Oscar-winning Spirited Away has given Studio Ghibli the reputation as the Disney of the East, heavily insulated in fantasy and candy floss.
It’s something of a misrepresentation though, as many of the Studio’s films have been incredibly dark (Princess Mononoke features numerous decapitations, while the infant protagonists of Grave of the Fireflies starve to death), and its latest offering, Tales From Earthsea, follows this trend.
Goro (son of studio founder and general animation whizz Hayao) Miyazaki’s directorial debut, set in the fantasy world of Ursula Le Guin’s novels, paints a grim picture of a land slowly decaying.
For one thing, the young would-be hero, Arren, stabs his father to death in the opening minutes, and things don’t pick up from there. Taken under the wing of a venerable wizard, Sparrowhawk (less of a paedophile than Gandalf), the two are forced to find the cause of the darkness creeping over the land. The beautiful score and Ghibli’s instantly recognisable animation suit it perfectly, as does the deep red twilight hue of most of the film.
It’s a shame Goro doesn’t have his father’s sense for narrative though, and squeezed into 90 minutes, important plot twists and explanations whip by at speed. Crucially though, Arren murdering his father the king makes no sense. It’s briefly excused halfway through (“Oh, I have this rage inside of me I can’t control”), but otherwise we’re supposed to hang up our rather reasonable prejudices against people who stab their relatives, as he takes on the real bad guy, a wizard(ess) afraid of death but not of killing anyone to avoid it.
Overall it’s a solid outing, but doesn’t compare with Castle In The Sky or Fireflies.
The extras are something else though. Let’s just say they do things differently in Japan. The core of “The making of…” is a staged interview with the lead voice actor (Junichi Okada, who plays Arren) in which two presenters fawn over and ask him stupid questions. It’s actually worth watching just for the sheer nonsense of it. They gasp in amazement in the way only hyper-enthused presenters can. “Wow, he’s never acted before, but he’s amazing. Super-time special!” and so on. I half expected Miffy or Hello Kitty to wander on screen and start waving. “So did you get good reviews for your excellent work?” they ask. “Yes I did,” admits the humble actor”. The presenters fall overthemselves in shock despite having just battered with him hyperboles themselves. “NO WAY! THAT’S AMAZING. YOU’RE BRILLIANT.”
A documentary on the cast follows, but it’s pretty much the same thing minus the OTT presenters, though I’m not too sure if that’s a pro or con. Finally, trailers round off the rather meagre extras package.
Normally these wouldn’t even be worth a look, but it’s Studio Ghibli, so check out their back catalogue and marvel at how little sense Porco Rosso makes.