Western fantasy and sci-fi literature has long proven influential for anime, and an early example, shortly after the glamour of Howl’s Moving Castle, was the less well-known Studio Ghibli effort Tales from Earthsea. The late, great Ursula K. Le Guin, who sadly passed away in January, had broken through to literary greatness with her novel A Wizard of Earthsea, two years in the wake of her first major published work Rocannon’s World in 1966. While the wider Earthsea series was admired internationally, for Hayao Miyazaki it became a source of obsession.
Prior to the 2006 release of the Earthsea anime film, the director and Ghibli co-founder had tried for years to get the rights on his side. However, when Le Guin had first heard of Ghibli’s interest, she balked at the idea of her work becoming a ‘Disneyfied’ cartoon affair. It took her first viewing of My Neighbour Totoro, following Miyazaki’s Oscar win for Spirited Away, for Le Guin to see the studio’s potential in adapting her work.
But even then, the animator’s dream was beset by bad timing and crossed wires; by the time Le Guin had given the go-ahead, Miyazaki was beavering away on Howl’s Moving Castle. It was top Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki who would put forward the name of the maestro’s son Goro for the job. But the father railed against the decision, even as the project went ahead with Goro at the helm, the two reported not to have spoken throughout the film’s entire production process.
Goro, Hayao had admonished, did not have the professional chops to take on a directing job. To be fair to him, he was right; Goro had zero accumulated movie-making experience when coerced into the director’s chair. Before that, he had been a landscaper, and shown no more than a wavering interest in the animation industry. Yet here he had found himself leading in his own father’s dream, with too much to prove to the infamous whip-cracking stickler, let alone an audience, critics or Le Guin herself.
So it came to pass that the kindred themes of Le Guin’s literature and Hayao Miyazaki’s movies – subverting the hero’s journey, feminist assertions, and magic as a metaphor for social and political conflicts – would wilt a little in such inexperienced hands. The creator of Earthsea was disappointed from the outset, having to settle for Goro as director over the artist she had come to admire. Even having been assured that Hayao would oversee the film’s production, she found the end result to be simplistic and over-reliant on violence.
Far from Spirited Away’s moral reconsideration of the wart-nosed witch from the maturing perspective of little Chihiro, Earthsea’s androgynous wizard-crone Cob becomes a typical villain bent on immortality and ultimate power. The hero Arren combats his inner evil, a soul shadow given root in A Wizard of Earthsea but unfounded in Tales, by killing Cob and conveniently destroying all evil in the process. Le Guin is known to have consoled Goro Miyazaki “It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie”. But in being repeatedly questioned by her readers for her crueller thoughts, she later wrote:
In modern fantasy (literary or governmental), killing people is the usual solution to the so-called war between good and evil. My books are not conceived in terms of such a war, and offer no simple answers to simplistic questions.
Le Guin cultivated Earthsea’s illustrious government from a poisonous patriarchy, but was faced with an interpretation that forwarded its story through brutality, baseless killing and an attempted rape of heroine Therru by evil henchman Hare. The morals became, in her own words, “confused”, and her dissatisfaction with the animated telling lingered. Family ties were restored despite the dissonance, Hayao Miyazaki telling his son after the film’s premiere that “It was made honestly, so it was good”. Even for Le Guin, the film was not a total loss in its visual beauty, the proud grace of Earthsea’s dragons, those pastoral activities of ploughing and sowing the fields and tending the animals. There, she said, “I recognised my Earthsea”.
After Goro’s baptism of fire he directed one other film, From Up on Poppy Hill, which he co-wrote with his father. Not only in reinforcing bonds between father and son, Tales from Earthsea proved itself an intrepid, if flawed, step into anime beautifully reworking the fantasies of the west. Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There and ex-Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower would eventually be among them. Ursula K. Le Guin, even when left deflated by the studio’s misguided Earthsea, would surely have been proud of the intercultural tapestry she was woven into. Amidst the accomplishments of the sword and board strains of Claymore and Little Witch Academia’s love letter to the best of Disney, her admiration of the anime medium for its artistic deftness and complexity, sparked by Ghibli, would be reaffirmed indefinitely.