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Ghibli Bits: TALES FROM EARTHSEA

Ghibli Bits: TALES FROM EARTHSEA

So far in our look at the Studio Ghibli movies not directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, we’ve seen what longtime Ghibli animators could do when given the reins. Whisper of the Heart was the work of the shoulda-been successor, and The Cat Returns was done by a very capable animator with many titles and years under his belt. But what about if someone with a little less experience was given the control of a whole feature film? What if this someone, who had grown up around animation, had never even worked in any facet of the medium, and what if they had also previously not shown much interest in doing so? And what if that someone was Hayao Miyazaki’s son? Then, my friends, we’d get 2006’s Tales from Earthsea.

Tales from Earthsea had been Hayao Miyazaki’s white whale—his dream project for many, many years. Based on a series of beloved fantasy novels by Ursula K. Le Guin (published between 1968 and 2001), the high fantasy world of dragons and princes and wizards and things was right up the Studio Ghibli founder’s alley. He had actively tried to get a movie made for years, but Le Guin, upon hearing an animation company wanted to make it, assumed it would be “Disneyfied” and refused the rights. Time passed, Ghibli’s fame grew, and finally in 2001, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won the Oscar for best animated feature. Le Guin was impressed and eventually gave Ghibli the rights to her books, but Miyazaki was in production of another fantasy film, Howl’s Moving Castle, and couldn’t commit, given how long and meticulous Ghibli’s animation process was.

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This is where things got tricky. Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli’s producer and third co-founder, suggested that Hayao’s son Gorō Miyazaki direct it. This was an odd idea to many people because a.), Gorō Miyazaki had never directed animation of any kind before, much less a film, only being an adviser on Howl, and b.) he had been a landscaper for most of his adult life, unsure of whether he wanted to even go into animation. Naturally, this caused a bit of a rift between the father and son, with Hayao believing Gorō was far too inexperienced to be given this kind of responsibility, on a project the elder Miyazaki had dreamed of making himself no less. The two reportedly did not speak during the whole production of Tales from Earthsea.

On top of the family issues, there was also the question of which book in the Earthsea series would be adapted. Ultimately, none of them were, and though the character names remained the same, much of the plot for the film was actually taken from a Hayao Miyazaki’s manga, The Journey of Shuna. This complete disregard for the source material was a sour spot with Le Guin who pretty much disowned the movie upon its release.

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The story takes place in a fictional realm of Enlad, which is coming under strange, troubling, and unprecedented times. At the beginning of the film, a ship of soldiers during a storm witness a battle between two dragons, in which one kills the other. This is completely unheard of, as dragons are supposed to be beyond killing each other. A fable among the people are that, at one time, dragons and men were the same species, but after time they started to diverge; those who wanted to be free became dragons, and those overcome by the want for possessions became men. The weakening of the “balance” between the two is causing problems. The king, pondering these problems, is surreptitiously killed by his son, Arren.

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The bulk of the plot concerns Arren’s attempt to overcome the evil within him with the help of the wizard Sparrowhawk and the maiden Therru, whom Arren saves from slavers under the employ of the evil wizard Cob, a goth-y androgynous figure who wants nothing more than to kill and defeat Sparrowhawk and become the Archmage himself. Look, like most high fantasy stories, the plot is VERY dense, even if it’s not from the actual source novels.

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With that in mind, the plot being real complex and sort of hard to follow to be honest, how well does Tales from Earthsea succeed or fail on its own terms, as a piece of work by Gorō Miyazaki? The answer is…fairly well? It’s undoubtedly very complex narratively and actually lulls in quite a few places without fully being explored, but it’s also an impressive feat of visual art. The designs of everything are fully within the classic Ghibli style, and look right at home among the elder Miyazaki’s work.

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Two things really stand out in terms of visuals: the first are the dragons. I don’t think I’ve seen dragons in movies look like the ones in this movie; they’re spiny and sleek and sort of scary looking but also very beautiful. They’re seen only a few times in the movie and each time it feels magical and grandiose. There’s also a great deal of attention paid to them flying–something which Hayao Miyazaki also adores–and a shot at the end of the movie portrays the speed and swiftness of flight, a POV where the world gets distorted as it whizzes by. It’s breathtaking.

The second visual is the truly horrifying way the evil Lord Cob is shown, and especially when his beauty fades away and his true dead-eyed monstrous visage appears. The way he’s drawn even changes during this, with much more noticeable pencil strokes around his face, conveying that he doesn’t quite belong in this world. His demise is the stuff of nightmares, and much scarier than most things in Ghibli movies.

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The movie was a big money maker that year in Japan, but was not received very well critically. It was nominated for Japan’s equivalent of the Razzie Award for worst animated film and it currently holds a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes—by far the lowest score of any Studio Ghibli movie. In truth, I don’t think the movie is that bad: It’s hard to follow, sure, and doesn’t quite have the childlike wonder or deep emotion of the studio’s best output, but it’s a visual marvel and at the very least shows off the grandeur and imagination in their designs.

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Gorō Miyazaki, despite the reaction to the film, impressed his father and the two mended fences upon the movie’s release. He’d go on to direct another Ghibli movie, but we’ll talk about that one at a later date. Next week, however, we’re going to check out a movie by the true wunderkind of Studio Ghibli, someone whose two movies really established him as a talent to watch before branching out on his own. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty is next week!

Images: Studio Ghibli


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He’s the writer of Studio Ghibli retrospectives Miyazaki Masterclass, Takahata Textbook, and Ghibli Bits. Follow him on Twitter!

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