Friday, January 11, 2008

Gedo Senki: Tales from Earthsea

Well, I got to see the anime film Gedo Senki: Tales from Earthsea. It's not a bad movie, but it's not up to Studio Ghibli's usual quality. The pacing seemed off, and the script seemed awkward and incomplete in parts. Ideas were introduced, then left to wither and crumble with no followup. Parts of the story just seemed muddled and confusing. I couldn't help wondering, "Okay, now what the heck just happened?" at the end.

The animation quality--while still above average--seemed poor when compared to Ghibli masterworks like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. While most of the animals, like the llama-like creature and the bovine mounts, were beautifully done, there seemed to be something off about the dragons. I'm having a hard time putting my finger on it, but something about the way they moved didn't seem natural. On the other hand, they looked cool, and the hail of sparks falling from their mouths was magnificent.

Gedo Senki is Goro Miyazaki's first movie, so I suppose it would be harsh to measure it with his father's yardstick. But I can't help thinking that if Hayao Miyazaki would have been the one to make it, it would have been a much different--and much better--film. But that's neither here nor there.

Despite bearing the English subtitle of Tales from Earthsea, I have to admit that I didn't see much resemblance to Ursula K. Le Guin's story. (Neither did Le Guin. Visit her website to read her response to this film.) It's like they took elements from her books, most particularly The Farthest Shore and Tehanu, stripped them out of their context, and sprinkled them throughout an unrelated story.

This radical remixing of Earthsea struck me as very familiar in some ways. As I watched, certain scenes made me think, "I know this. I've seen this somewhere before." And I knew that I wasn't seeing echoes of Le Guin's Earthsea, because those elements that felt so familiar to me seemed so very foreign to Earthsea as I had envisioned it from reading the books.

During the end credits, right after "Based on the 'Earthsea' series by Ursula K. Le Guin," it said "Inspired by 'Shuna's Journey' by Hayao Miyazaki." And the lights went on. I was picking up on the elements from Shuna's Journey (Shuna no Tabi), a rare manga that Hayao Miyazaki published in 1983. I am lucky enough to own a copy of this small, beautiful book. It is one of my most cherished possessions.

Unlike most manga, which are black and white and printed on cheap paper, Shuna's Journey is full color, 147 pages of exquisite watercolor artwork on glossy paper. Despite being 25 years old, the binding is still strong and the pages are still brilliant. High quality stuff. Of course, it's in Japanese. The book was never officially translated into English, although I have seen fan translations floating around on the web. But even without understanding the text (which is substantial), the story fairly well tells itself through its pictures. If you can get a copy on the used market, I recommend it highly.

I immediately ran to my bookshelf and plucked off Shuna's Journey. Yes, yes, it was all there. The slave caravans. The oxen mounts. The beautiful, tender scenes of farm life. The cities and the sweeping landscapes in the film are very evocative of the backgrounds in Shuna's Journey. Arren in Tales from Earthsea is perhaps even more like Shuna than he is like Arren from The Farthest Shore. Therru likewise is more like the slave girl Shuna liberates than like Therru from Tehanu. Even the scuzzy drug-pusher in the movie, who tries to give Arren hazia, looks just like the old man Shuna encounters on his travels.

Of course, Arren in the film rides a cool llama and not an antelope. Oh, wait, Shuna's antelope was already used in a Ghibli film--Yakul, Ashitaka's steed in Princess Mononoke, is an exact copy of Shuna's mount. Princess Mononoke draws quite a lot from Shuna's Journey, too. Of course, both of those works were by Hayao Miyazaki, so it's excusable.

Okay, before this turns completely into a tribute to Shuna's Journey, I need to get back to Tales from Earthsea.

One of Le Guin's complaints, which I agree with, is that the characters are all light-skinned in the movie. In her books, Ged and the others of his country are all dark-skinned. Only Tenar, a foreigner, is light-skinned. But in the movie, all of the characters look white.

Now, I have read articles that talk about the way Japanese audiences perceive anime characters. When shown a generic smiley face, it "looks white" to white people, but "looks Japanese" to Japanese people. That is, a cartoon face, in the absence of distinctive racial markers, will be perceived to be the same race as the viewer. Since I've heard this over many years from multiple sources, from Japanese people to scholarly journals, I think it's probably true. So Ged, Arren, and Therru probably look Japanese to Japanese audiences. With her blond hair and blue eyes, Tenar surely looks white. So Japanese audiences probably do pick up on a racial difference there.

However, even so, this is somewhat contrary to Le Guin's point. That is, knowing the majority of her readers were white, she made her characters black on purpose. I can't see into her mind, of course, but I expect her intent may have been to make white readers view a world where blacks were the majority, where they were powerful in the same way whites are in the U.S., in other words, where black is the cultural default, and white is the "other." But in the movie, the main characters (except Tenar) were changed to the same race as the primary viewers (Japanese), which was the opposite of what Le Guin did. So I was sad to see the Tales of Earthsea populated entirely by light-skinned people.

Another thing that bugged me about the movie was the villain. The subtitles read Cob, but the characters were clearly saying Kumo. And since the character bore little or no resemblance to Cob from the books, I'm inclined to think Kumo is essentially an original character.

Unfortunately, Kumo is also a boring, one-dimensional villain. When you watch other Studio Ghibli films, you get complex characters. Princess Mononoke doesn't even have a clear villain. There are three sides opposed in a war, and there are merits and ills on all sides. In the Ghibli version of Howl's Moving Castle (which similarly bore only minimal resemblance to Diana Wynne Jones' book), the Witch of the Waste ended up as a companion of the heroes after she lost her power. Even in Spirited Away, Yubaba was not without merit.

Kumo, however, was just a monster. Nothing more, nothing less. Ho hum. No layers. No complexity. No interest.

By the way, Kumo really seemed womanly. Cob was male, and the subtitles consistently referred to Kumo as "he" (note that Japanese doesn't have pronouns differentiating male and female, so listening to the dialogue is no help here), but the body shape, face, voice, and attire were all very feminine.

If Kumo is a woman, that's fine. Hopefully the official translation (which will hit the U.S. no earlier than 2009) will clarify that. But if Kumo is a man, then I'm disturbed. Of course, I'm not bothered by feminine men, drag queens, or intersex people. What I'm objecting to is the only such character in the film being the main villain. That reinforces the stereotype that queerfolk are somehow inherently malignant. I mean, it's bad enough when we're used for comedy relief. Do we have to be represented as evil, too? (Mind you, I'm okay with queer villains so long as there are queer heroes, too. I'm only offended when the lone queer character is bad, as if the queerness is part and parcel with the badness.) But if Kumo is, in fact, a woman, it's fine because heroic women are present in Tenar and Therru, so there is balance.

Another thing that bugged me was Therru's scar. In the book, Therru was horribly disfigured by her burns, with emotional scars equal to her physical ones. But in the movie, she just has a faint red blotch on her face. Despite covering the area around her eye, it doesn't seem to have affected that eye at all. Don't tell me it's difficult to animate a disfiguring burn scar--look at Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender or Gouda from Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG. Goro Miyazaki just wanted Therru to be pretty. But Therru isn't supposed to be pretty. She's supposed to be ugly, which is why she was so feared. She provided an example of how a person who was deeply damaged on every level could still be a hero.

Now despite this long litany of complaints, I did like the movie. I will certainly buy the DVD when it is released in the U.S. But Goro Miyazaki still has to grow quite a bit to fill his father's shoes.

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