A Couple Thoughts on Gedo Senki

Longtime Ghibli Freak Chris has some compelling arguments in favor of Goro Miyazaki's Gedo Senki in the comments to an earlier post. Wow, you really are a defender of this movie. I say bring it on! These discussions always become boring when everyone agrees on everything. Needless to say, this started me writing, and I decided to post my thoughts here instead of the comments section.

I do agree with Chris that Gedo Senki is a lovely movie. The artwork is superb, with very heavy saturation of color and light. And it seems to be more colorful - or at least less restrained - than typical Ghibli productions of the past. And it remains a beacon for defenders of classical hand-drawn animation. There really is nothing to compare this, or any Ghibli production, to in America. Hollywood has completely thrown its weight behind 3D computer animation.

We have to remember that Ghibli is a studio full of skilled artists. The famous directors get so much of the credit, but these are obviously not the creations of one man. Many of Ghibli's great artists have been working for the studio since its founding, and many others - I'm thinking of the great Michiyo Yasuda, head of the Color and Ink Dept, whose career spans back to the glory days at Toei Animation. You are always guaranteed to see something remarkable from these men and women.

I am not a reader of Ursula le Guinn's books, so I cannot comment on the movie's portrayal of the original work. I don't believe that a movie must be a copy of a book. Movies like this tend to feel somewhat lifeless and leave me feeling cynical. The Harry Potter franchise is a good example. The key word here is "adaptation." We are not seeing the original work, but an interpretation by the director, who infuses whatever new elements are deemed necessary.
It seemed to me that Hayao Miyazaki almost threw everything away from Howl's Moving Castle, beyond the description on the back of the paperback. Just the barest threads of the main characters, really. But he used that skeletal frame to tell his own story, weaving threads of his longstanding themes. I think the result is a spectacular film, even if it's somewhat insular (casual viewers are going to miss out).

So I don't think Goro Miyazaki should be judged solely on how his Tales From Earthsea matches up to the books. He needs to find his own voice. And, that, really, is where my problems and criticisms lie. But we'll get to that one of these days. Promise. I really, really mean it.


Chris said...

Uh . . . I don't really want to become the guy that loves Gedo Senki. I'm happy to hear your comments, though.

I'd like to add to something you said about adaptation: I've never understood when a book is being made into a movie and someone says (with a little violence behind the words), "It better be the same as the book!" I cannot fathom this. Read the book if you want the same as the book. In film adaptation, I'd like to see the filmmaker add something unique to a story that only a visual and auditory medium can add. Why try to copy a book exactly? I also hate it when big name authors sell the movie rights to their books as they are writing them. Why write a book if you are so desperate to have it made into a movie?

I know how Kadono Eiko was dissappointed with Kiki because it didn't follow her original story so much. Miyazaki made it his own story: one about finding your place in the world and embracing your innate creativity. That's what filmmakers should do.

Chris said...

By the way, whenever an argument over a film like Gedo Senki comes up, there is always furious discussion on both sides: It's unfair to compare Goro with his father, or you can't escape comparing Goro with his father. But it's all a bit ridiculous, even by consciously not comparing Goro to his father, we are in a way doing that by acknowledging that a comparison is there.

So many artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers become victims of their own success. Even though an individual work may be quite good, it is doomed to be put up against some of the other works of the artist which are fantastic. I was really upset how Scorsese's Gangs of New York was reviewed in the popular press. So many critics said something along the lines of this: "It's just not as good as Taxi Driver or Goodfellas or [insert earlier Scorsese masterpiece]." But Gangs of New York on its own was really, really great.

I like to play a mental exercise in these kinds of situations. If Gangs of New York had been an early film of Scorsese, would it have been reviewed differently? If a 1970s equivalent of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace had been released and then a 1990s Star Wars: A New Hope had been released, would we be saying how A New Hope failed to capture the feelings of A Phantom Menace, which we love so much in our hearts?

In Miyazaki Goro's place, he is the victim of his father's success. But he did choose to follow his father in his father's profession, so no one can say that he didn't know what he was getting into. It's just that he was doomed to a sort of failure from the start. To carry on my useless mental exercises, if he had released a pretty good first film, would the critics have been less harsh on him? (I guess it depends on how good that first film was, but I do think anything less than perfect would never have appeased the critics.)

asuka said...

yeah bring it on! i'm going to watch it again tonight and make notes...

asuka said...

after another viewing...
criticizing this film is so easy it seems mean, so i'll just get to the heart of the problem with the directing as i saw it.
i just watched "project a-ko" on dvd with animation director moriyama yuji's commentary on. at one point he said he had been influenced by a dictum of oshii's that every shot should have a purpose.
it was that kind of intelligence that was missing from "gedo senkai" for me. it seemed to be made out of moves observed from other films (pan from landscape to characters! pull back to reveal scale while music swells! race along low to the ground like that bit in "laputa"! cut from characters walking at night to a shot of clouds racing across the moon... hey, what the hell - do it again!), but without much thought to them. there's no point where i can say i thought the direction was interesting.

Cory Gross said...

I've yet to see Tales of Earthsea all the way through, but I wanted to add to to Chris' commentary.

One of the things that I think is worth keeping in mind in the whole issue of comparing Goro to Hayao, it let's Hayao off the hook. Most of the stuff he does is fantastic, but not all, so his golden touch ought not to be taken for granted.

For instance, Howl's Moving Castle is fine and all, but I'm pretty much indifferent to it. It's not his early work (hah!) as I've assessed it having seen Howl first, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Ponyo is his attempt to make up for it and retire on a higher note (someone who knows more may be able to correct or verify).

Even masters can produce *meh* works.

Anonymous said...

OK. I must say Gedo Senki is a great achievement. This is a masterpiece of Toshio Suzuki.

Now Ghibli has a truly independent young director who can lead the staff and make profitable films. Maybe Goro is not the best at making anime but he is the right person to guide the studio out of the shadow of Big Masters.

By the way who will take Toshio Suzuki's place after he retries?

greentea said...

I haven't seen 'Tales of Earthsea', only some images, maybe a trailer some time ago.. but I have this criticism just from looking at it: how they 'lightened' characters. I've read only the first 'Earthsea' book, and yes I can agree a film doesn't need to stay strictly to the original story, but from reading the first book of 'Earthsea', I understand there's supposed to be a mostly black population in it, with at least Ged being included. I wonder if Hayao Miyazaki would have done this 'skin-changing' if he'd done the film instead? Seeing as he's supposed to be a fan of the books..

I think it's.. well, disrespectful, unnecessary, and probably racist. What reason would they have to NOT make Ged dark-skinned? This was also the issue of the live-action adaption of 'Earthsea' where they aparently 'whitewashed' the characters. Aparently Le Guin wasn't pleased.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@greentea: I've heard that criticism of the movie, and it probably speaks more about our culture than anything else, and the devotion to the Earthsea novels. I don't think Ghibli is guilty of racism because they translate those characters into the anime paradigm.

Goro Miyazaki is stealing wholesale from his father in this movie - that is his focus. The social and political implications of a multiracial society is something the Japanese wouldn't really understand.

I think the criticism is more valid in regard to the American television production; then again, nearly everybody on tv these days is a plastic Ken or Barbie doll. That's just my take.

Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter. Thanks for chiming in, as always.

greentea said...

@Daniel Thomas MacInnes: I'm not sure what you mean. Japanese viewers can't handle seeing a film about characters with dark skin? Miyazaki himself likes the books, he's Japanese, so why wouldn't it work?

Like this for example: what if Chihiro had been displayed as an American girl in the US dub, and her name was changed to Stephanie? And moments that seemed too 'weird' for the average American were cut out. I doubt Ghibli would like this just to fit some 'standard mold'.

Disney, say what you will about them, they've at least showed some variety with some movies, from Native American characters to Chinese to Arabic. I'm not saying Ghibli should go for this kind of variety simply to please non-Japanese, I'm just saying why insist on keeping to this one depiction when it contrasts so much to the 'Earthsea' source. I just don't see a good excuse to use light skin for characters.

Anyway, that said, I don't want to judge Goro Miyazaki too much, after all I haven't actually seen the film. Though some comments from him make him sound.. kind of a jerk from what I remember. I guess we can wait and see what he amounts to. The 'Tales of Earthsea' animation does look quite nice.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

All I was trying to say is that the Japanese were unaware of race. It's something Ghibli would be oblivious to. That's all. I've been busy at work today, so I don't know if I was able to write properly.

This is a valid criticism with many Earthsea fans, so I understand where they are coming from.

We have to remember that Ghibli is a Japanese movie studio that caters to Japan. It's great that the rest of the world can be turned on, but we don't factor into their creative work.

When Miyazaki visited California to promote Ponyo, he openly said as such. "Please don't take this personally, but I honestly don't care if my movies are successful here." I'm paraphrasing a bit, but that was the general thrust.

Hopefully, you;ll be able to see Goro-san's Earthsea movie. I think it's reputation will improve over time; much of our griping is really pointed at the family melodrama surrounding it. If he becomes a successful filmmaker, this movie will be seen with more sympathy. That's my hope, at least.

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