Thirty Thousand Streets

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Tales From Earthsea

I went and saw 'Tales From Earthsea' today at the Peckham Rye multiplex. I'd been meaning to catch it for a bit, but it doesn't seem to have got a very wide release, even by the relatively obscure standards of Japanese anime.

The screening time was slightly misconceived too – eleven in the morning only – from which I infer that the people responsible for programming at this cinema still see animation as the sole province of schoolkids and their bored, honour-bound guardians (which given the film's reasonably violent content, leads me to suspect that someone actually hasn't bothered to watch it).

It was damn cheap though, and at £2.99 (£2.99!) probably represents hands-down the best value I've ever got for my money in London, full stop. This might be the result of lower overheads. Walking through the multiplex felt a bit like going to watch a film on a ferry (in terms of decor at least) or the slightly threadbare local cinema of my childhood – the Savoy – which is probably as I write being panel-beaten into service as a block of 'luxury one and two bedroom flats'.

For those not in the know, this is an adaptation of bits of The Earthsea trilogy written in the late 60s and early 70s by science fiction author Ursula LeGuin. Briefly, it follows the adventures of a young wizard from his childhood as a goat farmer through to his role as Archmage of the school of wizardry, in the world of Earthsea.

I never really 'got' Harry Potter. Read a book and half and then was all like "yeahwhatever". This might be just because it is a franchise that inspires mania, and contrary-type-dude that I am, the minute people start unzipping their flys en-masse, I tend to lose interest. Besides which, it all seemed to be largely about public school life (albeit lightly garnished with the kind of sorcerous hokum The Great Soprendo would have been embarassed to fuck with) and public schools scare me more than nuclear war (what's that? a school, you LIVE in? no thanks). No, when it comes to books about apprentice wizards there's only one for me.

So, on paper an interpretation of her trilogy by Studio Ghibli sounds like just about the best thing ever. Leaving aside for one moment the fact that animation in Japan is not purely relegated to the status of 'kids' stuff', Studio Ghibli's output has in the past managed to encapsulate paradoxes such as being visually stylish without becoming anodyne, and communicating ideas without resorting to oversimplification. Children are more often not the central characters, frequently battling adversity, but the films themselves do not shy away from moral complexity by painting things in black and white.

So anyway.. the film itself? Is (drumroll)... pretty good. I'd already read some fairly mixed reviews of it which gave an indication it wasn't the masterpiece I might have hoped for.

Visually it's predictably gorgeous, with beautifully painted backdrops brilliantly evoking agricultural landscapes and crumbling cityscapes reminiscent of Laputa Castle in the Sky. I could get lost staring at these for hours, google eyed and dribbling. The animation is also up to scratch, if not quite as breathtaking as say, Spirited Away.

What lets it down however is the plot, however, which is loosely based around the last of the Earthsea books, The Farthest Shore, with bits cribbed from the subsequent, fourth book Tehanu, including it's titular character. It also borrows a major idea (the 'gebbeth') from the first book, but clumsily staples it to a different character.*

The problem is that it spends too much time identifying interesting motifs from the books, and too little time organising them into any properly coherent structure: and the result makes little sense either as an homage to the Earthsea story cycle or as a standalone entity. I could sense the confusion of the people I'd gone to see the film with regarding the use of 'true names', and the dragons seem to feature almost as a big scaly afterthought. Moreover, in spite of the wizard Cob looking impressively camp and evil (think Marilyn Manson crossed with Saruman) it never satisfactorily explains just what it is he's doing, and why the world is degenerating in response.

Something else which bothered me was that the creators seemed to have identified characters who'd fit into familiar Studio Ghibli style archetypes and implemented them accordingly, without necessarily paying homage to their true spirit in the stories. In this sense, it was the first time a Ghibli film felt overtly formulaic to me.

This all seems slightly odd, given Ghibli boss Hayao Miyazaki's eagerness to create a film about the books, but then, he was apparently busy on Howl's Moving Castle at the time approval came through from the initially reluctant Ursula LeGuin, and responsibility for the screenplay ultimately landed at the feet of his inexperienced son GorĊ Miyazaki.** One can't help but wonder what it might have resembled had Hayao been in control, though In fairness, he has set the bar pretty high.

So, quite disappointing, but for all that, i'd still far prefer to watch this than any amount of formulaic computer animation about farm/circus/woodland animals on some tedious adventure. There are still some interesting ideas going on in there, and it represents something of a shift in tone for Ghibli in terms of tone, this being noticably darker than previous outings. Indeed, as limbs were severed and sorcerers immolated, I pitied the poor saps who'd brought their little cherubs along for some 'cartoon fun'.

*Which bearing in mind they use another visual cue from the book – Sparrowhawk's scarred face – all but amounts to an error in continuity. Only to geeks like me though, I suspect.

**Which according to Wikipedia, led in turn to a rift between the two.


Keith said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Zeno Cosini said...

It seems a bit odd to me that Studio Ghibli didn't just make a straight adaptation of the first volume of the trilogy. Why not? Plenty of great opputunities for animation - the goat sequence, the dragons, the shadow, etc - it covers some tried and tested Ghibli territory (coming of age, the responsibility that comes with wielding power) and, because it's the first volume of the trilogy, it explains the nature of the earthsea world in a way that the later books don't.

Will still probably go and see this though.

We're going on an office excursion to see a preview of Atonement tonight. I hate James McAvoy, I hate Keira Knightly, I hate Ian McEwan and I hate the book version of Atonement, so safe to say my expectations aren't high...

The Eyechild said...


Easy fella.. I'll be in touch! (might take your number off too, never know who's reading!)


Yeah that's pretty much what I thought. Ursula LeGuin also said that she gave Hayao carte blanche to create his own tale in the Earthsea universe.. set sometime between the first and second books (something she doesn't do lightly, judging from her website).

It just seems a shame the finished result seems to fall, somewhat awkwardly, between a faithful interpretation and something utterly new.

Hmm, there was a picture of Keira Knightly at the premiere of that In todays Metro, dressed in what looked like a pair of dirty curtains.

keith said...

hey there mr child, im sure your bro has told you already but im now in possesion of some mighty fine screenprint equipment, perhaps we should knock our heads together and see what comes out?


ps sorry for posting a totally unrelated comment on this entry!

Zeno Cosini said...

This just in: Atonement was shit.

The Eyechild said...


The thing is.. did she do the Kiera Knightly 'thing' of standing around looking vaguely winsome with her lips slightly apart..

(about which Ade said something quite rude..)