Studio Ghibli is known for taking well-loved literature, and adding spirits and settings with a uniquely Japanese sensibility.
While Grave of the Fireflies is based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical Japanese novel, and Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on Eiko Kadono’s children’s book, the studio’s inspiration often draws on literature outside of the country.
There’s Arrietty, which is based on The Borrowers by English author Mary Norton; and When Marnie Was There is based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson.
Perhaps the best-known novels to have inspired Studio Ghibli films are Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, and Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, which led to Tales from Earthsea.
Both high-fantasy epics with magic, demons and dragons, Howl’s Moving Castle is widely considered to be a delightful adaptation that is faithful to the soul of Wynne Jones’ beloved novel (87% on Rotten Tomatoes). Tales from Earthsea, however, while similarly ‘loosely inspired’ by the source material, is thought to leave a lot to be desired in terms of the storytelling and animation (41% on Rotten Tomatoes).
But, especially for films based on novels, the initial audience reaction to the film can be influenced by high expectations that come from a strong attachment to the book. Is Howl’s Moving Castle just as good 12 years later? And with seven years since it was released, does Tales from Earthsea reveal new strengths?
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Howl’s Moving Castle follows a young woman named Sophie (Chieko Baisho), who one afternoon has a fleeting encounter with the charismatic, flamboyant wizard, Howl (Takuya Kimura). That same day, Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste, who is jealous of the attention Howl paid Sophie, and is turned into an old hag. The Witch of the Waste’s plan backfires somewhat spectacularly however, as Old Sophie moves into Howl’s moving castle, a lumbering Burrow-like abode that totters around on spindly legs, along with his protégé Markl (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) and his fiery-spirited, talking fire demon Calcifer (Tatsuya Gashûin).
Sophie must avoid becoming embroiled in a war, and try to break her curse – while also trying to save Howl from himself.
Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t have the same Japanese flavour as films like Spirited Away (which the former is often compared to, as it was released three years after the latter’s international success), but the animation is just as enchanting and exquisite. What makes Howl’s Moving Castle so fascinating to watch is its unapologetic application of dream logic, where physical transformations and shifting locations don’t have to be explained. The film is like Howl’s moving castle itself – a random, ramshackle, hodgepodge of pieces that shouldn’t work together, but make a cohesive whole.
The fact that Howl’s Moving Castle still feels so imaginative and visually arresting – the viewer can never predict when a magic door will open onto another scene of unexpected beauty – is a testament to the real strength of the film. That is, its visual splendour. Howl’s Moving Castle is by turns warm, witty and wise, and combined with the cinematography it more than stands the test of time.
When re-watching Tales from Earthsea seven years after its original release, I really wanted the passage of time to provide me with a different perspective of the film. Ursula Le Gun is one of my favourite authors, and the Earthsea books are some of her most loved, and the world Le Guin created of magic and bewitchment suits the Ghibli style. But alas, Tales from Earthsea still doesn’t hit the right notes.
Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao Miyazaki, Tales from Earthsea was his feature debut, and is rather more slow-paced and meditative than your typical fantasy epic.
The story follows the Lord Archmage Sparrowhawk (Bunta Sugawara), a powerful wizard, who is searching for the cause of the disturbed ‘balance’ across the lands. Crops are failing, animals are dying, dragons are turning against each other, and people are losing their sense of what is right and wrong. But why? While travelling, he rescues a boy named Arren, who is running from his own demons. The two travellers encounter Tenar (Jun Fubuki), a woman from Sparrowhawk’s past, and her adopted daughter Therru (Aoi Teshima) who has her own secrets. Together, they must find what is causing darkness across the land.
Tales from Earthsea is a dark, philosophical film, and it is more interested in answering questions about power and fear, than depicting action and adventures. While the message is worthy, the film is workmanlike. Not only is the pace slow, and the emotional connection to the characters almost non-existent, where Tales from Earthsea is weakest is exactly where Howl’s Movie Castle is strongest – in the animation.
The animation in Tales from Earthsea is unfortunately lacklustre. The landscapes are repetitive, the faces robotic, and there is little of the dazzling inventiveness and imagination that usually makes Ghibli films so much fun to watch. While there are some interesting concepts that could have been explored visually, such as Arren’s doppelganger, the film never really hits its stride in this department.
Tales from Earthsea still tells an important story about balance within any ecosystem, and why humans shouldn’t centre their own desires at the expense of the environment.
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