Oct 20 2008 9:02am

Earthsea Goes Anime

In my last post I’d mentioned the story collection, Tales From Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. So when I tried looking up this book online, imagine my surprise when the first item I came across was not Tales From Earthsea the book, but rather Tales From Earthsea the movie! A while back I’d heard some rumblings about an Earthsea movie that would be released as anime, but I had no idea until now the movie was already out. So of course I had to order it and watch it.

The first thing you should know about this movie is that while it’s called Tales From Earthsea, it’s not based on any of the five stories collected in Le Guin’s book of the same name. Instead, the movie is based most heavily on The Farthest Shore, the third book of the Earthsea series, first published in 1972. For many years this was considered the last book in the series, containing a satisfying ending to a classic trilogy of fantasy novels. That ending stopped being the ending come 1990, with the publication of Tehanu, the fourth book in the Earthsea series. Since then there have been two additional Earthsea books, one being the aforementioned Tales From Earthsea, the other being The Other Wind, which brings the Earthsea series to its second (and most likely final) conclusion.

Second, I’ll mention that this movie was directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of Hayao Miyazaki. To fans of anime, Hayao Miyazaki should be a familiar name. He is responsible for such anime classics as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke (a personal favorite of mine). From what I gathered through Google and some Wikipedia research, Hayao had wanted to adapt this series since the 1980s, but Le Guin had refused him because she was only familiar with Disney style animation and didn’t want the Earthsea books adapted to something of that sort. When she later saw Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and discovered that anime was quite a different form of animation, Le Guin softened her stance, saying if Earthsea were ever made into an anime movie she would want Hayao to handle it. After Hayao received an Oscar in 2003 for Spirited Away, Le Guin granted him permission to create an anime version of her books, but at this time he was working on Howl’s Moving Castle (which happens to be an adaptation of the novel of fellow fantasy author, Diana Wynne Jones). In the end, Goro ended up handling the film instead.

The third thing I’ll mention before I start blogging about the movie itself is that I’m sure for some people the mention of an Earthsea movie will bring back memories of the live action Earthsea miniseries released by the Scifi Channel back in 2004. For most Earthsea fans (myself being no exception), this miniseries was poorly conceived, as it “Hollywooded up” Le Guin’s universe and ultimately made a mockery of her blood, sweat, and tears.

That is not the case here. Tales From Earthsea makes an honest attempt at capturing the universe Le Guin has created. Unfortunately, it isn’t wholly successful. Clocking in at almost two hours, it certainly provided some elements I enjoyed. The score is elegant and beautiful, and captures the mood of Earthsea quite wonderfully. The English translation is strong and the voice actors do a fine job with the script. When dealing with anime, neither of these things are assured. I would’ve preferred crisper, more detailed animation (ala Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust), but I admit to being picky when it comes to animation, and being as it wasn’t awful, I don’t hold this against the movie.

So my true issue with this movie boils down to the adaptation. While the movie draws most of its inspiration from The Farthest Shore, it also draws upon the other novels in the series, introducing concepts and/or characters from A Wizard of Earthsea (1st book in the series), The Tombs of Atuan (2nd), Tehanu (4th), and The Other Wind (6th). There are some elements that aren’t from any of the books. The end result is that I was sometimes left feeling as though a square peg had been fitted into a round hole. In fairness, I’ve learned that at least part of the reason for the mishmash of plot threads and characters has to do with rights ownership, since the SciFi Channel had certain rights pertaining to any Earthsea movie. Otherwise the entire movie might’ve been based on the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea. That’s unfortunate, as I’m starting to think that if the anime version of Earthsea came out first and wasn’t subject to a number of legal restrictions, Tales From Earthsea the movie could’ve been taken to a much higher, more memorable level.

While Tales From Earthsea conveys many of the themes from the books—life vs. death, acceptance of self, acceptance of other, to name a few—the movie proves unable to successfully balance the dense thematic content that results from exploring too many divergent plot threads. Some of the elements he was was forced to reinvent due to legal restrictions fall particularly flat, most notably some of the violence, which isn’t in keeping with the original books.

I should also bring up one other point about Earthsea that is rather important. To those that are unaware, in this universe the majority of Earthsea’s inhabitants are dark-skinned. The Earthsea miniseries from the SciFi Channel failed to address this, essentially whitewashing their version. When I sat down to watch the anime version, it was with fingers metaphorically crossed that this movie would do a better job conveying the racial realities of Le Guin’s world. At first I was left disappointed, as nearly everyone in the movie looked white. But apparently this may not be the case. (BTW, this link will also explain why the anime version isn’t being widely distributed on American shores yet.) So I suppose I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this matter, even if it doesn’t necessarily look this way to my eye.

A review like this makes it sound like I’m warning you away from this movie, but I’m not. For the most part I enjoyed it. I just didn’t love it. And this is fair, I think. The Earthsea books are widely considered one of the cornerstones of modern high fantasy. It’s only right that any adaptation of the source material—whether it’s restricted by legal matters or not—be held to a high standard. Those of you unfamiliar with the books will be able to follow the story just fine. Without the books to compare it against, you’ll probably have fewer issues with the movie than I did, and it might just seduce you into reading the books (definitely a good thing). And to those of you like me, folks who have read and admire these books, well, watching this movie wouldn’t be a waste of two hours you wish you could have back. You won’t feel the outrage you experienced come the end of the Earthsea miniseries on the SciFi Channel (assuming you made it that far). If you go in with reasonable expectations you’ll probably like what you see. You just won’t love it.

René Walling
1. cybernetic_nomad
One reason you're likely not to have heard about it in north America is that the Scifi channel owns the North American film rights to Earthsea until 2009, so maybe next year, or the one after we can see a release here. (If anyone knows the exact date that Scifi's license expires, I'd love to know BTW)
Jennifer L. Meyer
2. JLMeyer
That's really interesting about the copyright laws.

I didn't know the father had wanted to direct the movie, I remember reading something about the father being upset with his son (I didn't know why).

A friend of mine has seen the anime version of Earthsea and is a huge Hayao Miyazaki fan, he didn't care for the movie.
Torie Atkinson
3. Torie
@ 1

My understanding is that SciFi owns the rights to anything with that title (and to some extent, that content) for five years following the release of their own miniseries. So if it was released in December of 2004, we may be able to see it in December of 2009/ January of 2010.

Though, based on Doug's review and the comment @ 2, I don't get the impression we're missing much. It's a real shame, as I love both Hayao Miyazaki and Le Guin and feel like a partnership between them could have been truly spectacular.
randy gallegos
4. gallegosart
I haven't seen it and probably will, but it should be noted that despite commercial success, both the film and director won top "honors" in Japan's "Razzie" award-equivalents.
Eugene Myers
5. ecmyers
It should also be noted that this film was produced in roughly half the time of a typical Ghibli feature, so the animation is not quite as good as what we're used to. However, much of it is very beautiful, even if the story is nearly incomprehensible even for fans of the source material. I watched this with a mix of people who had read the books and those who were completely unfamiliar with Earthsea, and it didn't make much sense to any of us.

JLMeyer@2, I believe Hayao didn't think his son was ready to direct this (he wasn't, apparently) and also didn't want him to get into animation at all.

Torie, you're welcome to borrow this anytime. Though you're correct that you can get by without ever seeing it, I think it's still worthwhile if only for the realization of the world and some gorgeous animation. Better than your average American animation, but subpar by the standards of most Japanese theatrical anime.
6. yoshiok
Ah, I'm afraid it's one of the worst five films I've ever seen. With the same Ghibli team, the artwork is surprisingly two-dimentional, story is cheap and the characters are not developed. Yet my daughter loves one character at least, so there's something to love in it, if you're a devoted anime fan. Many of my friends say that the blame should be made to its producer. It was made for money, and nothing else, they say. I'm inclined to believe, though I'm not an anime guy.
7. Philip Eckert
In case you haven't seen them, I direct you to Le Guin's own thoughts on the movie.
8. chevron
It strikes me that the majority of viewers/reviewers completely miss the point of this film. They watch it expecting an epic storyline, or at least some coherent plot (perhaps not too unreasonable an expectation, even for fans of Japanese cinema who are accustomed to words-of-wisdom in their films!). It is the message that takes centre-stage in this film, not the story itself.

I'm minded to write a mini-essay on this over at myanimelist, so I'll save my thoughts for that. Suffice to say, if you watch this film and are puzzled by the story, dont try to make sense of it. Not becasue its particularly confusing - the review above suggests this is due to "exploring too many divergent plot threads" -, but becasue if you're trying to understand the story itself, you're approaching the film 'wrongly'. Almost every detail that does make the film - and especially those bits that annoy reviewers! - can be related to the philosophical message, instead of the plot. Rewatch it and see how much you can pick out :)

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