability to understand the insects and to make them understand her. She can not only placate them and interact peacefully with them, but is able to intuit their perspective and see a better side to them.

Seeing through Nausicaä’s eyes, the audience learns some intriguing things about the Ohmu as well. They seem almost like representatives of nature: very dangerous and not to be trifled with, but not evil, deserving of respect, and capable of great benevolence too. (Does Miyazaki’s Shinto/animist heritage influence his perspective here? Likely, but there’s nothing explicit pagan.) In fact, a second-act climactic revelation shows the Ohmu pretty clearly as guardians of the earth, though the reason for this makes the environmentalism a little too obvious.

At another point, the creatures are said to “reflect the anger of the earth,” when, in response to the foolhardy brutality of a few humans, they move to inflict a ferocious judgment on guilty and innocent alike. Here, however, a higher, more grace-informed perspective intervenes, overruling this merciless justice by means of a redemptive sacrifice. This triumph of mercy through self-gift is a crucial nuance, making clear that Miyazaki’s environmental concerns are not at odds with his humanism. It could also be seen as a Christian element in the story, or at least one eminently agreeable to a Christian worldview.

In fairness, Nausicaä’s world isn’t merely dangerous or austere; it’s also fascinating and beautiful. Its emotional heart is the serene charm of the Valley of the Wind, where the pleasant community lives in a land of green fields, luscious crops, and stone houses and windmills. The most fantastic visual feats, though, appear in the exotic splendor of the jungle. Poisonous but magical, the jungle is a world unto itself, popping with color and teeming with flora and fauna like nothing ever imagined or drawn. Protected by an air-filtering mask and her powers, Nausicaä explores its depths at leisure, discovering things and learning secrets that no one else dares seek.

By now, I think nearly everything I’ve said adds up to one statement: beneath its explosively inventive trappings, Nausicaä’s world is our world. It’s turbulent, often heartbreaking, and sometimes apparently hopeless, but also beautiful and brightened with virtue and grace. There’s never any shortage of loss and devastation, but we can worsen it or reduce it, sometimes dramatically. Those with special gifts must use them responsibly, as Nausicaä does hers, but ultimately her greatest strengths are those within anyone’s reach—courage, selflessness, compassion and perseverance. And if we do have the inner strength to give ourselves to creating and restoring rather than destroying, we may be rewarded with signs like this movie’s final shot, modest but charged with significance, an image of life renewed and returning. It’s not a flawless film, but for the past ten years or so, it’s repeatedly left me with a little more wonder at life, a little more of an eye for what might be, and a little more courage and hope in my own soul.