When Miyazaki Goro’s anticipated debut movie hit the screens in 2006, much of the reception was lukewarm, and even a bit unflattering. Let me tell you this: Unless all you care about is a gripping plotline, don’t take those criticisms seriously. Many of the reviewers expected Goro’s film to be yet another Ghibli swashbuckler filled with adventure, intrigue, and fun. Young Miyazaki was unable to escape his father’s shadow (not unlike his film’s protagonist), and his ambitious, very different, work ended up the undeserved target of many preconceived notions. Tales from Earthsea is a far cry from the typical family-friendly flight of whimsy that one would probably expect, but while considered a Miyazaki “disappointment,” it remains a movie that can stand quite well on its own, thank you very much.
Tales from Earthsea is not a movie for kids. Nor is it a movie tailored for those simply “in for a good ride.” It is an unpretentious work with an unpretentious story, but a lot is said. Unlike Miyazaki Hayao, Goro’s narrative is driven more by mood and character than actual plot, though father and son align in their ability to convey something to their audience. Prince Arren, a troubled teenager and runaway, finds himself unwittingly caught in an evil scheme that has been throwing the world of Earthsea out of sync. In the midst of such troubles, he gains friends, traverses the countryside, hides from slave traders, and delves into the meanings of life and death. It is by no means an epic adventure, but is instead a series of thoughtful portraits in which Arren comes to learn about himself and the way he views the circumstances around him. Miyazaki Goro has something to say through this movie, something that transcends past commercial artifices into an important lesson on the value of life.
Compared to the charms of other Ghibli films, Earthsea promises a very different kind of magic. The fantasy surrounding the land of Earthsea is presented in a way not dissimilar to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter: Its tone is much airier than those of the elder Miyazaki, the landscapes are distinctly un-Japanese, and all in all, there is just something sweeping about its whole image. It becomes a memorable fantasy not through heroics and fighting dragons, but through its beautiful tone colors. Keep in mind that this is NOT what every anime fan is looking for.
This isn’t to say that the story is without gaps and flaws. As a matter of fact, there exist a few moments where motives and actions do not connect adequately, leaving the overarching story less convincing than it could have been. Some plot occurrences are unneeded, while others are left unexplained. Nevertheless, its theme on the dynamics between life and death hits hard. The climax, while lacking a sense of urgency, is ethereal and grandiose, and then cascades into a quiet, satisfying conclusion.
One can easily detect the classic “Ghibli style” in Miyazaki Goro. Like its story, the animation and backgrounds are unpretentious, uncluttered works of art that serve their purposes well and add to the fresh, “open” feel of the film. What drew me in the most were its vast landscapes. With such breezy, sun-tinted oceans, desert seas, broad mountain ranges, and windblown grass fields, I felt a strong desire to step through my computer screen and actually experience the sensations that the scenes so strongly elicited. The characters are drawn in an uncomplicated manner and yet exhibit a cleaner, more detailed polish than earlier Miyazaki counterparts.
Let me just say that the music is absolutely, unequivocally beautiful. Its exotic harmonies and sweeping symphonic elements truly bring the world of Earthsea to life. Some main themes were used repetitively, yet they were so exquisite and full of imagery that I hardly minded. I particularly liked the more folksong-like piece that makes a poetic appearance in the second half, sung by Therru, the heroine.
The voice acting is well done. Above all, I love the voice for Cob, whose low, musical murmurs capture his mystique and lend to an odd kind of hypnotism that is fascinating to hear. This quality of voice heightens his terrifying potential for evil. The others’ voices, while performed persuasively, are generally unremarkable in timbre.
What the film might miss in plot it almost completely makes up for in the multifaceted characterization of its protagonist, Prince Arren. The boy’s realizations of life, death, and himself largely constitute the story as a whole; throughout his journey of guilt, doubt, and fear, he will be able to strike a deeply familiar chord with many viewers. Seemingly crushed by the irrevocability of dying one day, Arren copes with the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. His development throughout the film will make it easy for viewers struggling with similar problems to reflect and journey with him. The impact of such a dynamic evolution of character cannot be denied.
Many of the other characters initially appear to fit into one-dimensional frames. Some of them remain so, while others grow into themselves. Sparrowhawk stays the stereotypical wise wizard, Tenar the supportive and strong female adult ally. However, Therru, a girl Arren rescues from the slave traders, blooms into a best friend and a vital part of Arren’s self-realizations. Cob, who is maliciously throwing Earthsea out of balance, holds vulnerabilities of his own that make his greed understandable. The only disappointing character is the annoying, broad-faced slave trader lackey who repeatedly fails in his attempts to apprehend Arren. His presence is merely a bad aftertaste that pops up over and over again as a device to tend to the rather forced undercurrent of suspense throughout the first half.
The critics who have trashed this majestic film are merely failing to come to terms with their own presuppositions. Of course, no one can call this piece flawless. Yet I see in the film a young director’s immense potential, as well as a stunning individuality that is too often unappreciated by those who merely desire to see an unoffending successor to the Ghibli tradition. The future looks dim for this underrated movie, and to be honest, this saddens me. I am not afraid to admit that I am completely taken with Tales from Earthsea. With its characterization, its aesthetics, and most especially its style, it has carried me upon wild wings of rapture.
In the lush fantasy world of Earthsea, dragons and humans no longer live together as one due to the greed of humanity. It is in this world that the young Prince Arren lives – a young man who is dejected, tormented, and afraid of the ultimate goal of life: death. After killing his father and stealing an heirloom sword forged by magic, Arren sets forth with his trusty steed into the unknown countryside, experiencing the joys and darkness of mankind. Along with the powerful mage Sparrowhawk, an unlikely friend and his own personal angst, Arren must rediscover his desire to live while evil forces threaten his precious life's existence.
When I first stumbled upon the anime scene, I demanded only slice-of-life high school romance and Naruto (Weird combination!). I've opened up a little bit since then, but I suppose the high school shoujo type will always be my "comfort zone."