There’s a popular term known as “a happy accident”, although a press screening gone awry hardly seems the setting for one. Several days ago as the lights dimmed and a reel began to un-spool, voices speaking Japanese along with English subtitles appeared onscreen. That shouldn’t have seemed strange except that the animated characters in the film “Tales from Earthsea” had unmistakably European physical features.
Afterwards, we were informed that those voices should’ve been speaking English uttered by American actors Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin and Mariska Hargitay. Instead, we had just watched the 2006 Japanese version called “Gedo Senki” now dubbed and being released in the U.S. as “Tales from Earthsea”. An accident? Yes. Happy? Indeed, because it was an opportunity to learn some Japanese words like “kinko” which means balance—the importance of which was stressed throughout the movie yet inexplicably missing in its own production.
Based on a popular series of four books authored by fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin, the film has drawn complaints from aficionados of her mythical world as not being authentic to her vision. However, to the average oblivious filmgoer, Earthsea will appear to be an action packed anime with intriguing heroes and villains albeit a disjointed story. Author Le Guin, whose father was an anthropologist, often features people of color as main characters yet in this Japanese made movie they are, ironically, all Caucasian.
Earthsea opens with several men aboard a boat pitching in violent winds and stormy seas. As two dragons fight overhead, they plunge towards the flinching men. Nature, it seems, is off balance—lacking kinko–because of something that humans caused. As one frightened boatman shouts that he’s unable to recall the wind and sea’s true names, he laments that it prevents him from commanding them to stop their antics.
Meanwhile, a young prince named Arren (Matt Levin) runs away after murdering his father over a magical sword. Chased by his nightmares, he’s befriended in a new land by a master wizard called Lord Archmage or Sparrowhawk (Dalton). Wandering Hort Town, the two encounter drug addicts and locals being enslaved by soldiers.
In the Japanese version, the evil soldier Hare is voiced by Kagawa Teruyuki currently playing Yatoro on the Ryomaden taiga series, but replaced here by Cheech Marin.
Sparrowhawk leads Arren to a peaceful farm run by Tenar (Hargitay) an earthy, voluptuous woman obviously infatuated with him. While she manages household chores, an orphaned girl with a disfigured face, Therru, works the pastures alongside Arren, whom she openly despises in contrast to her love for animals. In some of the film’s most pictorial scenes, Sparrowhawk and Arren help the ladies with farm tasks then fill up on freshly prepared food that looks suspiciously vegetarian. It’s interesting to note that later on, the bad guys are seen chomping on meat.
Soon, Arren falls into the trap set by evil wizard Cob (Dafoe) channeling Morticia of “The Addams Family”. Hoping to possess eternal life, Cob has opened the path between life and death and prepares to battle Sparrowhawk for supreme control. As the womenfolk become the prerequisite collateral, Sparrowhawk and a newly motivated Arren come to their rescue.
Known for his spectacular anime (“Howl’s Moving Castle”, “Spirited Away”), director Hayao Miyazaki was too busy to make Le Guin’s story; offering it to his son Goro. The result disappointed him, causing father and son to stop speaking not unlike the king and prince in the film. Unfortunately, Earthsea lacks a cohesive kinko – making it an unhappy accident.
“Tales From Earthsea” opened August 13 at Harvard Exit.