TALES FROM EARTHSEA
Tales from Earthsea is adapted from the Earthsea fantasy series by American sf/fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The Earthsea books consist of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990) and The Other Wind (2001), as well as the short story collection Tales from Earthsea (2001). The Earthsea series takes place in an archipelago of 1001 islands and concerns itself (principally) with the wizard Ged or Sparrowhawk and his rise from novice to archmage. The first two of Le Guins books, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, were badly adapted in live-action as the tv mini-series Earthsea (2004), which was handled by directors and writers with no feeling for the material who reduced Ursula Le Guins beautifully evoked world to routine sword-and-sorcery. Ursula Le Guin was highly dissatisfied with the results and publicly lambasted the director and producers.
Happily, Goro Miyazaki restores that balance with Tales from Earthsea, which is mostly based on The Farthest Shore, of which he conducts a faithful telling, while also adding the relationship between Tenar and her adopted daughter Theru/Tehanu, which forms one of the plots that runs through Tehanu. Even though Goro Miyazaki only adapts the books loosely, he achieves something that is a far more authentic essence of Ursula Le Guins world than anything in the Earthsea mini-series. There is the full flavour of the culture of the Archipelago and its people, of the way that Ursula Le Guin had the magic work, and adherence to the characters of the books. (Probably what casual audiences fail to realise is that the Tenar in the film is the grown-up version of the apprentice handmaiden played by Kristen Kreuk in the Earthsea mini-series. Indeed, the single line that Tenar has here referring to her past and Ged He led me out of the darkness is a far more accurate retelling of the essence of The Tombs of Atuan than anything in the whole of the Earthsea mini-series).
Whether or not there was rivalry and anger over his taking up the directors chair, Goro Miyazaki is a more than worthy inheritor of his fathers mantle. Perhaps one of the best compliments that you could pay Goro is that if you imagine seeing Tales from Earthsea without knowing anything about it, you could easily see it as being another Hayao Miyazaki film circa the era of Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986). Goro taps perfectly the sense of genteel pastoral respect for nature that runs through all of Hayao Miyazakis films Tales from Earthsea is greatly concerned with the restoration of the Balance and Equilibrium of nature, while the theme about the obsession with youth and immortality being a denial of the natural process of life could easily be one of the philosophical issues that haunts Hayao Miyazakis works. There are the serenely contemplative landscapes that appear throughout Hayao Miyazakis films the beautifully detailed painted backgrounds of Gont Town are an artistic marvel and Goro throws in images of Sparrowhawk sailing into inlets in his single-person sailboat or tending the sheep on Tenars farm that have a wonderfully peaceful beauty and simplicity.
What maybe Goro Miyazaki lacks is the ability to create the hauntingly transcendental climactic catharses that many of his fathers works like Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke hold. In its place, he does create a film that flies with fully realised fantasy. The climactic battle atop the crumbling tower, the tragedy of seeing Arren corrupted and Sparrowhawk captured have a heartfelt strength and beauty. Ged/Sparrowhawk has stature as the archmage, yet this is also contrasted with a character of spartan means who likes to keep his hands toiling close to the Earth. The only character who feels underdeveloped is that of Theru/Tehanu we never see anything of her background and her surprise revelation of identity at the end comes a little unfounded as we know nothing about why this is. Nor for that matter are we granted any insight into the reasons for Arrens murder of his father.
Tales from Earthsea is a film that works with a genuine magic, simplicity and potency of story. Indeed, it works so well that you wish that Ursula Le Guin would grant Goro Miyazaki the chance to go back and visit her earlier works A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan and make up for the bad memory of the Earthsea mini-series. One would certainly love to see how Goro Miyazaki would handle the evolution of Ged/Sparrowhawk from youthful apprentice to the archmage that we see here.
As a trivia note, one has good fortune to see Tales from Earthsea in international release whereas due to the copyright held by the producers of the mini-series, American audiences were unable to see the film until 2009.
Goro Miyazaki subsequently went onto direct a further anime film with the non-fantastical From Up on Poppy Hill (2011).
(Nominee for Best Musical Score at this sites Best of 2006 Awards).