Old Reviews: Tales from Earthsea

In Earthsea, the world is falling out of balance, as livestock and crops are dying; the sea current flows uncontrollably and even mystical creatures are fighting against each-other. While searching for the cause of this unbalance, Ged, a powerful wizard known by many as Sparrowhawk, finds a young man named Arren, a Prince who has ran away from his kingdom after killing his father. Arren accompanies Ged to the large city of Hortown, where he rescues a slave girl called Therru, only to be later captured and taken as a slave himself. After being rescued by Ged, and later working at a farm, meeting Therru, we later discover that the change in balance of the world is being caused by an evil Wizard known as Cob, who is trying to search for a secret entity for his own desires, and Arren is revealed to obtain this entity. It is up to Arren, Ged and Therru to stop Cob in his plan and restore the balance of the world of Earthsea.

While originally created for a short story four years earlier, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series began in 1968, and to date has had seven books to its name. For many years, directors have tried to write film adaptations of the series, but she had constantly refused offers to allow an adaptation to be made. One of the directors that tried to adapt the series was Hayao Miyazaki. Being a fan of the seriess since reading the first novel in the late 1960s, he has made references to characters, scenes and settings to almost every film he either animated or directed, most notably Hols: Prince of the Sun, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. He tried to pitch an adaptation to Ursula in around 1980, but she politely refused.

In around 2003, after watching a few of Miyazaki’s films and a conversation with the Japanese translator of the novel series, Shimizu Masako, Ursula requested Studio Ghibli to make an adaptation of her series, asking Hayao Miyazaki to direct it. While Studio Ghibli was enthusiastic about this, Hayao Miyazaki was working on Howl’s Moving Castle at the time, and it was believed he might be too old to do another action type film. Toshio Suzuki offered his son, Goro Miyazaki, to direct the film, after being impressed with the storyboards he drew. Hayao Miyazaki was negative about this, saying that he lacked experience and he should find his own way to fame in animation, instead of using his father as an interest boost, Hayao only allowed Goro to direct when he showed him some concept art for the film’s poster. When Ursula agreed to his son directing the film instead and production began in 2005, Hayao and Goro’s relationship tore apart, as they never talked to each other throughout the entire production. They didn’t even see each other until the preview screening of the film, only leaving a comment saying “It was an honest way of making, and good.”

The animation in Tales from Earthsea is very good, the same impressive detail that is found in several other Ghibli films. Character movement is very smooth and human like, action scenes are fast paced and easy to see. There are also some great special effects like fire effects and fast paced zooming, which work especially well in the action sequences. Beyond shadows and night scenes, lighting is a bit minimal, but it doesn’t distract the viewer from the film as it focuses on the character and dialogue. The art style is pretty standard for Studio Ghibli, the background and scenery artwork typically show a great range of greens and browns for nature, while HortTown is shown in a colourful set of reds, blues and yellows. Character design is really fitting for a fantasy style setting like this, it has some reminiscence of Nausicaa, but since that film was influenced by the original Tales of Earthsea, that wouldn’t surprise me. My only problem is with the character design is with the evil wizard Cob, for some reason the artist made it difficult to tell what gender he is at first glance, and yes he is a man, having a young man’s physique, long dark hair, yet he has a pale woman’s face and lipstick. I’m not sure why there is this design, unless it has something to do with the wizard wanting to be young, but it’s rare to have this kind of gender confusion.

The music is ok, it sets out the scenes and the quality is very good, but it isn’t very special or memorable. The only real exception to this is the main theme song “Therru no Uta”, written by Goro Miyazaki and originally sung by Therru’s seiyuu Aoi Teshima. It’s beautifully sung and the lyrics are nice and fitting for the film, and the English various is an almost exact translation. Sadly there isn’t the lovely background music that is in the official version but it might’ve ruined the scene.

The voice acting is listenable both English and Japanese, but it’s pretty weak overall. The English version has the awesome Timothy Dalton as Sparrowhawk and William Defoe as Cob, both doing a brilliant job. The Japanese dub has Junichi Okada, who does a great debut performance as Arren, and despite casting a woman as Cob, Yuko Tanaka is a great voice actress who makes Cob sound evil and sinister, sometimes I forgot that it was a woman doing the voice. The problem is that everyone else does sound great but their performances are weak. Arren in the English dub is pretty bland and Blaire Resraneo does have depth, but not much of it. Meanwhile in the Japanese dub, I can’t be too mean to Aoi Teshima since she is a good singer, but she isn’t the greatest at acting, and Bunta Sugawara was just disappointing.

Since I’ve never read any of the Earthsea novels, I’m not comparing the story to the original novels. From what I’ve heard, the film is loosely based on a combination of plot elements the first four novels, with the storyline based off the third one. Many people have criticised the film on its story, and while I do think it ties with My Neighbour the Yamadas as the weakest film, I think it’s unfair to criticise the film and call Goro Miyazaki the Worst Director for it. I’ve also read that a main criticism of this film is that there is too much action and not much drama, which I disagree because the amount of action isn’t as much as the story itself. The actual problem with this film is that it goes on about how important life is and that you need to accept death, and it gets bothersome. I also don’t understand what the problem was with Therru early in the film, she is rescued by Arren from some slave takers who were almost about to kill her, and she just does an evil glare and pushes him away and gets frustrated whenever they meet.  She states she doesn’t like anyone “who do not care about life”, and Arren did go into a violent state when fighting the guards, and almost pushed the slave taker into killing her when the guy threatened him, but silly as it sounds, a sign of gratitude would’ve been the least you could’ve given for someone who saved your life. Not to mention if it wasn’t for him you would’ve been taken as a slave.

Despite these problems, I don’t see why as a fan of Studio Ghibli films why you shouldn’t see this film. While it isn’t really faithful to the original story, I don’t think it should’ve been. At the end of it, it’s a really nice fantasy tale with an interesting set of characters that progress through the film, and the fact that Goro Miyazaki never directed a film before this one really amazes me since the quality is on par with Hayao Miyazaki. If you are into Studio Ghibli films, you should see this for its great animation and good story, maybe not the best choice though if you want to start watching Ghibli films though, at least not before watching Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind since what that film had is what makes this film good to begin with.

Tales from Earthsea is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. While it was shown in England and Australia around a year after the Japanese release, it wasn’t shown in America until August 2010 because of a live-action drama series done by SyFy. A Manga Adaptation produced by Tokuma Shoten has not been made available in English. The original Earthsea novels by Ursula K Le Guin, titled “A Wizard of Earthsea”, “The Tombs of Atuan”, “The Farthest Shore”, “Tehanu”, “Tales from Earthsea” and “The Other Wind”, which began in 1968 and the final book was first published in 2001, are available from many publishers including Parnassus Press, Atheneum Books, Harcourt Brace & Company and Puffin Books.

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