{film} tales from earthsea

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“It is not my book. It is your movie.” –Ursula K. LeGuin to Mr. Goro Miyazaki.

For a long while now I thought Studio Ghibli could do no wrong. Their resume is that impressive, isn’t it? I’ve seen several of their films, both subtitled and dubbed. And then I saw Tales from Earthsea (2006) last week.

When I saw Tales from Earthsea streaming on Netflix, I thought it might be a fun family Fantasy film. It wasn’t until the film began that we realized it was Studio Ghibli. Any concern over the film’s entertainment value palpably slipped away; if anything, we were more attentive.

The drawing, the compositions, the animation, the sound, all that was good. Even the voice talent was nicely matched per character. The difficulty was in the narrative. Tales from Earthsea, the film, is not pulling from Ursula LeGuin’s collection of short stories, Tales from Earthsea, but the series: A Wizard of EarthseaThe Tombs of AtuanThe Farthest Shore, and Tehanu. The running time of the film: 115 minutes.

From Hayao Miyazaki, the question of finessing a series of books into a film isn’t much of a query at all. It is a rather exciting adventure to see how he would translate LeGuin’s classic Fantasy into cinema. But when the film finally came round, it was the son Goro Miyazaki who made the film, Hayao having been “retired.”  Tales from Earthsea was director Goro’s debut film.

Much of it was beautiful. Many corners were cut, however, in the animation of this quickly made film. It does not have the delicate accuracy of “Totoro” or the powerful and splendid richness of detail of “Spirited Away.” The imagery is effective but often conventional.–Ursula K. LeGuin

Sparrowhawk and the very young looking 17 year old Prince Arren. Love the scar, and while visually the powerful wizard and Therru coincide visually, we just have to take both their words for it that they are,  indeed, impressively powerful.

A quick summary of the film:

Something bizarre has come over the land. The kingdom is deteriorating. People are beginning to act strange… What’s even more strange is that people are beginning to see dragons, which shouldn’t enter the world of humans. Due to all these bizarre events, Ged, a wandering wizard, is investigating the cause. During his journey, he meets Prince Arren, a young distraught teenage boy. While Arren may look like a shy young teen, he has a severe dark side, which grants him strength, hatred, ruthlessness and has no mercy, especially when it comes to protecting Teru. For the witch Kumo this is a perfect opportunity. She can use the boy’s “fears” against the very one who would help him, Ged.Written by Anime News Network via Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

In the English-version. Kumo is Cob, a very effeminate softly-masculine-voiced Willem Defoe.  Yes, it is like Princess Mononoke and the shift in gender of the Wolf–bizarre (yet I’m sure is culturally relevant). Also, Ged is more often referred to as Sparrowhawk. The narrative sequence is not as suggested, but in summary makes a lot more sense, and is a helpful primer to the viewing experience (wish I had read it first).

The film begins with a prologue to store away for later. And then a quick (but effective) development of a short-lived character so as to set up young Arren’s flight and his encounter with Sparrowhawk/Ged, a wizard, the Archmage. Not unused to not understanding what is going on in a story, I patiently waited for explanations for the purpose of Arren’s actions/flight until later. Unfortunately, that brief comment, “He hasn’t been himself lately,” and the later splintering of person proved undernourished. What caused this to happen? How could Cob (the villain) be involved? And to what purpose? Arren’s “specialness” was confusing. As was Therru’s, the witch–who isn’t apparent in her witch-ness until the very unconvincing end. 

The girl, Therru was abused and abandoned, her face horribly scarred by her own parents. She lives with “Sparrowhawk’s woman” Tenar, a strong self-possessed woman who farms and is a witch. She values Life and is offended by Arren’s disregard for it. She slowly warms and they become confidantes and when it comes time to rescue everyone, the feisty versus timidity conflict continues to play out, until feisty can no longer be contained (?). Strangely, her power only reveals itself after she is strangled and declared dead. Yes, it is absurd as it sounds. But perhaps it was to give Arren the opportunity to be the hero, and to reveal his failure? To build the suspense that perhaps the evil aging inflatable Cob was going to succeed in his evil plans to cast everything into darkness? because now he can’t really live forever can he?

There is more than an incoherence in characterization and major plot points. The story has the slow unfolding that I can appreciate, mysteries undergoing the slow reveal. But then you and the film realize it is running out of time. We spent too much time frolicking on hillside listening to Therru sing. The point of the story is going to suffer, you can feel it. And it does, just not in the way most expected. Enter, heavily moralizing monologues and philosophical explanations behind still yet inexplicable action/intent.

I think the film’s “messages” seem a bit heavyhanded because,

although often quoted quite closely from the books, the statements about life and death, the balance, etc., don’t follow from character and action as they do in the books. However well meant, they aren’t implicit in the story and the characters. They have not been “earned.” So they come out as preachy. There are some sententious bits in the first three Earthsea books, but I don’t think they stand out quite this baldly.–Ursula K. LeGuin

I watch enough Japanese animation to expect some lengthy conversational explorations in there with some epic fight scenes. The off-balanced pacing and incoherence of the first 3/4s of the film were forgivable up until that ending. For one, there was no epic battle–visually. That ever present yet unexplained sword packed with cultural- not to mention heavy Freudian significance was underwhelming. Tales from Earthsea ran out of time. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, it resorted to telling the audience what it was all about. Unfortunately, it had nothing of substance to reference. I had very little to return to in the film that had me saying, “Oh right, of course, that was what was meant by that.”

Alright. So I could probably make all the leaps across all the gaps, but to that extent, I believe I would be providing too much of the work. Would it have been less work had I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s series? I don’t think so. And her letter in response to the film confirms this. But I wasn’t looking for her story, I was looking for the film’s story.

In the end, I can appreciate the debut effort to make someone else’s film, to formulate to an expectation someone else has created with their viewers. And I would love to see a Tales from Earthsea from that man himself. In the meanwhile, I wouldn’t discourage Goro another go, but with one of his own.

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Recommendation: of note, some people have responded really well to this film; few, but there are some. I would only recommend it to those who want to say they’ve seen all Studio Ghibli films. Fans of the series should likely avoid viewing, and the viewing does not inspire one to read the series, quite the opposite actually.

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Tales from Earthsea (2009); director Gorō Miyazaki; produced by Toshio Suzuki &
Tomohiko Ishii; screenplay by Gorō Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa;  inspired by the manga “Shuna’s Journey” by Hayao Miyazaki; based on Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin; music by Tamiya Terashima; editing by Takeshi Sevama; studio: Studio Ghibli. English-speaking voice talents: Timothy Dalton (Ged/Sparrowhawk), Willem Defoe (Cob), Mariska Hargitay (Tenar).

Rated PG-13 for some violent images. Running time: 115 minutes. Wiki page. IMDb linkLeGuin’s letter.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Carl V. says:

    That is too bad that it was disappointing. I haven’t seen every Ghibli film, but I’ve enjoyed what I have watched. I do like a slow building film, or book for that matter, but like you mentioned if you get to a point where you realize that there isn’t much left then you just know you are going to be cheated out of a worthwhile ending. Its too bad that was the case here.

  2. ibeeeg says:

    ahh…shoot. I love Ghibli films too, but not enough to watch this one as it seems to really suffer. Like you, I have just seen it as an option on netflix, and thought it could be a good family movie but too much frolicking would loose them. Maybe, if I have not already started my reading of the Earthsea books, then maybe I would give this one a go on my own.

  3. tuulenhaiven says:

    Grrrrrr. I was hoping this would be better, but I was terrified to watch it since the series is a favorite and it was already butchered once on film (the live-action made for TV thing that came out a few years ago…) I knew that le Guin almost liked this version so I was hoping against hope. *sigh* I trust your assessment. I still might watch it someday, but for now I’ll hold off. DO read the books – they’re lovely and powerful.

  4. Grace says:

    I was curious about this one when I saw it on Netflix over break, but haven’t bothered to watch it yet because I haven’t read Le Guin’s Earthsea books. I may still watch it one day, as Miyazaki is always fantastic, but I’m thinking I might wait…

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