The backstory to Gedo Senki is quite interesting. The source of the material is a fairly popular series of fantasy books called Tales from Earthsea, written by Ursula K. Le Guin. In Miyazaki’s younger days, prior to making his most accomplished works, he had sought the rights to make a film version of Earthsea, a request rejected by the author. Thinking of Disney animation, she decided she preferred not to have her film adapted in such a way. Years later, after being exposed to Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, she learned that Miyazaki was not a typical animator, and changed her mind. She emphasized that her change of heart was in the hope that Miyazaki would direct the film, but when Gedo Senki finally got off the ground, Miyazaki had announced retirement- which lasted about an year. Nevertheless, another director was found. This particular director had no animation experience, but his storyboards impressed some of the staff at Ghibli, including producer Toshio Suzuki, who brought him on board.
Of course, the fact that this director was the son of Miyazaki, Goro, certainly influenced the decision as well. Not that he was supported by the elder Miyazaki, who opposed his son entering the director’s position from the very beginning. Miyazaki has repeated in interviews that he has no intention of passing down a legacy or creating a animation dynasty. He worked his way up through the ranks, painstakingly building the reputation he has today, and believed his son should have to do the same. But while Suzuki and Miyazaki are old, good friends, Suzuki is also a businessman. He knew that selling a film as the work of Miyazaki’s son would attract audiences in droves.
Ursula K. Le Guin also was not too happy about Goro taking the helm, as she had agreed to the deal based on her respect for Miyazaki’s films. She was later convinced to continue on the promise that Miyazaki would supervise the work on the film, but this never happened either, as Miyazaki had no part in it and did not speak with his son during its production. In fact, the less than warm relationship between them during production became something of a talking point, and Goro published blog posts about his relationship with his father – essentially describing him as a man who inspired millions through his films but sacrificed time with his own family to do so. As for Le Guin, her response to the final product, available on her website, was not a positive one, and she says that she hopes to “put it behind her”.
With all this to consider, it’s easy to understand and forgive the tendency to approach Gedo Senki from a very biased perspective. For example, this review of the film by a Ghibli-related blog spends a great deal of time making rather cruel characterizations of Goro which don’t seem to match the humble, soft-spoken man I’ve seen in interviews. I have tried my best to evaluate the film objectively, and not having read the book, I am in a better position than some to do that. However, being a huge fan of Studio Ghibli and of Miyazaki, I can’t deny that I might be predisposed to skepticism.
As the film begins, a sea crew notices two dragons appearing out of the sky, battling each other. Apparently, this is a very strange event, and catches the attention of the King in the royal palace. This is an intriguing way to begin the story, but most of the film does not resemble the tone set here. Rather, a few minutes later, the King’s son murders his father and flees the palace. Gedo Senki revolves around this boy, Arren, journeying with a wanderer named Sparrowhawk and attempting to escape a villain named Cob who wants eternal life and needs Arren to achieve it.
I don’t know how much of the story is directly taken from the original and how much is a product of Goro. The story contained with the film never struck me as being particularly inventive or inspiring, nor did it rise too far beyond the typical sword-and-magic fantasy story. There were moments which caught my interest without being expounded upon too much, such as the hinted mythology about dragons and their relationship to the human world. Many reviews I’ve read say that these elements are found in the books with much greater detail, which, as with most film adaptations, is probably true. The plot of the film doesn’t fall apart without this knowledge, but I agree with many critics when they say the ending feels a tad like a Deus Ex Machina due to lack of background development. There’s also a whole undercurrent about people’s “true names”, but again, without being properly developed, it all just feels a bit thin for anyone not familiar with the books.
The characters have something of a cartoony quality to them (in terms of depth) compared to some of the studio’s best work, but they satisfied their roles well enough. I liked the character of Sparrowheart, a wise adventurer who resembles Yupa from Nausicaa, and also Tenar, a friend of his who allows the main characters to stay in her home. Therru, a young girl who lives with Tenar, was also interesting enough – despite being saved by Arren, she dislikes him at first because of the violence he used to save her. Arren himself is more of a mixed bag, and I never found myself truly connecting with or liking with his character.
Since I’ve already begun the comparisons, I will say that the film lacks some of the defining qualities of Studio Ghibli, and particularly Miyazaki films. Ive often praised Ghibli films for creating those memorable moments of beauty and sheer imagination, and they are not found in Gedo Senki. One example is a scene early on in the film, where Arren and Sparrowheart, after traveling through a fairly barren landscape, finally approach a large, bustling town. The music swells up as though we should be impressed, but the screen merely pans back to show n larger, static, and still rather dull image of the city. It is somewhat underwhelming, with none of the impact of, say, the first introduction to the bathhouse in Spirited Away. There’s another scene where Arren is walking through a pasture and finds Therru singing to herself. Again, the idea is good, but the execution just wasn’t convincing and felt rather stiff.
Some of the faults may not entirely be a directorial issue. The budget for Gedo Senki appears to have been lower than other Ghibli films. The character designs felt a little too typical, and the Ghibli attention to detail is somewhat lacking. Compared to most anime, the animation and artwork are good, naturally, but it does not come close to the visual delights found in Spirited Away. Now, that is to be expected, if you assume a lower budget as well as its shorter production time. But for the most part, I found it duller to my eyes than even other smaller Ghibli films such as Cat Returns.
Musically, there isn’t really anything to complain about. In interviews, Goro stated that he would have found it difficult to work with Joe Hisaishi because of Hisaishi’s age and experience. Goro made it seem as if Hisaishi wouldn’t show enough deference to him as director, which I suppose I would expect when a prolific composer like Hisaishi works with a first time director like Goro. But I suppose all directors like being in charge, so Goro went for an comparatively unknown composer. The resulting product is a typical fantasy score that isn’t exactly memorable, but serves its function (supporting the film) well. It isn’t bad, nor does it stand out.
Overall, Gedo Senki isn’t a horrible film, it’s just in the unfortunate situation of being an average film among brilliant ones. Goro did a better job than I would expect from someone with no animation experience. At the same time, I didn’t find it entirely compelling – it feels more typical than the other Ghibli films, and it doesn’t quite have the inspiring quality or imaginative depth of the other works from the studio. It lacks the distinctiveness of the rest of their films. From what I’ve read, Goro is getting ready to direct another film at Studio Ghibli, so he will have another chance to display his talents. After working on Gedo Senki, hes probably ironed out all the little details of animation work, so we may then be able to make a better determination about his potential. As for all the criticisms of his sudden promotion to regular Ghibli director – I agree that I would rather see long time collaborators at Studio Ghibli making up the “new generation” of directors there. But there’s really no point in complaining about it, all we can do is wait and see what happens. If his next film is received well by audiences, there will be probably be no doubt that he will be one of the new faces of Studio Ghibli, for better or for worse.
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