The Other Ghibli: Tales from Earthsea

Last week saw the U.S. release of two long-awaited Ghibli discs: a Blu-ray of Nausicaa and the DVD of 2006’s Tales from Earthsea, long delayed by rights issues. Tales from Earthsea is, as most know by now, Studio Ghibli’s attempt to put to film the Earthsea series of fantasy novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. The film became a source of notoriety and debate even before its release with the announcement of its director: industry novice Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao.

It might be noble to attempt to analyze the film in a vacuum, ignoring its production history and the last name of its director. But that would be letting Ghibli have it both ways. If they wanted to create and sell the film purely on its merits, after all, they would have given the director’s chair to one of many highly skilled (if unknown) talents inside or outside Ghibli. Instead, they installed someone with no directorial experience because his last name is Miyazaki, a cynical bait-and-switch that any honest review of this film can’t ignore.

And frankly, without bringing in the production history, there’s simply not a lot to talk about. This is a competently made but apathy-inspiring piece of work, one of those films that straddles that line between mediocre and decent that can only be described by that recent addition to the Collins English Dictionary: “meh.”

In short, the film centers itself around Arren, a young prince who has fled home and taken up with Sparrowhawk (whose true name is Ged, hence the Japanese title, Gedo Senki), a Gandalf/Obi-Wan Kenobi-style wizard. Sparrowhawk, played by yazuka film legend Bunta Sugawara, becomes a mentor to Arren, who is attempting to quell demons within himself. Eventually they’re pitted against Lord Cob, a one-note villain whose quest for immortality is upsetting the balance within Earthsea’s world. I’m not equipped to judge Tales from Earthsea’s adherence to the novels, but ostensibly Ursula K. Le Guin is: as she writes, the film replaced with hers “an entirely different plot, lacking in coherence and consistency.”

Le Guin goes on to say because we’re never given a reason to empathize with the characters, their statements about life and death “come out as preachy.” Here she hits succinctly one of the great flaws of the film: the characters pontificate at length about life and death and the relationship of humans with their environment, but it doesn’t feel organic. Imagine a version of Innocence where Togusa and Batou only quote Earthsea books – minus the visual invention of that film.

Because even coming from a studio less praised for their fluidity and flair, Tales from Earthsea would look lifeless and drab. This, one might infer (as Le Guin does in her reaction) is due to the film’s tight production schedule. But Goro Miyazaki reveals in his production diary the simple character designs were his idea, a throwback to films like Horus: Prince of the Sun and Nausicaa, where the designs were simple but the motion was fluid. Unfortunately, Tales from Earthsea accomplishes only the first half of that statement. Aside from a few battles and now dated looking CG, it’s a fairly motionless film.

Goro Miyazaki’s aforementioned production diary, a blog updated throughout the making of the film (and translated into english with yeoman’s work by Paul Barnier) was the idea of producer Toshio Suzuki. When Miyazaki the elder came out strongly and publicly against his son directing the film, Suzuki set up the blog as a way for Goro to introduce himself to the world. Whether Suzuki meant him to, Goro wrote extremely candidly about the making of the film and his relationship with his father.

At times, it’s painfully naive. You can see signs of how this film is going to turn out when Goro writes about not knowing the proper word for a camera movement, or about how much he’s learning from head of the ink and paint division. This is stuff you’d be happy to read from an intern, say, or production assistant, but less so from the director of the film. It’s obvious from Goro’s own words this film was completed only thanks to the immense talent pool at Ghibli. In other words, yes, with the same cast and crew, you too could probably make a watchable film.

But what’s really striking is how, in the case of Miyazaki, at least, this film really proves the auteur theory: even with virtually the same backing talent as films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Tales from Earthsea, without a strong guiding hand, doesn’t achieve a fraction of what those films do.

Nevertheless, I actually find the diary really endearing. It’s obvious from his writing that while the talent or experience might not be there, he’s tackling the project with all his energy, and he writes so earnestly that it’s hard to scoff. And more heart-wrenching than anything in the film itself are Goro’s entries about his father’s absenteeism and how he grew up loving the works of Hayao Miyazaki the animator, but not knowing Hayao Miyazaki the person. Apparently, that distance persists: Goro’s entry about Earthsea’s premiere mentions that while his father was in attendance, he relayed his thoughts about the film through a third party rather than speak to his son directly.

In the first few minutes of Earthsea, the main character, Arren, stabs to death his father, the bearded, highly-respected leader of a wide kingdom. Le Guin, in her reaction, was confused as to why Arren did it. I’m not.


  1. Last two paragraphs are awesome and sum up how I’ve felt about Miyazaki for a while.

    Miyazaki being a fantastic artist/story-teller and less fantastic father / mentor put Tezuka into perspective for me, with photographs of him in his office drawing with his son reading and drawing under his desk, and the many stories from industry vets like Dezaki and Rintaro about how giving and helpful Tezuka was as a mentor to them as young men.

    Compare that to Miyazaki, who very publicly pushed Mamoru Hosoda out of the director’s chair during Howl’s Moving Castle and then would go after his son’s film in public.

  2. When I first watched that movie I knew nothing about the production history and all that family feud. And I found it to be a decent flick.

    Then I learned about the background of this movie and I must say I was pretty amazed. For a complete newcomer, Earthsea is a very fine effort. Goro Miyazaki showed some true potential in this movie. But I’m afraid this might be the last we see from him.

    Oh yeah, that movie also made me realize that Miyazaki sr. seems to be an @sshole (or a stinkin’ diva at least). Not just because of the whole family affair, but because of the way he treated Le Guin. I mean, she specifically said that if anyone she wanted him to to direct this movie. If he wasn’t, the movie wouldn’t be made. So when Ghibli gets the rights for Earthsea, Miyazaki suddenly says he’s retiring. Only to suddenly come out of retirement to make Ponyo. Classy, Mr. Miyazaki, very classy.

  3. Thanks for the responses so far, guys.

    Dennis, Ghibli actually just announced a new film to be directed by Goro called Kokurikozaka kara, due out this summer. Suzuki is quoted as saying to Goro, “if this second film is bad, you may be dismissed.” Here’s some info from the awesome Ghibli Blog.

    So, we’ll see. I suspect it’ll be a much better film than his first.

  4. I haven’t seen the movie…and won’t go out of my way to do so unless the opportunity just happens to present itself, but this definitely was an interesting read discussing some of its flaws and difficult production history.

    Dennis is absolutely correct. Shame on Studio Ghibli and on Miyazaki himself for misleading Le Guin. As a matter of principle, there’s really no way to excuse their behavior.

    That said, a certain part of me wonders -as I have mentioned elsewhere as of late- about the things we take for granted as far as “good storytelling” or “good filmmaking” are concerned and whether or not they’re inherently necessary for enjoying any of these works of fiction, without automatically concluding that the alternative is simply to lack anything resembling taste or a functioning brain.

    Is a movie that isn’t “well-made” necessarily destined to be worthless or should its technical mediocrity be considered boring to the point of being insulting (or vice versa)?

    In this particular case, of course, elaborating on the above is impossible without watching the film first but the overall question remains.

  5. One thing that impresses me about all of the backstory behind Earthsea, is how much Ghibli allowed to become public. Whereas most Japanese companies tend to err on the side of privacy, it’s interesting that they’d be so open about the production difficulties and the strained relationship between old man Miyazaki and his son.

  6. I just lost a lot of respect for Hayao. I heard a little of his disappointment with his son’s directorial debut but did not know their relationship was that ugly. Those last three sentences in the article sum it up for me. Hope his next work is a success.

  7. One thing that always baffled me about this film and the changes it makes to the characters is that it so obviously expects its audience to be familiar with the books, but is also so obviously something fans wouldn’t like. You need to have read at least the first two novels for the film to be even vaguely comprehensible because it never provides any decent introduction for characters like Ged, but it feels so divorced from the world and characters of the novels that I can actually imagine most people who have read them liking it less than those who are merely confused by it.

    I’ve always wondered how much say Goro had in the script, because I doubt even a more experienced directory could have made more than an above average film out of the story on display in this one. Of course, if he did have control of the script it means his grasp of the fundamentals of storytelling is a bit shaky, and that hardly bodes well for any of his future projects.

    Hopefully he learned enough during the production that he’ll have a better idea of how to put together his next film.

  8. Another interesting tidbit that may not be alluded to in the director’s blog is how much of Hayao’s short graphic novel “The Journey of Shuna” was used for art direction of backgrounds and props in Earthsea (it also has elements that would be used in Princess Mononoke). It seems as though Goro mined his father’s material while not giving any of it much thought.

  9. Interesting that Miyazaki told Le Guin that it would all be fine because he would be supervising the movie and his son would be directing, and that he is now working on a movie with Goro. The whole “son against father” thing echoes the theme of the movie so neatly, and worked so well to sell it to Japanese teens disaffected with parents and outgrowing classic Ghibli.

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