de-VICE #2

movie review: STUDIO GHIBLI'S "gedo senki"

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de-VICE #1

Debut is a 'Sword in the Stone' meets 'Zatoichi' romp

By Andrez Bergen (Daily Yomiuri / de-VICE).
 
What's this? A major Studio Ghibli animated release that's not helmed by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, but by Miyazaki's 39-year-old son?
 
Goro Miyazaki - who's never before made a film of any kind, previously expressed ambivalence toward the medium, and graduated from university with a degree in forestry science - could hardly be called an animation careerist, let alone writer, director and sometime artist.
 
And Goro's pioneering parent has been very publicly opposed to his involvement in making animation.
 
Yet here we are with Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea).
 
With his debut feature, the son has followed on the coattails of the dad's recent inclination to look outside Japan for literary inspiration.
 
Back in 2004 Hayao tweaked Diana Wynne Jones' novel Howl's Moving Castle and Goro, in turn, has opted to adapt a book by prolific American fantasy scribe Ursula K. Le Guin.
 
His selection - The Farthest Shore, published in 1972 as the third installment in Le Guin's Earthsea series - was an ironic choice, given the fact that the writer refused Miyazaki senior's request to animate the chronicles 20 years ago.
 
Dad bounced back from the rebuff to produce one of his best movies, Kaze no Tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), in 1984.
 
Just two years ago Le Guin also brandished a pitchfork at the American producers of a miniseries based on her Earthsea books.
 
In Le Guin's original tomes most of the major characters are not white, and her central character named Ged is of ambiguous ethnic complexion.
 
In the TV series he was a Harry Potter magic-molded white kid played by Shawn Ashmore (aka Iceman in the X-Men franchise). Danny Glover was the only nonwhite actor in the main cast, and Le Guin was hardly impressed.
 
She hasn't had a chance to cast her opinion on this animated version - yet Goro has also opted for white, Anglo-Saxon-looking character designs.
 
The story itself concerns Ged in his later years as a wandering wizard. There's also a schizophrenic boy named Arren (voiced by Junichi Okada, from the pop group V6), a scarred farm-girl called Therru (newcomer Aoi Teshima), the androgynous villain Cob (a sinister performance by Yuko Tanaka), and the typical tools of the Western fantasy genre such as a magical sword, latent powers, soul-searching, grappling with (inner) demons, and redemption.
 
It's from a Japanese perspective, of course, so at times it's a bit like The Sword In The Stone meets Zatoichi, which is only a good thing.
 
As played by Bunta Sugawara - who previously lent his vocal cords to the comic character of Kamaji in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away), and is renowned for a rash of '70s yakuza yarns in which he starred alongside Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba - Ged comes across as the iconic father-figure; a powerful, all-wise sage who holds sway.
 
He's a composite of Gandalf, Merlin, Hayao Miyazaki's own Nausicaa character Yupa, and perhaps even Hayao himself.
 
And that is an issue here: the comparisons with dad and his very distinctive visual and philosophical panache.
 
Ged may resemble Yupa, but the evil henchman Hare is drawn as a spitting image of Count Cagliostro from Hayao's classic Lupin III movie Kariosutoro no Shiro (The Castle of Cagliostro), rendered a quarter century ago.
 
On an altruistic level Miyazaki senior, like Shakespeare, also understands that any good yarn needs its comic intervention, yet in his son's work the lack of humor hangs heavy.
 
And production-wise this flick took half the time of Sen to Chihiro to make - which does show. For anime, in general, this is superb stuff, but when the designs are weighed up against the forest or the cloud scenes in Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro), for example, they just don't cut it.
 
Still, away from comparisons with anime's uncontested international contemporary success story, and examined in the softer hue of what it actually is - an outstanding debut, and a rousing animation romp in its own right - Gedo Senki augurs well in terms of setting sail toward Goro's very own signature style, Miyazaki moniker or not.

The movie, in Japanese, opens today.
 
(Jul. 29, 2006)
 

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