The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 103 – Tales of Earthsea

Tales from Earthsea 1

Again we look at an anime film made by the most famous of anime producers Studio Ghibli, and a film that is slightly topical. BBC Radio is currently adapting the work of sci-fi and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin. An adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness has just been broadcast on Radio 4, and later in the month Radio 4 Extra will be adapting her Earthsea series.

However, this is not the first adaptation of Earthsea. There was an anime film adaptation called Tales of Earthsea released by Studio Ghibli in 2006. It is notable partly for being the debut feature from director Goro Miyazaki, son of company Oscar-winning co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. However, more infamously it is remembered because it is widely regarded as being the worst Studio Ghibli movie.

The film adapts elements from the first four novels in the series, although the title comes from a collection of short stories. The movie begins with the world of Earthsea in turmoil. Dragons are seen fighting, seemingly an impossible act; and then the King of Enlad is killed by his own son Prince Arren, who steals his father’s sword. The sword itself however seemingly cannot be unsheathed.

Arren wonders the desert, but is saved from a pack of wolves by Sparrowhawk, a wizard known as the “Archmage”. Arren accompanies him to the troublesome Hort Town, home to dodgy vendors and slave traders, where Arren helps to rescue a young scarred girl from some slavers, but the girl flees from Arren in anger. Arren however, ends up being captured by the same slavers, only to be rescued by Sparrowhawk again. The two travel to an old friend of Sparrowhawk’s called Tenar who looks after them, but then Arren discovers that Tenar is also looking after the scarred girl he rescued earlier, who is named Therru. As Arren tries to make friends with Therru and become both wiser and stronger, the evil Lord Cob, a man who is trying to seek eternal life and who is master of the slavers, tries to come up with a plan to control Arren and to eliminate Sparrowhawk.

Tales of Earthsea is primarily noted for being the biggest blot on an otherwise great record of films from Studio Ghibli, even though the film still reached No. 1 on the Japanese box office. The main problem raised is that is not a faithful adaptation. This is a 110 minute film that tries to cram into it four different novels. It was never going to go off smoothly. In fact, it deviated from the original novels greatly, and we have no great source for this than Ursula K. Le Guin herself.

Le Guin said the film differed so much from her own work that it was like, “watching an entirely different story, confusingly enacted by people with the same names as in my story.” She summed the film up by saying to Goro Miyazaki: “It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie.” Thus reaction to the movie is often described as “mixed”, but given how widely lauded the rest of Studio Ghibli films are, “mixed” is about as damming as anyone is willing to say. The only real positives given to the film tend to be about the visual aspect of the movie.

One other factor Tales of Earthsea had was on the reputation of Goro Miyazaki. The original plan was for his father Hayao to work on the film, but Hayao was working on another movie. Hayao actually disapproved of the move to make his son the director saying he lacked experience, and the two did not talk to each other during Earthsea’s production. Because the movie got the reaction it did, his later works have been treated with some scepticism. His next film was From Up on Poppy Hill (No. 53), which was considered to be a much better effort, but some critics did say that this was not surprising as there was no way Goro could do any worse.

This film will therefore mainly appear to Ghibli completists, who are interested in collecting all of the films made by the studio. It demonstrates that no company has a perfect record, and that you have to accept that even the best things often experience things that go wrong.

Tales from Earthsea is released on DVD and Blu-Ray from Studio Canal.