2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
- Princess Mononoke
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Howl’s Moving Castle
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
Before we get into Tales from Earthsea by Gorō Miyazaki, we need to talk about what it isn’t.
It is not, despite the name, an adaptation of any of the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K Le Guin. Rather, it’s a repurposing of that world and some of its narratives from the first four books. It most closely resembles The Farthest Shore and Tehanu, but even there it differs dramatically from either book.
The Earthsea Cycle is one of the most beloved fantasy series and it’s a series I love. Further, Ursula K Le Guin is one of my favorite writers of all time. I’ve read more books by her than just about any other single author, excepting Stephen Graham Jones, so it’s difficult for me to look at Tales from Earthsea with clean and ignorant eyes. It’s a troubling experience, to watch a loved work be turned into something very different from what you expected, from what you wanted.
And so we need to go into Tales from Earthsea with a few qualifications. It is not the Earthsea as imagined by Le Guin. It simply isn’t. She told the young Miyazaki, “It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie.” Though she would later discuss her disappointment with the film. A disappointment that many share.
It’s also worth knowing that the young Miyazaki and the elder Miyazaki had quite a dispute over the film. Hayao Miyazaki did not speak to Gorō during the entire filmmaking process and only repaired their relationship after its release. I think this is worth knowing within the context of the film, because Gorō Miyazaki, a first time director, didn’t have the support of his legendary father. Rather than be a mentor to his son, Hayao Miyazaki became a bit petty. Part of this may be because he never wanted Gorō to follow in his footsteps. He didn’t want to begin a dynasty of animators and filmmakers. But I think the bigger reason is that Hayao Miyazaki is a man of pride and couldn’t accept that he would not be able to make the film.
This is partly because Hayao Miyazaki had been trying to get Le Guin to sign off on an adaptation for fifteen years and only gained permission when work had already begun on Howl’s Moving Castle.
So, with these things in mind, we enter Gorō Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea, and I’ll avoid discussing it in relation to Le Guin’s work. Or at least try.
The film begins at sea, fantastically. A storm tosses a ship back and forth and the weather mage is, apparently, unable to remember the words for weather magery. And then eruptions from the sky. Dragons rip through the air, spitting fire and tearing one another apart. The men are shocked by such a display, but it seems that they’re more shocked to see dragons fighting than they are to see dragons at all.
From there we go to the Kingdom of Enlad, where the king and his council discuss how the world is in decline. Crops are failing and even humans are going insane, seemingly without reason. at the report of the fighting dragons, the wizard Root relays the history of dragons. How dragons and humanity were once one. Those who cherished freedom became dragons, and humanity chose possessions. Root goes on to discuss the weakening of the balance of the world. Reports also come of Prince Arren is acting strange and has disappeared.
After his meetings, the King finds himself in a dark hallway where he is murdered by a young man who we come to realise is Prince Arren.
Arren takes the sword of his people and flees. The Archmage Sparrowhawk happens upon him in the desert, surrounded by wolves. He aids him and then they journey together to Hort Town, a huge port city. Arren finds the place corrupt and mostly depressing.
This is where the narrative really begins. We discover that wizards are losing their ability to do magic, that the land itself is becoming weaker, and slavery is running rampant. We meet Sparrowhawk’s old friend, Tenar, and her adopted daughter, Therru, who was abused and burned by her parents. We discover Lord Cob, our antagonist, who looks like a Final Fantasy villain in the vein of Kefka.
Relationships come together on Tenar’s farm, which is also the setting for everything that resembles the source material. Not so much in what happens, but in how it feels. It’s quiet and still. There’s a satisfaction in doing work for its own sake. Plowing a field, caring for animals: this is what life is made of. Because life is not about might and swords or even magic. It’s about the world we live in, the people we share it with.
Cob, the mighty and evil wizard, captures Arren and Tenar but leaves Therru behind to goad Sparrowhawk into a showdown. In the process of taking Arren, we see that Arren is split in two: the shadow and the self. It’s very Jungian. This splitting of self gives shape to what he reveals to Therru a few scenes earlier. As he claims, Arren murdered his father, but it wasn’t really him. It was this darkness, this violence inside him, which we see somewhat manifested in his shadow. This otherness to the self.
Once captured, Cob manipulates Arren into revealing his true name, which gives Cob power over him.
As it turns out, goading Sparrowhawk worked and he rushes to save his friends only to find himself in a fight with Arren, who’s under Cob’s control. Sparrowhawk’s power is also being sucked from him by Cob, who is hoarding all the power of life in order to open the door between life and Death and become immortal.
It falls to Therru to save the day. She discovers Arren’s shadow who reveales Arren’s true name and where Cob has taken everyone. Inexplicably, she’s able to sneak around the castle and find Arren, who she brings back to himself, shattering Cob’s spell over him.
We see flashes of dragons and a sunset. Therru reveals her true name to Arren as well and they share a moment of beauty.
Now freed from his spell, the confrontation truly takes place and Cob transforms into a bit of a monster to wreak damage upon Sparrowhawk, Arren, and Therru. He goes so far as to choking the life from Therru only to have her resurrect as a dragon. As a dragon, she and Arren kill the great and evil wizard.
Therru returns to her human form and they reunite with Sparrowhawk and Tenar. They farm into the credits.
So let’s talk about the film and what it means.
The film is a bit confusing without the context of Le Guin’s novels. We never really discover the importance of true names, or even the power of naming, which is how magic is performed in the novels. This is briefly touched on in the first lines of dialogue, when the weather mage forgets the names for the weather. We also don’t really understand why or how Therru became a dragon. Was she always a dragon? Is she some kind of shapeshifter? We also never really get a sense for Sparrowhawk’s power or what the balance of the world really means.
There are lots of references to things that happened in the past, but these are mostly only of interest if you’re familiar with the novels, and they’re really just winks at the audience, reminding us that this is a bigger story. And while that’s great, it doesn’t help the film as a singular thing, and it actually makes it harder to like for fans of the novels because things are so different. By claiming cohesion with events that happened in the novels, Miyazaki is actually highlighting how out of sync things are.
So let’s talk about balance a bit, because that’s a central theme here. In the novels, it’s a very Taoist worldview and it has a simple beauty to it. In the film, it’s a bit broad and simplistic. There are clear differences between what is right and wrong. To behave badly is bad for the world. It’s the kind of things you tell a child, yeah? While it’s simple, it reduces life to Good and Evil.
In the novels, things are much murkier when it comes to good and evil. While the balance described there is a simple concept, it is its simplicity that gives it immense truth. It’s more akin to the Tao Te Ching than it is to a flat statement of right and wrong. But I won’t dwell on how these concepts are different between the film and the novels anymore.
But the film portrays the world’s morality as a simple and reducible thing. Cob is evil. Stopping Cob is good. We can see that. We see his lust for power and how it cripples the world around him. How he steals power from the world itself. We understand that he must be stopped, but–and maybe this is just me–I never felt like this aspect mattered to anyone beyond a sort of policing element. Sparrowhawk is the Archmage and he doesn’t like what Cobb’s doing so he must fight him to stop it.
But how do we get there?
This film is not as violent as Princess Mononoke, but it’s not very nuanced either. While Mononoke is full of violent clashes, violence is never the solution. In fact, it only makes things worse. In Tales from Earthsea, violence is the key to every confrontation. When Therru is being accosted, it’s violence that frees her. When Cobb misbehaves, it’s violence that saves the world. It takes books about peace and life and turns them into a very straightforward adventure.
Which is fine. It may seem like I’m being overly harsh on the young Miyazaki, but I actually do like the film for what it is, but I also think this is an important element.
Much of this, I think, happened due to Gorō Miyazaki’s immaturity as a filmmaker (it’s his first try!) and because Hayao Miyazaki turned his back on the project. The film was made quickly and without the support of its greatest genius. Even the animation suffers in this film. It’s not the beautiful detailed work of Mononoke or Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away. It’s a bit rougher, a bit sloppier. The young Miyazaki could have made something great, I think, had his father mentored him through his first film. To me, it felt like Gorō Miyazaki wasn’t entirely comfortable with the material. To me, this becomes more evident when he makes his second film, which is much better in quality, and something that seemed to carry his heart more.
But this is the Earthsea we have on film from Studio Ghibli and it’s easy to complain about all the things it’s not, but I do want to say a few things that it is.
Despite the animation quality, there are some great visuals here. The dragons are stupendous. They’re beautiful and terrifying. Powerful and lithe and elegant. The more surreal elements work really well, too. Gorō Miyazaki has a strong sense of how to use the surreal to reinforce a world of magic. And though I’ve talked about the ways it fails as a film, those statements should be understood within the context of Studio Ghibli’s output and the source material it takes from. This is not Le Guin’s Earthsea and this is not the work of Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. It’s the first film by a man with a name that carries, perhaps, too much weight for him.
This film is a solid adventure yarn. It has action and adventure and the world is well rounded, even if it and its characters are a bit thin. We have a boy becoming not only a man, but a king by taking up his inheritance and saving the world.
Next week, we’re on to Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, which is all kinds of fun.