Tales From Earthsea

(Check out my prior Ghibli essay here: The Cat Returns)

Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy cycle ‘Earthsea’ is a six-volume series set in a high fantasy atmosphere on par, at least, with Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The world’s physical and metaphysical structures are elaborated on so well and so unobtrusively as if to guide the reader immediately there, and as such it has been a delight to readers (like myself) since the series’ inception in the mid-60s and the publication of the first book A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968.

Before producing the manga, and then the animated film, of Nausicaa in the early 80s, Hayao Miyazaki too was enamored with the story of Earthsea. He asked Ursula Le Guin then if he could adapt the story for animation, but was turned down on the grounds that she hadn’t heard of him (he had only directed one feature by that point in 1979’s Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro). Years later, after the success of Spirited Away (which was the highest grossing anime ever at that time as well as a worldwide phenomena that put Ghibli on the map in a much bigger way than previous endeavors), Le Guin gave her permission to create the film. However, Miyazaki was by that time already working on Howl’s Moving Castle at that time and instead gave the project to a completely untested figure in a nepotistic decision he, and many critics, would come to regret.

This person was Miyazaki’s son Goro Miyazaki, who by this time had never worked in animation and had only even proved his interest in Studio Ghibli by managing the layout for the Ghibli Museum where he handled the architectural designs of the gardens and the layouts for exhibits. Goro, not being as familiar with the Earthsea cycle as his father, and not having done his homework on the series’ most important elements and themes, set out to adapt the stories of the third and fourth books in the cycle, whilst peppering in elements from his father’s manga The Journey of Shuna, which was influenced by the tone of Earthsea (though characteristically Miyazakian).

The third novel, The Farthest Shore, depicts the Archmage Sparrowhawk (also known by his true name Ged) who travels throughout the lands of Earthsea as sickness ravages the world and darkness threatens to wipe out all magic power. Wizards are mostly powerless, madness takes hold in the populace, and the old songs and names of things are forgotten to most as the Wizard Cobb uses the Pelnish Lore (an unbalanced, dark magic developed by the world’s most sinister wizards of old) to prevent his own death and ensure his shade never reaches the other shore where it will become doomed to everlasting depression and torment (the afterlife of this world is much like the Jewish Sheol or Greek Tartarus). The end of the world is nigh as the dragon Orm Embar works to right the balance, while Sparrowhawk tries to achieve the same end in his own way whilst simultaneously trying to save the young Prince Arren from the darkness in his own heart, a darkness fueled by his fear of death that mirrors Cobb’s fears and threatens to develop one day into a second Cobb if not dealt with now. The final altercation is the destruction of Cobb by Ged and Orm Embar, and the salvation of Arren who resigns himself to life and death, deciding to revel in his time, and returning home to become crown prince of his kingdom.

The fourth book of the cycle is Tehanu. Tenar, the one-time high priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, who was saved by Ged from this arcane religious cult unwittingly worshiping demons, in the second book of the series Tombs of Atuan, lives as a farmer in the countryside. She finds a young girl who has been burned by her nomadic family and left to die on the side of the road. Tenar names her Therru, meaning ‘fire’ in the Hargish language. As the girl grows into young adult age, Ged, evading the king’s men who are after him at the time, comes to Tenar’s farm to help with the harvest and to hide out. After a series of events involving political intrigue, we will find that Therru is the daughter of the great dragon Kalessin and that her true name is Tehanu. As the world is still unbalanced, Ged goes on a voyage to meet the dragon of Earthsea, who are coming closer and closer to the human domain of Earthsea and farther away from their own domains, causing havoc in the empires of Earthsea. Tehanu is able to help assuage the dragons and communicate their problems with Ged.

Finally, The Journey of Shuna elements present in Tales From Earthsea are relatively sparse, but notable insofar as they muddle the plot. There are slavers in both properties who enslave young children who have run away from home or are left unattended by their parents. One of these children is named Thea, who becomes one with the character of Therru/Tehanu and is almost enslaved in the film, but saved at the last moment by Prince Arren, who should be king already by the time that in the chronology and not merely a young boy still troubled by darkness. The slavers are made to coincide with the characters of the king’s men who are after Ged in Tehanu, except they are not exactly the king’s men in Tales From Earthsea, but are instead Cobb’s men who are tracking Ged in an attempt to lead him to Cobb’s palace where his magic will become useless due to powerful Pelnish spells cast in the area, this way he can be contained and killed by Cobb who will claim his title as Archmage of Roke Island (and of Earthsea). Finally, the only other Shuna element in this film is the presence of Prince Arren’s mount (in the Earthsea cycle very few people have horses or any such thing as they are almost useless in a land of archipelago islands and thereby boats and one’s own two legs are the best means of travel) which is a red elk-like being similar to the one in the manga and to Ashitaka’s red elk in Princess Mononoke. 

The whole things is entirely too complex for one film as it crams in story ideas from three separate pieces of epic literature in a way that makes it inaccessible to all but those who have already read the the Le Guin books. For such viewers, the film can be a visual feast and the fun of the voyeurism comes in identifying story ideas as it progresses and trying to correctly identify where they originated. But for the average viewer unequipped with the requisite readings, the film is a huge mess and nearly impossible to follow.But this distinction is not unambiguous either. Goro Miyazaki strips some of the most important elements of Earthsea in the process of depicting it in such a condensed manner. The archipelago nature of the world is left out as all of the travels of our protagonists is by land, which is impossible in the original cycle as each island is relatively small (the largest being an anomaly something akin to the size of Ireland, while the rest are minuscule in comparison.

Second, and most important to the novel’s ideological structure, is the physical appearance of the inhabitants of Earthsea: they are all of dark complexions except for the insane brood of northern brutes in one of the northernmost islands where Tenar was born and lived in Atuan. These pale skinned figures are devoid of magic ability and secondary to the rest of the inhabitants of Earthsea who are more civilized and cultured.  Goro Miyazaki makes the fatal flaw of white-washing his characters and changing one of the most fundamentally important points about Earthsea: its radical approach to race in a genre with traditions of leaving out non-whites entirely or depicting them as brutes. In this sense, Goro Miyazaki’s film is not only almost unwatchable for those without a knowledge of the books in the first place, but also immoral, unconscionable, and unthinking to those who do know the books and appreciate what they have done ideologically and in terms of shifting generic conventions. As such, the film has no real audience (except maybe for those who have read the books, but did not like their ideological re-configuring of generic conventions for one reason or another and would prefer Earthsea as Earthland proliferated by only Caucasians).

However, being a Ghibli film and having the marketing power that that studio provides backing the picture, it made $68 million USD at the box office (making it the fourth highest grossing Japanese film of 2006) on a $22 million USD budget. As such, in the future, Ghibli would take more gambles with Goro as a director at the helm of projects. However, critical reaction was staunchly against the film, even on the part of Ursula Le Guin who did not even recognize the world pictured therein as the one she created in her Earthsea cycle, and Goro’s own father Hayao who saw the film as extremely flawed and regretted giving his son the opportunity to make the film instead of hiring someone else to do it. Over the next five years, Goro would study diligently in the ways of narrative and scripting to better learn how to create a good work. This would pay off in his next endeavor, which would be masterful, focused, accessible, and ideologically progressive and affirming, in a word, everything Tales of Earthsea was not.


Cody Ward

[Next up: From Up On Poppy Hill]


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