The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Tales from Earthsea: A Super Advanced Review

Written by: Mike Leader, Special to CC2K

Image Recently, I went to see the new studio Ghibli animated movie, Tales From Earthsea. I’m guessing this qualifies for a ‘Super Advance Review’ tag, as due to contractual entanglements regarding the Ursula K. LeGuin Earthsea books, the movie might not hit U.S. shores until 2009. Now I realise that not all people are enlightened or down with the Ghibli mythos, so I’ll throw in a few pointers about their films and why they’re in a league of their own in terms of animation and storytelling.

One thing that has both fans and critics excited about the very idea of Tales From Earthsea, as if the prospect of a new Ghibli film wasn’t enough, is the fact that it’s not directed by the studio’s foremost dreamer, Hayao Miyazaki, but his son, Goro Miyazaki. The film is the son’s debut feature length, and slips into his father’s usual role of director and (co)-writer. This gives the film, as in the intellectual property, the burden of ‘does the son stand up to the father’s precedent?’ People have morbid fascinations with ‘hereditary pressure’, look no further than the marketing gimmick that is Wu-Tang Clan recording a version of The Beatles song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ with Dhani (son of George) Harrison on guitar, as if his surname is testament to his ‘authority’ on the song. However, I’d probably allow some pressure for Goro, as he is working in the exact medium his father (arguably) revolutionised, and uses for source material a set of books that his father had long toyed with adapting.

But I won’t get ahead of myself. Indeed, what is the fuss all about? Well, as a primer, here’s a run-down for those scratching their heads:

Japanese Animation studio Studio Ghibli are world-famous for their distinct, acclaimed films. Domestically, they’ve broken attendance figures, and left an indelible mark on the country, which is a real feat in a place where cinema ticket prices are some of the highest in the world, and families prefer to play on their Nintendo Wiis than watch television. Perhaps more impressively, the studio has managed to break out of the confines of the ‘anime subculture’ in order to enjoy success in the U.S., including winning an Academy Award in Best Animation for Spirited Away. This success was no doubt helped a lot by distribution from Disney, and a set of high profile dubbing jobs – featuring voice talent from Janeane Garofalo to Christian Bale, from Dakota Fanning to Phil Hartman.

The mastermind behind their most successful films was Hayao Miyazaki, and his strict ‘no cuts, no edits’ policy on international distribution, along with his technical and imaginative skill has turned him from ‘another anime guy’ into one of the more obvious nominees for ‘auteur’ status in modern cinema. He is a strident and independent mind, designing, directing and writing the majority of his works, and through a strict ‘no edits, no cuts’ policy, has assured that his films, which in themselves capture a certain beauty of their home country, are seen unadulterated and unmitigated in the wider world. A famous anecdote recalls when Harvey Weinstein, the distributor for Princess Mononoke, suggested editing the film for the mainstream market, he received a package from Ghibli: it contained a sword, with a message saying ‘no cuts’. This occurrence, I feel, displays not only the devilishly tricksy imagination of the studio, but its fierce belief in its work. 

[Now, let me make a side-point here. If Tarantino and Rodriguez were as proud of their work as the Ghibli guys, and had such strong belief in their international fanbase, maybe they should have done a similar thing to Weinstein. They have the track record to stand up and take proper risks. And maybe then in Europe we wouldn’t have to pay twice for the full Grindhouse experience. It’s refreshing to read about directors and studios caring about who will get to see the films and in what state the films will be seen.

Let’s get back on track.]

Perhaps the root of Miyazaki’s success is in the faithful, yet still unpredictable style of his films. He is a traditionalist, holding out until 1997’s Princess Mononoke to even consider using CGI, and even then in only subtle circumstances. The hand-drawn, lush art style really lends the films an aura that dates back to classic Disney films; a time before direct-to-video sequels, before cat-and-mouse games of ‘shut down one hand-drawn studio, open another one a couple of years later’. This is married to a playful, yet surprisingly serious and deep style of storytelling. Let me lay it down point-by-point.

So what makes a typical brilliant Miyazaki movie? Here are a couple of things I find integral to the mix (and they’re mostly interlinked):

1. Beautiful, imaginative art design. Not only is the animation itself (the landscapes, cityscapes, characters and action sequences) presented flawlessly and distinctively, but the art design itself displays a wealth of imagination. Characters and locations are drawn with an eye for the ‘magical’. Even in the films that reside in the ‘real world’, Miyazaki plays with everyday situations, imbuing them with a fantastic element. I’d like to throw in a link to a clip from the 1988 film My Neighbour Totoro to illustrate this, where the act of waiting for the bus in the rain is turned into something beautiful and otherworldly (I apologise if you’re allergic to Dakota Fanning’s voice).

2. Miyazaki’s work has taken influence from both the Fantasy literary genre, and his own Japanese culture. This manifests in outright adaptations of Western books (Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle), or products of his own imagination (such as the folktale-enriched Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away). This sometimes gives rise to interesting cultural clashes, such as in Castle in the Sky, which features a very Japanese Fantasy storyline involving airships and sky pirates. This all sounds like it would be right at home in a Japanese RPG, like a Final Fantasy video game; but Miyazaki’s twist is to set the story in the mining villages of Wales. This presents original settings in which the designer’s imagination can roam free, and the end results are usually highly memorable.

3. The films are often told with a child-like whimsy, or a lightness of touch. This is usually done without seeming too ‘cutesy’ (in my opinion, anyway). This can manifest in the child’s-eye-view of Totoro, or simply a crystallisation of one of cinema’s main selling points: fantasy. This does not mean that the stories are based on ‘cute kids go on adventures with trolls’ storylines; it is more a feeling that is channelled into the films’ humour and characterisation, if not the stories themselves.

4. Miyazaki laces his whimsical tales with serious, often adult, surprisingly deep centres. Princess Mononoke, which is an adventurous and entertaining fantasy romp, is driven by the conflict between modern, industrialised urbanism and the tranquil elegance of the countryside. The conflict is shown as exactly that, as an argument with two sides. Miyazaki celebrates rural and traditional values, but never seems overly sentimental or too cynical of modern life. Where there aren’t explicit messages in the environmental sense, there are often themes of coming-of-age and the independence of youth which are presented in entirely eloquent ways.

Now we’re introduced, back to Tales From Earthsea.

It wasn’t a masterpiece. But to say so, that’s not especially a tragedy. Goro Miyazaki does not rival his father’s genius, but he doesn’t entirely botch the job. However, it’s incredibly flawed, especially considering what it’s up against. I certainly gave it a chance; I wouldn’t call myself a fanboy who would damn a film for not being as good as some of the best films ever. But in the writing of this review, I’m going to draw heavily from the Ghibli hallmarks and I will make direct comparisons with other Ghibli films. Sorry Goro, but that’s the way it goes.

Tales From Earthsea, as said before, is adapted from Ursula K. Leguin’s cycle of young adult fantasy novels. Ok, here’s some more History and Context. LeGuin has been very guarded of her stories in terms of film rights, and when Hayao Miyazaki asked for the rights in the 80s; she refused. However, she saw My Neighbour Totoro, and was blown away. This was the guy to do a film of her novels. Hayao Miyazaki, as we know, didn’t direct it. His son did. And here we are.

Earthsea certainly chimes with most of the Ghibli work; it’s a fantasy work (check!), after all. However, according to LeGuin, characters and set pieces were added which end in the film being nothing like her work. Therefore I can somewhat place the plots shortcomings on the shoulders of the young director, as the storytelling aspect is easily where inexperience is shown. The source material, which is ‘rich’ and ‘epic’, encompasses (quick wiki-check) 5 novels and 7 short stories. The film smacks of bad adaptation, as what is presented is a frustrating cipher, in which a hodgepodge of characters and setpieces collide in an incredibly stereotypical ‘narrative’.

The film’s first act, which introduces many characters and plot points, bears little to no actual relation to the rest of the story. We are shown a climate out of balance, ships are stranded because the wind does not blow, and dragons are duelling in the skies foretelling coming destruction. These problems weigh heavy on the king’s head. He walks along a dark corridor of the castle, anxious and deep in thought, only to be stabbed by… his son!

This is all very interesting and intriguing. However, it has no bearing on the rest of the story. The second act opens far away, and centres on the prince, now in exile. The elements from the first act are not brought up again. In its place is a really dire run-of-the-mill narrative. The prince must come of age, accept his responsibility, overcome his fear of death in order to defeat the evil wizard and save the girl. The characters are thinly drawn, and little is explored: there is the kindly Mother-Figure, the kindly Wizard, and the plucky, brash Girl. Actually, for such a big, epic film, there were very few characters. Beyond the abovementioned, there were a couple of henchmen. Having such a small, underdeveloped cast really hurt the film in my eyes, especially considering how you’re meant to empathise with a prince who kills his father for no specified reason. I certainly felt that the film was, for the most part, Fantasy Characters doing Fantasy Things with Big Action Setpieces.

The film shares many of its (often half-baked) elements with Princess Mononoke:

They’re both significantly more ‘action’-oriented and both feature bloody fight scenes. After watching Earthsea, I rewatched Princess Mononoke. I first saw this over 6 years ago, and at the time I thought it was good, but not great. However, I now see it for the masterpiece it is, mainly because it throws Earthsea’s problems into really sharp relief, while showing you how to tell a good story. Princess Mononoke is by far the stronger film because it adds a necessary depth AND levity to the action-fantasy style. These are two of the Ghibli hallmarks I mentioned earlier, and it’s where Earthsea seriously slips up.

LeGuin’s novels are apparently steeped in Themes; the film adaptation does not bring this across. The idea of The Balance is mentioned early on, in specific reference to the autonomy and progress of man breaking the Balance of nature. This isn’t far from Mononoke’s central conflict between rifle-toting, industialised cityfolk and the natural forest gods. However, despite Miyazaki the elder’s own cynicism of modern living, the film never gets comfortable on either side of the fence. The protagonist generally feels strongly for both sides, and neither is seen as solidly ‘good’. The industrial town may be destroying the countryside, but it provides respect, freedom and a means to live for brothel girls and lepers. The forest may be beautiful, and home to the family unit of wolves, but the apes and wild boars are savage and arrogant.

Earthsea fumbles with its themes; it refuses to explore the concept of ‘nature in chaos’, and instead stages a retreat to the countryside. The characters revel in the fields, and the film focuses on long montages of Good Honest Farmwork. This seems a bit too sweetly sentimental, and it needs to revert to ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’, with the Evil Wizard being so for wanting ‘to conquer death’. The Good Wizard is good because, well, he helps the hero. The hero is heroic because, well, patricide aside, he Does The Right Thing. The narrative in this sense seems so dreadfully weak and neglected that I was bored. This is a long film, and I left the cinema feeling that very little had been told.

This levity point is very important, to me anyway. This film is very Serious. Again, rewatching Princess Mononoke has made me realise how Hayao Miyazaki mixes high thematics with light humour. There is no comic relief in Earthsea. I didn’t laugh and I didn’t smile as a direct consequence of any of the characters. There are no outright quirky, ‘funny’ characters in the traditional sense. The closest to such an archetype is a bumbling slave driver; however, this guy is just as likely to pull a funny expression or engage in humorous antics as he is to kick the hero in the stomach. This is jarring at best. There is no problem with a serious, heavy film, but as the depth side of things is botched, the lack of levity leaves a void that no amount of production polish can fill.

And the production is first rate. This is why I cannot damn this film outright. There is a reason why the film posters are littered with well-edited quotes saying ‘VISUALLY STUNNING!’ and so on. That’s because the art direction is superb. It’s unfortunate that the story, with its small cast of characters and small amount of locations, gives the art style not much room to manoeuvre. However, the quaint landscapes, the tranquil scenes of farming – even though they are sentimental – do work well. They especially work well when married to the well-managed action scenes. CGI is kept to a subtle minimum, and the traditional animation speaks for itself. The score, by Tamiya Terashima, while not composed by Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi, is still strong, and channels the rousing Lord of the Rings feel that seems so prevalent in fantasy films of late. The film is centred around themes played on ocarina and bagpipes, and some very nice pieces of vocal – they’re good, believe me, but too often they sound like the creative thought process was ‘hey… Lord of the Rings had fiddle and flute, what other folky instruments can we get?’ I’m allowed to indulge in cynicism a little because I liked it. The production side of things is so strong, that it can do that very commendable thing, namely creating a trailer which has tons more grace, beauty and imagination than the film itself!

This film, as I said before, is deeply flawed. The only thing keeping me in my seat was the production side of things, and I thought the narrative aspects were some of the worst I have seen on the big screen for a long time. I was disappointed. But I’m not going to judge this young Goro dude (ok, he’s 40) from his first attempt. Taking it overall, he shows areas where he is masterful already. The adaptation may have been terrible, but at least he has a strength to focus on. I had to remind myself, and maybe everyone should remind themselves, that this is his first film. His first proper credit, in fact. Just check imdb []. When I laid down the Ghibli hallmarks earlier, the earliest Miyazaki movie I mentioned was from the mid-80s. Hayao Miyazaki had worked on countless shorts, TV series and films before he started creating his own fantasies – Goro, through his surname’s reputation, has been thrust into the director’s chair, and subsequently into the spotlight. Tales From Earthsea is not a masterpiece, and there is significant room for Goro to improve. But I say suppress the urge to dismiss him for not creating something perfect first time out. He might just surprise us next time.