Andrew Osmond examines Tales From Earthsea
You’re the son of world-famous anime director Hayao Miyazaki. You’re asked to make a movie at his fabled Ghibli studio, but you’ve never worked on a cartoon in your life. Do you start with something modest? Do you heck! No, you animate the classic Earthsea novels by Ursula Le Guin.
Result: you receive two national prizes from Japanese critics… for worst film and worst director. Your film gets a ton of one-star kickings on Japanese websites. Then it lingers on in memory, a black mark on the Ghibli brand, far worse than just a great studio underperforming. Pixar’s Cars 2 was a let-down; Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea is a betrayal.
Well, that’s one side of the story. There are other ways to look at Goro Miyazaki’s sombre fable of a troubled boy-prince in a magic world, who becomes a murderer and outcast and is caught in a war between wizards. To declare an interest, I thought Tales from Earthsea was an interesting failure, “a pious fable about a sinner seeking redemption,” worth about two Cat Returns or a hundred Eragon films. The rather more famous Mark Kermode judged the film, “a beautifully realised, full-blooded tale of dragons and darkness, good and evil, drugs and damnation.”Most reviewers were far harsher. Earthsea’s creator Le Guin criticised much of the film, and was plainly disappointed by it, though she points out saving graces. For example, she enjoyed the interpretation of Ged by veteran Japanese actor Bunta Sugawara; the “calmness” of the farm scenes; and the depiction of the animals, including a relative of the “Yakkul” deer seen in Princess Mononoke and Hayao Miyazaki’s 1980s picture-book Shuna’s Journey (bits of which were borrowed by Goro).
Le Guin also said that she received many emails from Japan about Tales from Earthsea. Some were from viewers disappointed by the film, but others were from fans defending it. According to one correspondent, there was a “distinct division” of opinion on Japanese internet sites. “While many are devastated by the movie, there are also many who are elated with it… . The fervour with which they defend it brings to mind someone lost in a maze who has just found an engraving of an arrow on a door, only to be told by another traveller that the corridor behind it is a dead end.”
Then there’s Goro Miyazaki own story, told in episodic blog form on the Ghibli studio website in the months leading up to the film’s release. An unofficial translation, created by Paul Barnier, is available online. The early entries make clear that, whatever you might think of the film, Goro approached Earthsea with deep respect. He’d read the original trilogy as a teenager, then revisited it as an adult, pondering the change in his reactions. As a schoolboy, Goro identified with the callow, headstrong Ged of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea. As an adult, he felt more kinship with the mature Ged of the later novels, who’s portrayed fairly faithfully on screen.
Goro’s blog is enlightening on several other points, including his argument for animating Earthsea in a rough, retro style harking back to Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and even the 1960s Toei film The Little Norse Prince. Perhaps the style is most obvious in an early Earthsea scene where the nihilist prince Arren is attacked by wolves in the desert, like the feistier Hols in Norse Prince. Arren himself can be seen as a version of the troubled girl Hilda, whose animation by the great artist Yasuji Mori was a revelation to Prince’s staff. Goro Miyazaki admitted, though, that his characterisation of Arren bewildered his own animation director, Takeshi Inamura.
All these points, though, were obscured by the most infamous blog entries; Goro’s blunt criticisms of Hayao Miyazaki as a father, including his claim that Papa Miyazaki scored full marks as a director, zero as a dad. Goro also claimed Hayao opposed him directing Earthsea, which Hayao himself had tried and failed to adapt in the 1980s. Surprised fans suddenly had front-ring seats to a family brawl, involving Japan’s most beloved uncle having his face metaphorically scratched by an undutiful son. And how does Tales from Earthsea start? With a kingly father stabbed to death by his demented offspring.
It’s been suggested this whole controversy may have been at least partly manufactured for publicity, perhaps by Ghibli’s President Toshio Suzuki, a former journalist who’d covered murder and scandal in his day. (Goro himself said Suzuki “loves wrapping people up in smoke screens.”) If so, it was a supremely warped, not to say tasteless, stunt, given the safer option of spinning Hayao as a proud white-haired dad, waving his son off to Ghibli with a hearty “Ganbatte!”
The truth may never be known, though Ghibli has presented dissent in its ranks before. The official, studio-sanctioned Spirited Away “Roman Album” book had a lengthy interview with supervising animator Masashi Ando, saying why he disagreed with Hayao Miyazaki’s portrayal of the girl Chihiro. In Ando’s view, Chihiro should have shown more hesitation and self-doubt before doing something frightening or difficult. Viewers might like to remember that when they see Production IG’s new film, A Letter to Momo, about another little girl meeting the supernatural. Ando is Momo’s Animation Director.
On Earthsea, Goro denied that Arren’s oblique patricide reflected the director’s own feelings in an interview at the Venice Film Festival. “I do not have much relationship with my father; because of that, I have never felt like killing him. I decided to start with the son murdering the father because I understand that’s more or less the feeling of the young Japanese generation. When I worked in the Ghibli museum, most of the staff there were young people with common problems. I wondered about why that was and tried to come up with reasons, which are reflected in the film. I purposely didn’t explain why Arren stabbed his father because I wanted the audience to think about it, and reach a broader idea of why these problems exist.”
Goro’s comments echo those of Battle Royale director Kinji Fukasaku, who also saw screen violence as a positive way to communicate with a younger generation. By the time that Tales from Earthsea was made, irrational youth crimes had been a Japanese nightmare for a decade. A 2002 Japan Times headline read, “Girl held for knifing father in TV row.” A similar family stabbing is portrayed in Satoshi Kon’s 2003 film, Tokyo Godfathers.
Goro continues, “In the third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, people have lost or forgotten their reason for living, and that’s similar to today’s society in Japan. I thought one of those reasons for living is expressed in the fourth Earthsea book, Tehanu, which is why I used that as well…. What Tehanu shows is the Archmage Ged, who once had power, losing that power and becoming just an ordinary middle-aged man. He revives as a human being through the exercise of daily, simple activities on a farm.” In Goro’s film, the twisted youth Arren is renewed the same way.
As for one of the most common fan questions – why on earth was someone with no film or animation experience given the director’s chair at Ghibli? – Goro openly “blames” Toshio Suzuki. “At the beginning, I was asked to join the group working on the film as an observer,” Goro says. “As the project went along, for some reason I moved into a more central role. Suzuki told me, ‘You know, I don’t think we have any other choice but for you to be the director.’ He sort of drove the whole thing.” Suzuki also told Le Guin that Hayao Miyazaki was retiring; and Suzuki, remember, was the manipulator who manoeuvred a reluctant Miyazaki into making Nausicaa twenty years earlier.
Anime expert Helen McCarthy calls Suzuki, “the interface through which Miyazaki interacts with the corporate and financial world.” Should nepotism by proxy be added to his profile? Goro, though, says his inexperience was a blessing in some ways. “I didn’t know anything!” he says. “I didn’t know about camerawork, or any of the technical words in film-making. But I am very good at learning through seeing and hearing. So being completely inexperienced, I had the privilege of being able to ask any question, and I used that to the maximum. Before Earthsea, I hadn’t lived in the anime industry. I had a different career and profile [Goro was a landscape gardener], so if I failed, I could go back to that. I used that fact in a good way, to remove my pressures and worries.”
For many Ghibli-watchers, the ambiguous real-life drama behind Earthsea’s scenes is more interesting than the film. As for whether the real events help in understanding the film, even Goro seems ambivalent. Late in his blog, he says he was fed up with interviewers asking him about the father-son issue. In the same entry, though, he also says he hasn’t sorted out why he told the film as he did.
Elsewhere in the blog, there’s an arresting passage where Goro says he couldn’t not follow his father’s drawn style, having studied Hayao’s films from childhood to learn what his absent dad was like. This reads like an inversion of Hayao Miyazaki’s hatchet-job on Osamu Tezuka in the book, Starting Point. Miyazaki Senior declared, “Perhaps it’s because I was the second-born son in my family, but I have always believed I should never try to imitate my predecessors.” Goro, though, is Hayao’s first son.
Whether such points are telling, or dollar-book Freud, there are tantalising hints of an underlying narrative in Ghibli’s recent films. Most obviously, Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, released two years after Earthsea, has an absent-father figure, a ship captain who cringingly apologises to his wife and son through Morse code. The next Ghibli film, Arrietty features a boy character, Sho, who’s the extreme opposite of Earthsea’s Arren, serenely resigned to death and extinction. But like Arren he needs a guide – tiny Arrietty – to lead him back to life.
And Earthsea is not just about killing a father. After the murder, Arren almost immediately gains a replacement patriarch in Ged to bring him back to the light. This pattern of losing a father, but metaphorically regaining him, is repeated in Goro Miyazaki’s new Ghibli film, From Up on Poppy Hill. Yes, the director of Ghibli’s “abomination” has made a follow-up – a non-fantasy teen drama, set in 1963 Yokohama. Poppy Hill is now screening at festivals, including London’s BFI Southbank, without the world falling in. It’s had mixed reviews, but none of the venom that greeted Earthsea, and made more than $50 million at the Japanese box-office.
The twist, though, is that Poppy Hill was made by father and son together. Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay, based on a girls’ comic he’d critiqued decades earlier in an article called “My Shojo Manga Experience.” More revealingly, it seems the uncontroversial Poppy Hill may earn less than Tales from Earthsea, which made close to $70 million. Does this vindicate the Earthsea controversy, or prove that ersatz Ghibli fantasy sells more than Showa-era period romance?
Hayao Miyazaki’s next, untitled, film was strangely described by Suzuki as an “autobiography,” though perhaps based on someone else’s autobiography. Still, it’s fun to imagine a comedy My Neighbours the Miyazakis, with a central relationship modelled on Homer and Bart Simpson. Just imagine Hayao: “Why you little…”; Goro (strangled): “Awwwkkkkkkk…”
Tales From Earthsea is out this week on UK Blu-ray from Studio Canal.