Tales from Earthsea (impressions - articles)

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9 August 2010

A New Miyazaki Film by a New Miyazaki

Steve Fritz

Animated Shorts: Articles on Animation's Greatest Creators

In the world of animation, any new film from Studio Ghibli is a cause for celebration. Founded by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki, the studio's output has included such groundbreaking works as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away just to name a few.

Still, what many don't realize is Miyazaki-sama is not the only creative whirlwind at that studio. For instance, Fireflies was actually the creation of Isao Takahata. The magical Whispers of the Heart was under the guidance of Yoshifumi Kondo. Yes, Hayao Miyazaki is the name most identified with Ghibli, but his studio isn't a one-man shop.

Now imagine if you're Hayao's son, Goro. The pressure of following his legendary perfectionist father made such an impression on him that he studied agriculture and architecture in college, not animation. He became so good at it he even won national awards in his native Japan.

At the same time, Miyazaki's longtime business partner, Toshio Suzuki, noticed that - just like the old man — Goro not only was an excellent draftsman but quite capable of making quick and definitive decisions. So Suzuki championed the younger Miyazaki's creative abilities to the father and the rest of the Ghibli organization. Now Goro's first feature length film, Tales of Earthsea, is about to be released in the U.S. market.

The stories surrounding this movie don't just stop with its director, either. Tales of Earthsea is derived from an award-winning series of novels by science fiction/fantasy master Ursula K. Leguin. Miyazaki pere had wanted to adapt this work since he formed Ghibli back in the early 1980s. In fact, one can see Leguin's effect on the elder Miyazaki as far back as his first real film, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Winds all the way through some of his latest work, such as Mononoke.

The thing is, much like the late, great Roald Dahl, Leguin isn't very enamored with other forms of media. In her august career, she has only approved of one production, a PBS production of The Lathe of Heaven, way back in 1980. She has openly criticized everything else ever done to her work.

According to records, she was pretty tough on Ghibli, too. She rejected multiple offers until she finally saw Totoro. It apparently charmed her. Still, when she signed off on the project, she expected the father to direct the film, not the son.

If that isn't enough, there is another reason why LeGuin has been critical of mass media. She had also granted the rights to Earthsea to the then Sci-Fi Channel. They turned it into a miniseries starring Isabella Rossellini and Danny Glover. LeGuin despised it.

That wasn't all. When Sci-Fi found out about the Ghibli production, they got an injunction insuring the animated feature film would not be released in the U.S. in 2007, which was the original plan, but this year. So the rest of the world has seen Goro's film for over the last three years.

With all that drama behind this drama, it makes one wonder why Goro didn't go running back to his gardens. Yet here it is, albeit with a very limited distribution, through Disney subsidiary Touchstone and with a completely indifferent amount of media support.

Truth be told, Tales of Earthsea is worth any chance one can get to see it on the big screen.

One quick glimpse of the movie will quickly confirm that this apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. Goro's visual style and pacing is very similar to Hayao. His character design looks like they've been virtually lifted from the old man's alternate world style, and his sense of timing reminds one of his pop's latest effort, Ponyo. Most important, like his father, Goro stuck to using the traditional animation techniques that his father champions. The movie is awash with its magnificent use of watercolors. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that as far as this movie is concerned. This Earthsea is jam packed with more than its share of magical eye candy.

The story will no doubt be pleasing to those not too familiar with LeGuin's work. The author herself has expressed her own disappointment in her web site, so one shouldn't be surprised if her fans follow suit. It basically crunches segments of the series third and fourth books, which will undoubtedly be jarring to those who sincerely love the book. Still, speaking as one not too familiar with those novels, as an overall movie it feels pretty solid.

The English voice casting includes a rather interesting mix of film and TV veterans, including Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay, Willem Dafoe and Cheech Marin. They are rounded out by a stellar cast of voice over vets such as Jeff Bennett, Tara Platt, Liam O'Brien and Kevin Michael Richardson. The marquis names don't hold back the production, which is definitely satisfying.

Anecdotally, it seems the one person who really mattered through all this was the father. There are reports saying he called the entire project a giant pile of, to put it nicely, excrement. There are other stories floating around that said at the movie's grand debut, Hayao slipped his son a note stating how he was ultimately satisfied once all was said and done.

What definitely is known is Goro is still employed by Ghibli, and working on his next cinematic project. While the exact name of the film has hasn't been announced, the release date appears to be somewhere between 2011 and 2012.

Besides, Miyazaki Sr. is always wailing away about whatever project he's working on will more than likely be his last. He is not a young man by anyone's standards, and his drawing style now suffers from a severe version of carpel tunnel syndrome. When the master himself his last days may be upon him, and that he's now thinking about promoting a number of junior Ghibli staff to director positions, that's a sure sign it's probably a good thing there's a new Miyazaki film out there...even if it's from a "new" Miyazaki.

That said, and if Tales of Earthsea is any indicator, then fans of Studio Ghibli really do have reason to celebrate. With a little luck and hopefully some better treatment, Goro Miyazaki will end up being a name the animation world to remember.

The Ghibli Blog

23 March 2011

In Defense of Goro Miyazaki's Earthsea

Posted by Daniel Thomas MacInnes

I liked this comment from W.Eric so much that I decided to give it a post of its own. It's a passionate defense of Goro Miyazaki, and his Tales From Earthsea, and debates like this are the very reason this blog is a success. Welcome words for the Earthsea defenders out there:

Goro Miyazaki swung for the stands and he made it! His father had decades to develop his opinions and theories on direction and timing. Goro had maybe a year? Earthsea was a triumph in its own right. To take a totally green director with ungodly time constraints and throw a project at him based on beloved novels that have been around for generations is crazy. Of COURSE he’s going to break some rules, take some much needed shortcuts and step on some toes. Yes, it pays homage and takes inspiration from earlier works, yes it is missing some of the quiet moments and extra bits of animation familiar with the bigger studio works. However, it has a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, the colors and details of the drawings are very unique – Goro even wrote Therru’s song! What a risk taker Goro was in scripting the prince to murder his father. Yes, it offended some, but he was making the story his own and THAT took TRUE LEADERSHIP.

I make less than 30k per year, but my wife and I were so taken by the footage of this new director’s project that we flew to Japan to watch it in the theater. We cried at how beautiful it was. So taken were we that two years later, we flew to Calcatta Italy, the town Goro researched for his architecture. None of Hayao’s works have had THAT much influence.

You and my wife and I are clearly all worship at the altar of Ghibli. You have an incredible site and wonderful information. But please, have some faith in Goro, I truly believe he’s going to bring the heat soon.

Manga UK

24 June 2014

Family Feud

Andrew Osmond examines Tales From Earthsea

You're the son of world-famous anime director Hayao Miyazaki. You’re asked to make a movie at his fabled Ghibli studio, but you've never worked on a cartoon in your life. Do you start with something modest? Do you heck! No, you animate the classic Earthsea novels by Ursula Le Guin.

Result: you receive two national prizes from Japanese critics… for worst film and worst director. Your film gets a ton of one-star kickings on Japanese websites. Then it lingers on in memory, a black mark on the Ghibli brand, far worse than just a great studio underperforming. Pixar’s Cars 2 was a let-down; Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea is a betrayal.

Well, that’s one side of the story. There are other ways to look at Goro Miyazaki’s sombre fable of a troubled boy-prince in a magic world, who becomes a murderer and outcast and is caught in a war between wizards. To declare an interest, I thought Tales from Earthsea was an interesting failure, “a pious fable about a sinner seeking redemption,” worth about two Cat Returns or a hundred Eragon films. The rather more famous Mark Kermode judged the film, “a beautifully realised, full-blooded tale of dragons and darkness, good and evil, drugs and damnation.”Goro MiyazakiMost reviewers were far harsher. Earthsea’s creator Le Guin criticised much of the film, and was plainly disappointed by it, though she points out saving graces. For example, she enjoyed the interpretation of Ged by veteran Japanese actor Bunta Sugawara; the “calmness” of the farm scenes; and the depiction of the animals, including a relative of the “Yakkul” deer seen in Princess Mononoke and Hayao Miyazaki’s 1980s picture-book Shuna’s Journey (bits of which were borrowed by Goro).

Le Guin also said that she received many emails from Japan about Tales from Earthsea. Some were from viewers disappointed by the film, but others were from fans defending it. According to one correspondent, there was a “distinct division” of opinion on Japanese internet sites. “While many are devastated by the movie, there are also many who are elated with it… . The fervour with which they defend it brings to mind someone lost in a maze who has just found an engraving of an arrow on a door, only to be told by another traveller that the corridor behind it is a dead end.”

Then there’s Goro Miyazaki own story, told in episodic blog form on the Ghibli studio website in the months leading up to the film’s release. An unofficial translation, created by Paul Barnier, is available online. The early entries make clear that, whatever you might think of the film, Goro approached Earthsea with deep respect. He’d read the original trilogy as a teenager, then revisited it as an adult, pondering the change in his reactions. As a schoolboy, Goro identified with the callow, headstrong Ged of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea. As an adult, he felt more kinship with the mature Ged of the later novels, who’s portrayed fairly faithfully on screen.

Goro’s blog is enlightening on several other points, including his argument for animating Earthsea in a rough, retro style harking back to Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and even the 1960s Toei film The Little Norse Prince. Perhaps the style is most obvious in an early Earthsea scene where the nihilist prince Arren is attacked by wolves in the desert, like the feistier Hols in Norse Prince. Arren himself can be seen as a version of the troubled girl Hilda, whose animation by the great artist Yasuji Mori was a revelation to Prince’s staff. Goro Miyazaki admitted, though, that his characterisation of Arren bewildered his own animation director, Takeshi Inamura.

All these points, though, were obscured by the most infamous blog entries; Goro’s blunt criticisms of Hayao Miyazaki as a father, including his claim that Papa Miyazaki scored full marks as a director, zero as a dad. Goro also claimed Hayao opposed him directing Earthsea, which Hayao himself had tried and failed to adapt in the 1980s. Surprised fans suddenly had front-ring seats to a family brawl, involving Japan’s most beloved uncle having his face metaphorically scratched by an undutiful son. And how does Tales from Earthsea start? With a kingly father stabbed to death by his demented offspring.

It’s been suggested this whole controversy may have been at least partly manufactured for publicity, perhaps by Ghibli’s President Toshio Suzuki, a former journalist who’d covered murder and scandal in his day. (Goro himself said Suzuki “loves wrapping people up in smoke screens.”) If so, it was a supremely warped, not to say tasteless, stunt, given the safer option of spinning Hayao as a proud white-haired dad, waving his son off to Ghibli with a hearty “Ganbatte!”

The truth may never be known, though Ghibli has presented dissent in its ranks before. The official, studio-sanctioned Spirited Away “Roman Album” book had a lengthy interview with supervising animator Masashi Ando, saying why he disagreed with Hayao Miyazaki’s portrayal of the girl Chihiro. In Ando’s view, Chihiro should have shown more hesitation and self-doubt before doing something frightening or difficult. Viewers might like to remember that when they see Production IG’s new film, A Letter to Momo, about another little girl meeting the supernatural. Ando is Momo’s Animation Director.

On Earthsea, Goro denied that Arren’s oblique patricide reflected the director’s own feelings in an interview at the Venice Film Festival. “I do not have much relationship with my father; because of that, I have never felt like killing him. I decided to start with the son murdering the father because I understand that’s more or less the feeling of the young Japanese generation. When I worked in the Ghibli museum, most of the staff there were young people with common problems. I wondered about why that was and tried to come up with reasons, which are reflected in the film. I purposely didn’t explain why Arren stabbed his father because I wanted the audience to think about it, and reach a broader idea of why these problems exist.”

Goro’s comments echo those of Battle Royale director Kinji Fukasaku, who also saw screen violence as a positive way to communicate with a younger generation. By the time that Tales from Earthsea was made, irrational youth crimes had been a Japanese nightmare for a decade. A 2002 Japan Times headline read, “Girl held for knifing father in TV row.” A similar family stabbing is portrayed in Satoshi Kon’s 2003 film, Tokyo Godfathers.

Goro continues, “In the third Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore, people have lost or forgotten their reason for living, and that’s similar to today’s society in Japan. I thought one of those reasons for living is expressed in the fourth Earthsea book, Tehanu, which is why I used that as well…. What Tehanu shows is the Archmage Ged, who once had power, losing that power and becoming just an ordinary middle-aged man. He revives as a human being through the exercise of daily, simple activities on a farm.” In Goro’s film, the twisted youth Arren is renewed the same way.

As for one of the most common fan questions – why on earth was someone with no film or animation experience given the director’s chair at Ghibli? – Goro openly “blames” Toshio Suzuki. “At the beginning, I was asked to join the group working on the film as an observer,” Goro says. “As the project went along, for some reason I moved into a more central role. Suzuki told me, ‘You know, I don’t think we have any other choice but for you to be the director.’ He sort of drove the whole thing.” Suzuki also told Le Guin that Hayao Miyazaki was retiring; and Suzuki, remember, was the manipulator who manoeuvred a reluctant Miyazaki into making Nausicaa twenty years earlier.

Anime expert Helen McCarthy calls Suzuki, “the interface through which Miyazaki interacts with the corporate and financial world.” Should nepotism by proxy be added to his profile? Goro, though, says his inexperience was a blessing in some ways. “I didn’t know anything!” he says. “I didn’t know about camerawork, or any of the technical words in film-making. But I am very good at learning through seeing and hearing. So being completely inexperienced, I had the privilege of being able to ask any question, and I used that to the maximum. Before Earthsea, I hadn’t lived in the anime industry. I had a different career and profile [Goro was a landscape gardener], so if I failed, I could go back to that. I used that fact in a good way, to remove my pressures and worries.”

For many Ghibli-watchers, the ambiguous real-life drama behind Earthsea’s scenes is more interesting than the film. As for whether the real events help in understanding the film, even Goro seems ambivalent. Late in his blog, he says he was fed up with interviewers asking him about the father-son issue. In the same entry, though, he also says he hasn’t sorted out why he told the film as he did.

Elsewhere in the blog, there’s an arresting passage where Goro says he couldn’t not follow his father’s drawn style, having studied Hayao’s films from childhood to learn what his absent dad was like. This reads like an inversion of Hayao Miyazaki’s hatchet-job on Osamu Tezuka in the book, Starting Point. Miyazaki Senior declared, “Perhaps it’s because I was the second-born son in my family, but I have always believed I should never try to imitate my predecessors.” Goro, though, is Hayao’s first son.

Whether such points are telling, or dollar-book Freud, there are tantalising hints of an underlying narrative in Ghibli’s recent films. Most obviously, Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, released two years after Earthsea, has an absent-father figure, a ship captain who cringingly apologises to his wife and son through Morse code. The next Ghibli film, Arrietty features a boy character, Sho, who’s the extreme opposite of Earthsea’s Arren, serenely resigned to death and extinction. But like Arren he needs a guide – tiny Arrietty – to lead him back to life.

And Earthsea is not just about killing a father. After the murder, Arren almost immediately gains a replacement patriarch in Ged to bring him back to the light. This pattern of losing a father, but metaphorically regaining him, is repeated in Goro Miyazaki’s new Ghibli film, From Up on Poppy Hill. Yes, the director of Ghibli’s “abomination” has made a follow-up – a non-fantasy teen drama, set in 1963 Yokohama. Poppy Hill is now screening at festivals, including London’s BFI Southbank, without the world falling in. It’s had mixed reviews, but none of the venom that greeted Earthsea, and made more than $50 million at the Japanese box-office.

The twist, though, is that Poppy Hill was made by father and son together. Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay, based on a girls’ comic he’d critiqued decades earlier in an article called “My Shojo Manga Experience.” More revealingly, it seems the uncontroversial Poppy Hill may earn less than Tales from Earthsea, which made close to $70 million. Does this vindicate the Earthsea controversy, or prove that ersatz Ghibli fantasy sells more than Showa-era period romance?

Hayao Miyazaki’s next, untitled, film was strangely described by Suzuki as an “autobiography,” though perhaps based on someone else’s autobiography. Still, it’s fun to imagine a comedy My Neighbours the Miyazakis, with a central relationship modelled on Homer and Bart Simpson. Just imagine Hayao: “Why you little…”; Goro (strangled): “Awwwkkkkkkk…”


6 August 2010


Gary Rydstrom discusses 'Tales From Earthsea'

By Pam Grady, Special to the Chronicle

Directing the English dubbing of "Tales From Earthsea," Goro Miyazaki's animated adaptation of Ursula Le Guin's "Earthsea" book series, called on both Gary Rydstrom's talent with sound and his skills as a filmmaker.

"It was good for me because a lot of it is editing and mixing. A lot of it was sound process," Rydstrom says in a recent conversation at Pixar's Emeryville headquarters. "We recorded the dialogue like you would in sound. There's a lot of editorial. Then mixing, you're trying to set the voices into the existing mix, so we've got the mix with the sound effects and the music that's been done in Japan. We're taking our new voices and putting them in there, adding echo and doing other things. That I knew really well, so that part of it was comfortable for me."

What was new for highly respected soundman Rydstrom, who has seven Oscars, was directing actors. At 12, it was Charlie Chaplin's 1925 classic "The Gold Rush" that inspired Rydstrom to become a filmmaker when he saw it on television. His debut film, the basically dialogue-free Oscar-nominated short "Lifted," celebrated Rydstrom's love of visual comedy with its slapstick antics of a teenage extraterrestrial trying to pass his alien abduction test. "Tales From Earthsea" and a voice cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay and Cheech Marin offered Rydstrom his first opportunity to direct performances.

"I hadn't worked with that level of actor in this capacity," says Rydstrom, who moved from Skywalker Sound to Pixar several years ago. "It was great for me to see how that works, to see how that dynamic works, and how you communicate with the actors, what they can bring to it. I learned a lot."

The process of taking a film made in one language and dubbing it into another is what he describes as surgery. "You're taking the new English lines and you're trying to make them work as best as possible with the Japanese animation."

The challenges are myriad. It begins with the translation, in which it is vital to both be true to the tone and content of the original and also match as closely as possible the timing between the acting and the animation so that the words fit what is on screen.

"When you translate, from the very beginning, you have to keep in mind, how many syllables, how long is it," Rydstrom says. "It's kind of mathematical. At the same time, you're trying to keep creative control over what the lines are.

"Then the poor actor, they're acting these roles and they're watching this movie, and they are paying attention to different degrees to try to make it match that visual performance. There's a rhythm to it."

After "Lifted" and "Tales From Earthsea," Rydstrom was set to direct his first feature, "Newt," but that project has been canceled, at least for now. He also brought his sound design talent to "Artscape," the widescreen projection unveiled at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 2005 that has been expanded and updated for "Pixar: 25 Years of Animation," the Oakland Museum's current show. He's also been working on something he describes as "really fun."

"I wish I could tell you what it was, but it hasn't been announced," he laughs.

"One of the reasons I came here is because I wanted to be open to trying different things in my career," Rydstrom says of his adventures at Pixar. "I'm keeping that mind-set now. I'm open to whatever possibilities happen of what I can do. I still love the idea of making films and I love the idea of doing sound, so everything is possible."

"Tales From Earthsea" opens Aug. 13 at Bay Area theaters.

E-mail Pam Grady at datebookletters@sfchronicle.com.

The Sydney Morning Herald

The following are representative quotes only; the full text is available online at the link below:

18 May 2007

The Son Also Rises

"That his film lacks the humour of his father's fanciful masterpieces Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle was part of the different story he wanted to tell. It's interesting that when he had read Le Guin's books as a child, Miyazaki had been drawn to the first and second volumes, which tell of the wizard Sparrowhawk's personal journey of self-acceptance.

Yet when he came to make the movie as an adult, he wanted to rework the third part of the tale, The Farthest Shore. It depicts a world in which people are frantically busy, something closer to his current experience."