Studio Ghibli #15: Tales From Earthsea (2006)

We’ve all seen the clip….. We all know what I’m going to have to talk about….. Okay, here goes; Today I’m writing about Gorō Miyazaki’s debut feature film, Tales From Earthsea, a film that is generally regarded as one of the weaker Ghibli films, and there’s even (and here is where the clip comes in) an infamous clip of Hayao Miyazaki walking out of the premiere screening of his son’s film. It’s a brutal clip that has been memed into oblivion by now, but as much as I disagree with Miyazaki’s abrupt exit after an hour of the film’s two hour run-time, the points the elder Miyazaki makes in criticism of the film are all pretty valid. The first quote that Hayao gives after walking out of the screening is “you shouldn’t make a film based on your emotions”, which succinctly summarises the biggest issue of the film; the fact that Gorō doesn’t have his own directorial voice in this film, he’s just trying to mimic his father’s films. After going back in and finishing the film, Miyazaki dodges questions about the film from the fellow attendees before smoking another cigarette alone in the lobby. When asked what he thought about the film Hayao states “I was looking at my kid. He’s not an adult yet.”. 

It’s no big secret that Gorō and his father didn’t have a great relationship growing up, and apparently his main exposure to his father was watching his films as a child, and by high school had thought that he wouldn’t achieve the same level as his father and pursued architecture. He retained a connection to his father’s company by working on the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka and later served as it’s director. But Gorō joined the animation team for Tales From Earthsea initially as a consultant but after seeing his work on the storyboards, director and former president of Studio Ghibli, Toshio Suzuki decided that Gorō should direct the film. Hayao disagreed with the decision citing Gorō’s lack of experience as a key factor, which is actually a very valid criticism, and this led to Hayao and his son not speaking during the film’s development. I’ve already briefly talked about Hayao’s reaction to the film, but the author of the original Earthsea novels, Ursula K. Le Guin, also criticised the film citing it’s simplistic moral message, over-focus on violence and departure from her novels. But what should be noted about both reactions to the film is that both eventually clarified their criticisms, Hayao stating that the film was “made honestly. It was good.”, and Le Guin stating “[I]t is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie”. And again as contradictory as it may seem, I completely agree with both sets of comments from both Le Guin and Hayao Miyazaki.

Let’s talk a bit more about the film itself, Tales From Earthsea takes its story from an amalgamation of the story and characters of the first four novels of Le Guin’s series. The film’s plot follows a magician named Sparrowhawk trying to restore balance to the land of Earthsea who rescues a runaway prince named Arren, and later joins a young witch named Therru and his oldest friend Tendar to defeat Lord Cob, an evil force threatening to destroy the land. The story feels interesting, each element of the world building and lore adding intrigue into the film, but it also feels like it just falls short of it being fulfilling. It has made me want to read the original novel to further experience the world, but the film didn’t feel like it put the pieces together in a way that felt satisfying. I did think the characters are quite interesting, but my criticism goes back to the idea of Gorō imitating his father too much as Sparrowhawk feels like Lord Yupa from Nausicaä, and Arren & Therru feel like Pazu and Sheeta from Castle in the Sky. I want to make it clear it doesn’t feel like Gorō has lifted these characters identically from his father’s films, but rather that the influence that those characters have had on those characters is a bit too obvious for it to pass as homage. Similarly another big issue I have with the film is the animation itself, much like my previous criticisms, it’s clear that Gorō reference points for animation is his father’s film, it honestly feels like if you had to surmise how the animation looks it would be “someone trying to copy Hayao Miyazaki’s style of animation”. The backgrounds look lavishly designed and detailed, but you can see the cut corners in especially in the crowded scenes. There’s one fairly early on as Arren and Sparrowhawk are walking through the market streets, where the background characters are so painfully under-animated that it just looks like an amalgamous blob, there’s similar lacking detail you can spot throughout the film and while I’m not trying to say that film’s have to look absolutely perfect in their detail, but with a style so similar to Hayao Miyazaki, the flaws come across so much more obviously as you watch.

But so far I’ve been talking down on Tales From Earthsea a lot, but honestly, I don’t even dislike this movie. As both Le Guin and Hayao said, it is a good movie and it shows a lot of heart and charm from Gorō. The story is compelling through its simplicity, it feels like a classic fantasy tale of good versus evil that also managed to capture some heavy themes and topics. One departure from his father’s work that I think really works in Gorō’s favour is the fact that he tackles the themes of this film in a much more frank and direct way, the film explicitly shows us child slaves, human trafficking and there’s even a moment of a suggested threat of rape. This clash between traditional classic fantasy aesthetic with the complex morals of an immoral system creates a really interesting combination overall for the film. Admittedly I think the film does this much better in the first act and quickly loses steam in this regard by the climax, but I think it shows promise in Gorō’s directorial efforts as a first-time director despite not being fully realised.

Ultimately the film is basic, it’s plot boils down to good vs evil by the climax and most of the intrigue in the characters and world are largely absent by the end. I do think there’s a lot to admire about the film, despite its setbacks the animation doesn’t look bad, and the fight scenes are fun to watch and it’s nice seeing more on-screen violence like that in Princess Mononoke. As I said the morals and themes are interesting and Gorō’s direction shows a lot of potential both in spite of and through the lack of his own distinct voice. While this is probably my second least favourite Ghibli so far, behind The Cat Returns, I’m excited to get to From Up On Poppy Hill, and when it comes out Earwig and the Witch, because I think Gorō still has a lot to offer and could eventually create his own distinct legacy. 

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