From the vast shadow of an animation and storytelling wizard rose . . . a mediocre director.
Well, maybe that’s not fair. I believe Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the original Earthsea fantasy series, put it best: the film Tales from Earthsea as directed by Gorō Miyazaki was a result of “when too much responsibility was shouldered by someone not equipped for it.”
The Birth of Another Miyazaki
Gorō, born in 1967, is firstly known as Studio Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki’s son, secondly known as a fledgling director. In fact, it was the 2006 animated feature Tales from Earthsea in which the younger Miyazaki took his first directing role.
Young Miyazaki has ever been reluctant to follow his father’s [ginormous] footsteps, but that he chose Tales from Earthsea to kick start his career shows he, like his father, is a dreamer. He worked in landscaping until producer Toshio Suzuki asked him to draw storyboards for the proposed Tales from Earthsea. When Suzuki decided Gorō should direct the film, the elder Miyazaki objected, saying his son lacked the experience. The two did not speak to one another through the duration of the film’s development.
And the result of Gorō’s streak of independence and high-flying dreams? Well. . . .
The world of Earthsea knows shit’s hit the fan when dragons start fighting in their realm (everything below the clouds). Drought and pestilence plague the lands and patricide beleaguers the throne. Prince Arren (presumably now King Arren) flees from his crime, not sure why he committed it beyond attributing it to an irrepressible and unpredictable mood swing, and encounters Sparrowhawk the Archmage. The two journey to the city of Hortown, where Arren saves a young girl from slavers. The girl actually has the nerve to curse him for saving her and runs away.
This is hardly Arren’s last encounter with the slavers, but the Archmage saves the day. The two leave town and begin working on a small farm with Tenar (Sparrowhawk’s acquaintance) and Therru (the girl Arrin saved from the slavers). It becomes clear that Therru has an aversion to violence, but she and Arren inexplicably bond, anyway.
Without revealing too many plot twists, the conflict of the story rises when Lord Cob, another mage, wants something of Sparrowhawk and Arren. Characters are kidnapped, evil shadowy figures arise, and maybe there’s a dragon in there somewhere.
Why the Movie Falls Short
If you were wondering why Hayao got his panties in a bunch just because his overzealous son wanted to make an epic fantasy film, here’s why: Ursula K. Le Guin had been approached by multiple directors who wanted to animate her series, and she refused all of them . . . until Studio Ghibli came along. Papa Miyazaki was busy directing Howl’s Moving Castle at the time, so Younger Miyazaki took the job. Therefore, Hayao was not only trying to protect his son but also trying to protect a story, which Younger Miyazaki proceeded to butcher.
From one moviegoer to another, here’s my advice: Watch it, but don’t expect to have anything other than a twisted expression of confusion on your face when the credits begin to roll.
Expect to have many questions. Don’t expect to have many of them answered sufficiently. For example (spoiler alert), why does Therru suddenly allow Arren into her life, especially after she sings a really, really sad song? The audience must take for granted that they either talked it out (unlikely) or Therru let her guard down (but why?).
Expect to understand that Earthsea has a lot of dense, intricate culture over which you know Le Guin slaved for decades. Don’t expect it to be explained or illustrated except with animation that, while pretty, is patently of lower production value than of other Studio Ghibli works.
Expect fantasy. Don’t expect it to be believable.
For example (spoiler alert), the irrepressible and unpredictable rage that consumes Arren from time to time—namely when he kills his father—comes from his proverbial shadow, the side of him that has grown scared of and lost faith in the world. This shadow haunts him in the film and in the end assists Therru in saving Arren from becoming Lord Cob’s tool. That the shadow simply appears and leads Therru to Lord Cob’s castle is something I can buy, even if the reason why it’s able to do this is a bit stretched. I might even be able to buy that the shadow gives her Arren’s “True Name” so she can save him.
What I don’t buy, however, is that it took about a hundred minutes before someone finally explained the concept or significance of something that’s actually pretty, plot-changing-ly important. Moreover, that Therru turns into a dragon (a what? A dragon!) when Arren utters her “True Name” name (but Arren doesn’t turn into one when she says his “True Name”) is entirely too Deus ex machina, God in a machine, a plot device characteristic of amateur writers (or directors) with poor plotting abilities. Think of it this way: an author spends 400 pages clawing together innumerable tangles and plot twists into a giant knot that you know the hero can’t solve on his own, so the authors says, “Aw, shucks,” and solves the entire problem with an unexpected—unwarranted?—new event, character, ability, or object. In bad fantasy books (which is almost all of them, and this is coming from a closet fantasy nerd), magic takes this role. In Tales from Earthsea, this is pretty much everything, but most notably the “True Name” and dragon bit.
What Important People Thought of the Film
I’m not the only one disappointed in what could have been an incredible film. Le Guin told Gorō, “It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie.” Later, she disclosed that the film “[took] bits and pieces out of context, and [replaced] the story(ies) with an entirely different plot.”
Although Tales from Earthsea grossed over 900 million yen (7.7 million USD) on its opening week, Japanese viewers split into strong proponents and detractors. The bullies of the film world actually gave it the title “Worst Movie” in Bunshun’s Raspberry Awards, and gave Gorō “Worst Director.” Ouch.
And what did Papa Miyazaki have to say? “It was made honestly, so it was good.”
Well. . .