July 29, 2021, marks the 15th anniversary of Studio Ghibli’s 2006 release of Tales From Earthsea. While the fantasy film might not be the most popular among the heralded Studio Ghibli classics, it still excited many fans eager to witness the animation studio’s next big project. Sci-fi fans enamored with legendary novelist Ursula K. Le Guin’s work were especially hopeful, considering her Earthsea saga inspired the film.
Upon release, however, Tales From Earthsea was met with harsh criticism. As Goro Miyazaki's first attempt at directing, the film struggles to live up to his father Hayao Miyazaki's work and reach the greatness that so many Ghibli films achieve. That being said, the film's 15-year anniversary calls attention not only to the extraordinary potential of Le Guin's classic content as a Ghibli film, but also the redeemable pieces of the adaptation's strenuous yet earnest work.
The Aesthetics of Tales From Earthsea's Compelling Adaptation
With a scattered and oftentimes murky plot fueled by unearned and maladroit messages, Tales From Earthsea has many weaknesses which at first seem disappointing and irredeemable. The film is commonly called Studio Ghibli's worst production, as it was squished into a tight deadline and thrown into the hands of an inexperienced director. Yet in spite of these setbacks, the film does have its merits and plenty of promising content worthy of reassessment. 15 years after its disheartening release, these merits shine much brighter.
Tales From Earthsea, though jumbled, beautifully captures many of the aesthetic and fantastical elements of Ursula K. Le Guin’s stories. The animation, especially the impressive dragons and stylish character designs, made the novelist's fantasy come alive. The author even reacted to the gorgeously animated fantastical and pastoral scenes, admitting, “I recognized my Earthsea.”
Other auxiliary facets of the production like the original musical score are wonderful, bolstering a robust and aesthetic retelling of the adventures in Le Guin’s world. The wistful song “Teru no Uta” is a lovely melody that delicately conveys young Therru’s emotions and helps her connect to protagonist Arren.
The entrance of Archmage Ged or “Sparrowhawk,” the hooded wizard with a familiar face scarred by Shadow, made a great impression in Tales From Earthsea; his stoic mentorship to Arren was well depicted and affable, and his powerful conflict with the villainous Cob made for an interesting spin. The powerful wizard who was the protagonist of the first Earthsea novel, had a grounding presence in the story, which helped connect the hodgepodge pieces of Le Guin’s saga.
Some have regarded Tales From Earthsea as slow and dull, but the story arguably moves along just as quickly as other early Ghibli classics like Castle in The Sky or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Events may not tie together as succinctly as Le Guin’s style in Tales From Earthsea, but the pace is reflective of Ghibli’s peaceful and pensive aura as the characters move from city to country and every place in between.
The Unrealistic Expectations of Tales From Earthsea
Shortly after Hayao Miyazaki won Best Animated Feature Oscar for Spirited Away, Ursula K. Le Guin sold the adaptation rights for Earthsea to him. Unfortunately, Hayao was too focused on Howl’s Moving Castle to pick up another project, so the Earthsea adaptation fell into his son Goro’s hands. Hayao was against Goro taking on Tales From Earthsea as his first-ever project as director, but nevertheless, the determined newcomer charged forward with plans to complete the project without his father’s support.
Pushed to storyboard and produce in a tight timeframe, Miyazaki was tasked with picking and choosing essential elements from four of Le Guin’s epic Earthsea novels to weave into the adapted story. The events of the novels expand over the course of multiple decades, tackling complicated concepts concerning mortality, ambition, and persecution.
Le Guin, understandably, was disappointed with how the film squeezed in her themes, saying the messages about “life and death” and the “balance” weren’t earned, coming across as “heavy-handed” and “preachy.”
In spite of Tales From Earthsea’s failure to stick the landing on such lofty ideals, the film did resonate with many who connected to Arren’s experience with anxiety and his difficulties with self-control. After killing his father due to an unexplainable violent impulse, Arren runs away from the past and his confusing alter ego throughout his journey. In the end, he learns the best way to cope with his inner agony is to take responsibility for what he did, turning himself in for murdering his father.
Tales From Earthsea couldn’t capture its source material's endless insight, but in terms of protagonist development, it did excel in its own unique ways. Le Guin’s long and profound Earthsea saga sets a high bar, but if you abandon the unrealistic expectations, Goro Miyazaki actually managed to put together a passable story into a singular movie, which his father Hayao professed “was made honestly, so it was good.”
Le Guin detached her work from the film, saying, “It is not my book. It is your movie,” but still affirmed, “It is a good movie.”
Resurrecting The Earthsea Story
Ursula K. Le Guin passed away in January 2018, but her work deserves to live on by Studio Ghibli's hands. Recognizing Tales From Earthsea on its 15th anniversary prompts a newfound opportunity to draw inspiration from her brilliance. Even with numerous setbacks and imperfections, the film is teeming with potential as an Earthsea treasure. In fact, many Ghibli fans were encouraged to read Le Guin’s books after watching.
After the first disappointing sci-fi TV adaption of Earthsea in 2004, and the displeased consensus with Tales From Earthsea, many have been led to believe her genius work is simply unadaptable. This kind of thinking fixates on the downfalls of the few attempts, without uplifting the moments of beauty and wonder of the Earthsea world.
Le Guin’s initial suggestion for a Studio Ghibli adaption was to tell an entirely original story set within the decades spanning the story. Moving forward, Ghibli might consider stepping away from Ged or Arren as central characters; instead, using Tales From Earthsea as a stepping stone into entirely new territory.
Just because Tales From Earthsea wasn’t spectacular in every regard, that doesn’t mean Ghibli should abandon the potential of Le Guin’s exquisite stories and world-building. While there’s no way to change what Tales From Earthsea turned out to be 15 years ago, there are many ways to learn from the project and create something new.