We are truly lucky as anime fans to be living at a time when Studio Ghibli are creating films. Going to the cinema to see the likes of Spirited Away on its UK release is the anime equivalent of seeing Citizen Kane on its release. Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki have created countless jaw-droppingly superb films, but what of the future? Both Miyazaki and Takahata are getting on a bit and aren't going to carry on making films for ever, so who could fill their shoes?
In Japan is common for sons to follow in their father's footsteps, but Goro Miyazaki - Hayao Miyazaki's son - has been content with running the Studio Ghibli Museum. Until now. He has finally followed in his father's footsteps, much to his old man's dismay, with his debut film - Tales from Earthsea. Based largely on the third and fourth books in Ursula K Le Guin's epic Earthsea series, the film follows the troubled Prince Arren who has fled his kingdom after stabbing his father and taking his sword of office. Now wandering alone in a far off land the troubled youth meets the quietly spoken wizard Sparrowhawk, and the two begin travelling together. Arren may be trying to escape his past and hide from his demons, but Sparrowhawk has a bigger problem to deal with. The world is sliding out of balance, ill omens abound and wizards are losing their powers, Sparrowhawk is searching for the cause and his journey brings him and Arren to the door of his old friend Tenar. The effects of the problems are being felt by Tenar too, distrust is rife and she is condemned as a witch for making medicines, whilst the young girl Therru - who Tenar looks after - is similarly condemned because of her facial scars. Therru may hold the key to exorcising Arren's demons, but for Sparrowhawk the demon he must overcome is the powerful wizard Cob. Cob has been trying to use magic to cheat death and his actions could be what is throwing the balance of the world out of kilter. His scheming and power makes him a deadly opponent and Arren, Therru and Tenar could become unwitting victims to his ambition, unless Sparrowhawk can stop him...
I did see this film in Japan last year where
my limited grasp of Japanese only allowed me to just about keep up with what was
going on, but now the DVD is here and the film can be seen in all its English
language glory! Any new Studio Ghibli film will generate interest,
but with Hayao Miyazaki's son making his directorial debut Tales of Earthsea
generates more than most. It's obvious that comparisons will be made
between Goro's debut and his father's films, but leaving that aside for the
moment how does the film fare on its own merits? Well, quite well
Tales from Earthsea is an old school fantasy film, epic, in depth and traditional. You have plenty of fantasy staples on show here - wizards, dragons, omens of doom, royalty in hiding, etc - but the story makes good use of them, rarely feeling hackneyed despite the source material being a fair few decades old. Unlike the recent US Wizard of Earthsea mini-series, Goro Miyazaki's Tales of Earthsea does a great job of portraying the world of Earthsea. The design work is superb, particularly on the sprawling Hort Town, and helps to bring a
feeling of a land far away and long ago. The backgrounds are often beautiful watercolour paintings bathed in the golden light of the setting sun, making for a stunning backdrop that conveys a sense of times past. The story is pretty good and builds up to some great set pieces, but it's not without a couple of problems.
Because the story is drawn from parts of
several novels it sometimes makes reference to events that don't happen in the
film. Although they rarely have a bearing on the film's plot it can be
frustrating as you sometimes feel you have missed something. There are also occasions where prior
knowledge of the books helps understand some of the film's concepts, and whilst not essential to
enjoying or understanding the plot, is a help if you want to get the most out of
the film. Fans of the series, and I count myself amongst them, will find a
lot to like throughout. Despite some rejigs and additions to the story the
film flows well and despite setting most of the story on land, you do get a real
feel for the seabound world. The characters themselves are well designed,
and instantly recognisable to fans - even though they aren't as dark
skinned as they are described in the original novels. It is
the best interpretation of the Earthsea saga yet seen, and
the English dub is superb - particularly Timothy Dalton as
Sparrowhawk and Willem Defoe as the sinister Cob.
But how does it stand up to the rest of Ghibli's illustrious catalogue? Tales of Earthsea is unusual in that it was made in a far shorter period of time than Ghibli's other films, and in places it shows. Some of the animation isn't up to the standard you'd expect from the studio, and sometimes the backgrounds - stunning though they are - lack detail and movement. Films like My Neighbour Totoro and Only Yesterday are packed with movement - grass blowing in the wind, insects and birds flying - but often this is absent in
Tales from Earthsea. This sometimes makes the characters look like they are walking through a beautiful painting instead of a living, breathing world. Despite the archetypal Ghibli style characters and elements, the film was sometimes more reminiscent of Makoto Shinkai's The Place Promised in Our Early Days than the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Like Shinkai, Goro Miyazaki frequently uses stunning sunsets and blazing light to make up for some of the deficiencies in the animation, and it does paper over a lot of the cracks. By the standards of most animated films Tales of Earthsea is a stunning triumph, but in Ghibli's canon it's not quite up there with the classics.
Tales from Earthsea is a very good film, but one that just falls short of greatness. The design and background art throughout is stunning, and Goro demonstrates his own style rather than just trying to copy his father's. However, some story elements make less sense if you are not familiar with the books, and it must be said that the changes that come over Cob towards the end of the film are a bit disappointing. By all accounts though it is a highly enjoyable fantasy film that will appeal to fans of Earthsea and non-fans alike. It has that magical spark that makes a Studio Ghibli film special and is a superb debut for a rookie director. You get the impression that the time restraints were a factor in some of the film's deficiencies, but even with these problems it is still a worthy addition to any anime fan's collection.
For nearly forty quid you expect quite a hefty amount of extras, and Studio Ghibli deliver! This four disc special edition not only contains more language options than you can shake a stick at but the whole film in storyboard form and two entire discs packed with interviews, trailers and promo videos! There's also room for documentary features about the creation of the score and of the haunting 'Therru's Song', the only problem is that they - along with all the other on-disc extras - are in Japanese only. However, it also has a shiny, reversible metallic effect sleeve, and if you're quick you can get it with a free limited edition Tales of Earthsea postage stamp and a random Ghibli sew on patch! The two disc edition is cheaper and still has the English language options, but loses one of the extras discs. The four disc one is definitely five star stuff, and a hope that Optimum bring as many of these extras to the UK as possible!