“Hayao Miyazaki gets zero marks as a father but full marks as a director of animated films.” – Goro Miyazaki1
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Most artists exist under what the literary critic Harold Bloom terms “the anxiety of influence.” Because art is not made in a vacuum, artists necessarily create their own work in relation to the works of others.2 Such contacts of personalities inevitably lead to tensions as one artist is simultaneously influenced by another while also attempting to formulate and express their own singular vision – which implies at least a partial rejection of their assumed teacher’s work. Your individuality, after all, is crafted through distinguishing what is not you. Such anxieties within a given artistic medium can become the driving force for lively or groundbreaking oeuvres, fascinating precisely because they offer audiences an artist’s deeply personal perspective honed, like a sculpture, by chipping away at influential insecurities.
Perhaps nowhere in recent cinematic history are the birth pangs of the anxiety of influence depicted so explicitly as in Goro Miyazaki’s film Tales from Earthsea. Released in 2006 to generally lukewarm (but often derisive) reviews, Goro’s film has widely been considered a blight on the otherwise impeccable track record of anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli. Founded by Goro’s own father Hayao, Ghibli has become a household name the world over: children and adults alike have justly fawned over classics like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, both directed by Hayao himself. For Earthsea to have received negative reviews, then, was certainly a harrowing event for the company. The film made more than enough money to recover its costs (it topped the Japanese box office for over a month), yet left a sour taste in the mouths of those who saw the film as a crack in Ghibli’s aesthetic reliability.
More intimate traumas lurked within the film’s production dynamics. Hayao had attempted to adapt Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea novels through Ghibli for years to no avail due to LeGuin’s hesitancy. Once the studio was able to begin making the film after finally earning LeGuin’s blessing, a further problem arose: Hayao was busy directing Howl’s Moving Castle, an undertaking he took on after its original director (another anime giant, Mamoru Hosoda) left during the early stages of production. With Goro acting as a consultant to the budding Earthsea film, producer Toshio Suzuki suggested that Goro himself direct.
Goro was inexperienced, at best. Having previously worked as a landscape designer and architectural consultant, while also remaining active within the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Goro seemed an unlikely candidate to helm such a weighty project. Hayao himself was vehemently opposed, citing Goro’s untested abilities. Nevertheless, Goro accepted, in part because of his own aspirations to become an animator, long repressed in the shadow of his father’s titanic stature. “As a boy,” Goro once said, “I had dreamed of animation. But with my father there in front of me, I had given that up and buried that dream deep inside me in my adolescent years.”3 Tales from Earthsea inevitably became the battleground for Goro’s own internal struggles relating to his father’s legacy. It is telling that when Suzuki asked Goro to craft a preliminary picture that encapsulated his vision for Earthsea, Goro first produced an image utilized as the eventual poster for the film: a young boy standing, perhaps imploringly, before an enormous dragon. Goro was finally getting a long-awaited chance to make something of himself outside the shadow of his father.
The finished feature Earthsea opens with a young prince, Arren, murdering his father, king of the fictional island of Enlad. Viewing such a potent scene with Goro’s own daddy issues in mind, it is hard not to immediately begin reading the film as a neurotic chronicle of its own creation. More troubling, Arren’s patricidal motives are never explicitly revealed in the film; this leaves the viewer a perfect vacuum within which to insert Goro’s own experiences. For his part, Goro denies these readings, but his attempts at evading such interpretations betray him: “No, I never felt I wanted to kill my father – because we didn’t have that much of a relationship to begin with.”4 This kind of relationship carried itself through the making of the film, with Hayao largely refusing to even speak to Goro for most of its production.
Fleeing Enlad to avoid assuming responsibility for his crime, Arren encounters a compassionate wizard named Sparrowhawk who rescues him from slave traders and takes him under his wing. After traveling for a while and developing a relationship, Arren begins to look up to Sparrowhawk. Indeed, a monstrous dream sequence reveals that Arren views Sparrowhawk as a thinly-veiled substitute for his murdered father. Not knowing much about Arren’s father, the audience cannot compare Sparrowhawk to him adequately; nevertheless, Sparrowhawk emerges as Goro’s idealized image of fatherhood: humble, communicative, and altogether enabling of his son’s own potential and abilities, the very same qualities that Goro has said Hayao lacks.
Magic, Sparrowhawk reveals to Arren, pivots around the right use of names. “The power of magic is nothing more than the power to command based on the knowledge of a thing’s true name.” Every human being, it is also explained, has a sacred name aside from the common one they are typically called. Goro imbues these scenes with a reverent heft: you can almost hear the sacred syllables of “Miyazaki” being whispered as both blessing and curse. If, after all, Goro is to bear the name of his father, his own aesthetic prowess will ultimately revolve around how the power of his name will be manifested. As it turns out, the power of names is not only dependent upon one’s own understanding of them: others can wield their power over you through them. Destinies are shaped by names.
The film’s dramatic conflict comes to fruition with the introduction of an evil wizard, the androgynous Lord Cob, who has a mysterious past with Sparrowhawk. When Cob takes Arren hostage in order to lure Sparrowhawk to his castle, Arren grows dejected. The name motif returns: Cob lures Arren into revealing his true name and uses it to control him. Arren loses all sense of his own individuality, melting into the will of Cob, who then seems to be a shadowy figure trudging out of Goro’s father-panic.
Cob: “Eternal life is the only thing [Sparrowhawk] craves … but as he covets, so does he fear another will discover it first.”
Arren: “And what does all of this have to do with me?”
Cob: “Because you are the one who has been chosen to receive the secret of life eternal.”
This is Goro, now with the weight of Ghibli on his shoulders, implicitly confessing to the audience his own little hatreds toward his father and his fears about his own capabilities to maintain Ghibli’s prestige.
When Therru, a young girl Arren has encountered on his journeys, comes to rescue him, he confesses to her, “I’m not worthy of my father’s sword.” The film seems to gain an even greater transparency with those words, further collapsing the boundary between artist and character as Goro begins to speak directly to the audience. The heir apparent to the legacy of Hayao again tells us his darkest insecurity. These are moments of profound cinéma vérité, a revelation as forcefully raw as Chaplin’s final speech in The Great Dictator or Clint Eastwood singing over the end credits of Gran Torino. Each moment here is characterized by exaggerations of Goro’s style thus far: relatively still shots, diagrammatic cuts, a lingering “camera” that registers the drawn-out pain of the situation. The anxiety of influence finally forces Goro to confront himself by sublimating his dread of personal stagnancy into film form. These scenes stand as muted triumphs that have their own aesthetic merit and do not merely subsist on the foundation of his father’s name. Through his fears, and not in spite of them, Goro has made a name for himself.
Where does the film ultimately go? Like an ouroboros, maybe it really goes nowhere. Most of its scenes feel schematic (evidence of Goro’s own painstaking, nearly Hitchcockian storyboarding) and fragile, like they’re going to fall apart with each new shot. Whereas Hayao’s cuts are dynamic and his staging full of significant movement, Goro’s mise en scene is often oppressively still. As this stillness unfolds within the plot, scenes slowly seem to become stylistic magnifications of the shapeshifted Cob, blobby and clinging to a life that they can’t maintain, finally revealing only their own decay – but, again, this is also Goro’s demonic genius, channeling his daddy issues into an introspective fervor that pushes the film onward in spite of itself, making palpable Arren’s assertion that “life can’t be hoarded, it can only be given.”
Audiences going into Earthsea wanting a Hayao Miyazaki movie will, naturally, be disappointed. Goro is not Hayao, but we should be thankful for that. Tension takes difference, and the result here is some kind of fucked-up masterpiece.
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Images are screenshots from the film.
- Goro Miyazaki’s personal blog in a post dated February 24, 2014. http://www.ghibli.jp/ged_02/20director/000318.html#more. Translated here: http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/earthsea/blog/blog41.html. [↩]
- Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Second ed. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1997. [↩]
- Goro Miyazaki. Pamphlet included with the 2013 Cinedigm Blu-ray release of From Up on Poppy Hill, p. 16. [↩]
- Bruce Wallace. “‘Gedo’ starts with a father-son clash.” Los Angeles Times. 4 Sep 2006. [↩]