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.