Earthsea, Horus, and Ghibli at the Crossroads
I wanted to include a few more posts about Goro Miyazaki's Tales From Earthsea for the sake of those of who who have bought the newly-released DVD and are fans. I'd also like to go a little more in depth on some of the movie's influences and where Goro-san looked for inspiration.
When he was assigned to direct Gedo Senki, the first movie Goro looked towards was, interestingly, The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun. There are a few sequences that steal from Horus outright, and while this was something that made me cranky years ago, I aim to feel more generous and understanding today. When discussing Tales From Earthsea, it's always critical to observe that, in 2006, this was the only movie Goro Miyazaki was ever involved in. Literally, his first movie in any capacity. Anyone in his shoes, with no experience nor any developed artistic voice, would resort to stealing everything from the back of trucks.
Here's an example of what I'm thinking about - the fight scene with the wolves. This is an early scene in Earthsea, just after the title credits roll. Arren, the hero (of sorts), on the escape after his little Jim Morrison stunt of "killing his daddy" (ahem, cough), is being pursued by a pack of viscous wolves. Arren is chased over the sands, he is knocked off his horse, he is surrounded and outnumbered. Then, suddenly, an unknown agent intervenes. The wolves scatter and disappear.
Any true anime fan knows where this scene comes from. This is the opening scene in Horus. It's just about the greatest action scene in anime history. And it was key animated by Yasuo Otsuka....and Hayao Miyazaki. Ding, ding, ding!
I've mentioned this scene more than a few times on this blog over the years; I don't think I've ever done a shot-by-shot analysis, but this is a sequence that demands to be studied shot-by-shot, almost drawing-by-drawing. It's not just a fast, thrilling moment of action. It's the fluid, three-dimensional lines of motion, the way Horus and the wolves run across the frame, into the background, charging the camera, rotating in circles, up hills, around boulders. Isao Takahata, the revolutionary director, treats his camera as an object in physical space, and moves with an eerily 3D quality that seems almost impossible in a pre-CGI world. Every time I watch, I'm astonished.
The Horus opening also carries a sound musical rhythm, like all great action sequences do. You don't simply throw as much junk at the screen and blind the audience. No, that's the cheap method, the fallback position of hacks and poseurs. Action must have a musical quality, a fast beginning, a slow refrain, pauses to build tension, and then explosions of energy at the climax.
I don't think the wolf scene in Earthsea is nearly as well conceived or laid out. The compositions are relatively simple, basic, functional. Movement is purely one-dimensional, a pan, a point-of-view angle. There's one shot where Arren is knocked off his horse, and he tumbles and spins to the ground, then skids to the ground below. I think that's a terrific movement, but it's the only really thrilling part of the scene. The wolves look scary, but they're never really menacing. There's no real tension, no real sense of danger. Arren shares none of Horus' wild recklessness, and that's a very odd omission, now that I think about it. After all, here is a character with a murderous side, an obsessive side. But Arren never brings those qualities out. He just mopes about and feels sorry for himself. If he had an iPod, I get the feeling it would contain nothing but Morrisey songs.
This scene only serves to highlight Earthsea's fatal flaw: the director has absolutely no experience. He's a third-string quarterback suddenly thrown onto the field in the middle of the game. The poor guy can barely hold onto the ball. This is a desperation move by the coach, in this case, Toshio Suzuki - can't you see that?
Yes, I think both action scenes define, to a great extent, the character and nature of these two movies. Perhaps it says something about the talent of the respective teams, and if that's the case, then Ghibli is in more trouble than we realize. Look at the talent pool behind Horus - Isao Takahata, Yasuo Otsuka, Hayao Miyazaki, Yoichi Kotabe, Reiko Okuyama, Akemi Ota, Yasuji Mori. True, Horus is Takahata's film, his vision, but he had group of peers possibly unequaled in anime history.
Studio Ghibli, on the other hand, is Miyazaki's house. The staff is remarkably talented, but they're anonymous, they don't stand out. There isn't an equivalent of an Otsuka or a Takahata or a Mori to seek inspiration and, yes, rivalry. Miyazaki-san is the shogun of his castle. I think this cuts to the very heart of the studio's crisis, as they have struggled for years to find a suitable successor. It's a struggle of identity. When Miyazaki is in charge, everything gels. When he's absent, everything falls silent. You can see it on the screen for yourself.
If Ghibli can become nothing more than Hayao Miyazaki's backing band, then what happens once he's gone? The band has no reason to exist, because it has no voice of its own. And now you know why the studio is standing at the crossroads. The one man who will decide Ghibli's fate? None other than Goro Miyazaki.