TALES FROM EARTHSEA
Studio Ghibli’s 15th feature film, TALES FROM EARTHSEA (Gedo Senki, “Record of Ged’s War”), will premiere in Japan this July. The story is taken from The Farthest Shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990), the third and fourth novels in the six volumes of the “Earthsea” series by Ursula K. Le Guin, the acclaimed author of such books as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven.
Earthsea is a world mostly covered with water, where wizards command magic by using the true names of things which give them great power over the world (a theme which was also explored in Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning SPIRITED AWAY). In the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), a boy called Sparrowhawk comes of age, learns to talk to dragons, fights with his shadow self, and learns his true name; Ged.
In the two books of the Ghibli adaptation, Ged has grown older and must mentor a younger boy, Arren. In The Farthest Shore, Ged and Arren enter the land of the Dead to save Earthsea. They succeed, but at great price to Ged. Book four, Tehanu, the first in the series which is not a coming of age book, deals instead with a Ged who is losing his powers and is concerned with coming to terms with the life of common people who have never commanded magical powers.
TALES FROM EARTHSEA marks the directorial debut of Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro Miyazaki. Judging from multiple remarks from both father and son, it is obvious that the pair have a rather strained relationship. The younger Miyazaki was chosen to helm the project by producer Toshio Suzuki (GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE). Goro Miyazaki also co-wrote the screenplay with Keiko Niwa, while the soundtrack is being scored by Tamiya Terashima. Officially it’s hands off for the elder Miyazaki, but he has given recommendations to keep artistic invention grounded in the real world and has suggested artists that might be inspirational to the animators.
In 2004, the Sci-Fi Channel adapted the first two books, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan (1970), as a poorly reviewed live-action original television mini-series entitled LEGENDS OF EARTHSEA. Some of the harshest reviews came from Le Guin herself, with one of the author’s main complaints about the mini-series was that most of the cast had become white. In her own words, “I live in a racially bigoted country. From the start, I saw my Earthsea as a deliberate refusal to go along with the prejudice that sees white as the norm, and the fantasy tradition that accepts the prejudice.” For those interested in a longer piece by the author on the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series, try Frankenstein’s Earthsea at Locus Online.
Like LEGENDS OF EARTHSEA, the Studio Ghibli TALES FROM EARTHSEA theatrical trailer seems to show a distinct European bias in the design of buildings and the look of the people. But there is still plenty of reason to hold out hope that this adaptation will be better than the previous one. First of all, Le Guin’s concern with environmentalism and humanitarianism mirror the concerns of the best Ghibli films such as NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984) and PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997). In fact, the trailer features a number of moments that bear more than a casual resemblance to those films.
As well, much of Le Guin’s work is preoccupied with a sense of balance that stems from Taoist philosophy. One of her most famous books is The Left Hand of Darkness; in a yin-yang symbol the left hand of darkness is “light”, though the book also features characters whose gender is “one” that includes both male and female. The search for balance in a chaotic world is also a feature of many of the best films from Miyazaki senior and the other directors at Studio Ghibli, and the quests of characters like Ashitaka, Nausicaa, and even Sen in SPIRITED AWAY have more than a little resemblance to the quests of Ged and Arren.
Studio Ghibli’s last film, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004), was also an adaptation of an English fantasy novel (in that case, by Diana Wynne Jones). While critical and fan reviews of HOWL’S were decidedly mixed, there’s good reason to believe that TALES FROM EARTHSEA has a better chance for success considering the power of the original novels and the sympathy Studio Ghibli would seem to have to the basic theme of the story.
The excellent Ghibli-themed website Nausicaa.net has been offering English translations of Goro Miyazaki’s blogs, and the Earthsea books seem to have made a huge impression on the director. He says, “As a boy, Ged was greedy to learn magic, however his spiritual growth didn’t keep pace with the power he possesses, and unknowing, he fostered a spirit of pride and hatred within himself. Then finally that spirit became an evil shadow that appears in front of him, and in front of the world, to obstruct him.
“The real enemy was himself, and defeating that enemy was conquering himself. Chased by his own shadow, facing it, and then challenging it.
“This was an irresistible attraction. The story itself was also original, but more than anything else, the me I was then felt a great connection to this theme of “personal growth”.
“The theme of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, has continued to this day to exert a really huge influence on the world of fantasy. Even now, there are countless stories dealing with this theme. So, it’s quite possible that some people might find it a bit trite. However I do not know of a tale that depicts so deeply this issue of “light and shadow” inside the heart as Book One of the Earthsea series.”
The first theatrical trailer is now available on Studio Ghibli’s TALES FROM EARTHSEA website. Toho will handle theatrical distribution in Japan; there is no word yet of a US release but it is expected that Buena Vista Pictures will bring the film to America in 2007.