Whatever Happened to Tales from Earthsea?

Every big-name animation house that one project people like to forget exists. For Pixar, it’s Cars 2. For DreamWorks SKG, it’s Shark Tale. Even Disney, one of the most-respected, and arguably longest-running, animation studios, has Home on the Range. So it’s no surprise that Studio Ghibli, the ambassador of anime to the entire world, has an example of this too, except it actively tries distancing itself from and covering up its greatest shame due to the impact it’s had on its reputation. I’m, of course, referring to 2006’s Tales from Earthsea.

Tales from Earthsea was a doomed project from the start. It’s an adaptation of a series of books written by famed fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin, a series that’s, to-date, been adapted unsuccessfully three times. It’s the directorial debut of Goro Miyazaki, the son of famed director Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a Studio Ghibli movie. It was in production for decades. Naturally, expectations were unrealistically high.

I don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to explain why Tales from Earthsea is bad: the story, about a prince who flees after murdering his father and finds a kingdom ruled by a corrupt wizard, is unstructured, disjointed and poorly-written. Even by fantasy standards, the movie is a mess. The animation, while high-end, is generic and uninspired. The characters have no discernible character arcs. And the English dub, a Disney effort, is relatively-weak, with one of the side-characters’ English voice-actress giving a performance that would’ve been pathetic even by 90’s standards (which, admittedly, were pretty low.) The one, consistently good aspect is Carlos Núñez’s musical score, but even then you can always listen to it on YouTube or iTunes.

As you’d expect, Tales from Earthsea left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. It’s the sole entry in the studio’s library with a Rotten aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes. It holds a 6.5/10 on IMDb, making it the lowest-rated Studio Ghibli movie on that site. In Japan, the movie was torn apart, even earning it their equivalent of a Razzie. And, above all else, it hampered the Miyazaki legacy, forcing Goro to corroborate with his father on his second film, From Up On Poppy Hill, 5 years later. Personally, it’s the only Studio Ghibli movie I can outright call “bad”.

But is it really fair to trash Goro Miyazaki?

Look, I’m not gonna defend this movie. I’ve seen it four times already. It’s dreck. But I don’t think trashing Goro is entirely fair. There are several reasons why:

Firstly, let’s look at cold hard facts. This was a movie made by a newcomer. Prior to Tales from Earthsea, Goro had never directed a movie in his life. He was a designer by profession, not a director. He only directed the movie because he was asked by Studio Ghibli’s producer, Toshio Suzuki, and he only stayed on because he didn’t want to disrespect his father’s close-friend. So it was a lose-lose situation.

Before you all go “Hayao Miyazaki did a great job with his first movie!” remember that the two situations are different; for one, Hayao Miyazaki had had over a decade worth of experience prior to The Castle of Cagliostro. Goro Miyazaki did not. Hayao Miyazaki asked to direct The Castle of Cagliostro, having worked on the show it was based on for several years. Goro Miyazaki was asked to direct his first movie, and he reluctantly took up the task. Besides, how many first-time directors make great movies? You take a look at some of Hollywood’s best’s first movies before answering that.

Basically, Goro had no clue what he was doing, nor did he even want to do it. And I don’t blame him, as few people are talented enough to pull off a masterpiece under those circumstances. And in the off-chance that they are? Well…congratulations, but they’re still few and far-between.

Secondly, Goro had a lot of pressure to make this movie. Remember that: a. he’s the son of a famous director, b. he’s making a movie under a well-respected studio, c. he’s adapting a book that was written by a legendary fantasy writer, d. he’s adapting something that’s never been successfully adapted. Factor in that he had no clue what he was doing, and didn’t even want to do it, and the writing was on the wall.

And this is a big problem: you’re forcing unrealistic expectations on someone who can’t meet them. It doesn’t matter how well the end-result turned out, it’d never live up to that. On the off-chance that the movie had turned out good, and this is purely theoretical, people would’ve still used the “he’s nowhere near as good as his father” line. And that sucks because, as he’s openly admitted, Goro’s not his father. He’s different, and should be held to his own standards, not someone else’s.

Moving on, there’s the issue of legacy. Remember that Studio Ghibli is as revered in Japan as Pixar is here, perhaps even more because Japan values anime to the same degree that we value Hollywood. In that sense, Studio Ghibli isn’t only a studio that makes movies, it’s an integral part of the Japanese economy. When Studio Ghibli makes a movie, Japan takes note. When a Studio Ghibli movie over/under-performs at the box office, Japan also takes note.

So when Studio Ghibli, which has its own stock in the Nikkei Stock Exchange (I kid you not, look it up,) makes a movie that reflects badly, people of all kinds take note. And it hurts them in the long-run. It’s important to remember that Japanese society is rooted in honour and trust, so anything that reflects badly violates those two principles. And that’s part of where the problem lies, as Studio Ghibli has a reputation. By making a disaster, let-alone one directed by the son of one of its greatest icons, you’ve hurt its reputation.

Of course, this puts someone like Goro Miyazaki at a disadvantage, both inside and outside of Japan. Inside for the reasons I’ve mentioned above, but outside because of the fans worldwide who appreciate and respect what Studio Ghibli has to offer. And when it’s tarnished, they feel betrayed. So they direct their hatred at the one responsible.

To put it in simple terms:

“Goro Miyazaki made a bad movie and disgraced Studio Ghibli? SHAME ON HIM!”

You see why this is a problem? Perhaps it’s my Western upbringing, or that I’ve spent most of my life proving that I’m not a failure to everyone, but I can’t help feeling that sort of reaction is unjustified. Goro Miyazaki made a bad movie, but so what? Pixar made Cars 2. Disney’s made plenty of bad movies. In both cases, they’ve bounced back. Saying that Studio Ghibli is ruined because of one flop is a gross, hyperbolic statement, and one that completely demeans Goro Miyazaki as a person. Remember, human beings are complicated, so judging them based on their mistakes, as opposed to their triumphs, is disingenuous.

Sadly, the damage has been done. Goro will forever be judged by the yardstick of his first failure, not the merits of his first success. Which then leads to my next point: Goro’s personal legacy. His directorial debut was bad, but his sophomore effort, From Up On Poppy Hill, was actually not that bad. It was the 4th-highest-grossing film in Japan of 2011 and won plenty of accolades. It had its share of problems, like a key theme that was never sufficiently resolved, but it was honest, heartfelt, emotional, clever and fun to watch. And his current project, a TV adaptation of one of Astrid Lindgren’s novels, has received positive feedback too.

These two examples demonstrate not only a recognition of Goro’s past mistake, but a sign that he’s improving as a talent. Is he at the same level as his father? Will he ever be remembered like his father? The answer is no to both, but at least there’s improvement. Isn’t that enough?

But the biggest issue is that people assume he’s entirely to blame. As I’ve learned the hard way, film, especially animation, is a collaborative process, comprised of hundreds of individuals working on a single project. At any point, something can go wrong. So when a movie fails to click, it can be for a plethora of reasons: bad writing, bad design, bad editing, bad acting or, in this case, bad directing. And in the case of bad directing, the director isn’t always to blame. Remember that people have limitations, so any number of factors can go into something being badly directed.

And this is the big kicker, as I think people forget the complex dynamics of filmmaking because they don’t see the behind-the-scenes events. Goro Miyazaki made a bad movie, but he’s not really to blame here. At least, not entirely. Toshio Suzuki is also to blame for forcing the project on him. The Japanese media is to blame for hyping expectations. Studio Ghibli is to blame for keeping him on the project, despite it not working out. Even Hayao Miyazaki is to blame for ignoring his son while making the film, a fact he’s owned up to post-facto. And we’re all to blame for assuming he could even live up to his father’s legacy at all.

In the end, it boils down to skewed perspectives. Does Tales from Earthsea suck? Absolutely. Does it deserve the hate it gets? Absolutely. But is it fair to criticize and demean Goro Miyazaki for making it, especially since it was his debut and is now beneath him? Absolutely not. Because is it any more fair than if someone else had made it?

Something to ponder.


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