Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Daily Wanker 2006 Kim Beazley Memorial Film Review: Gedo Senki

Gedo Senki is the Japanese name for the series A Wizard of Earthsea, which is this reviewers favourite book, by this reviewers' favourite author, Ursula K. Le Guin. The movie of the same name (Gedo Senki) is by this reviewers' favourite animation house, Studio Ghibli, which also happens to be Japan's most famous and most loved animation house, responsible for the remarkable Nausicaa, and the charming Totoro. Clearly, this Kim Beazley Memorial Film Review is going to be an unbiassed and objective affair. The objectivity can only be increased by the fact that the movie was in Japanese, and this reviewer can barely speak it, having just done his first 3 months of real Japanese study ever. A synopsis of the movie (in English) is available at Ursula le Guin's website, which of course you all know the location of already. In case you have had your favourites recently wiped, here it is again:

Since we have all read the series 5 times, we can tell from the synopsis on the website that the story for the movie incorporates many of the elements of the first 4 books, so it is not the story of one of the books retold, although the thrust of it follows the idea of the 3rd book, The Farthest Shore. In my opinion this juggling of plots and ideas is good, because it leaves the path open for Peter Jackson and Phillipa Boyens to do a complete masterpiece on the whole story just as soon as Ms. Le Guin asks (tells) them to. Of course, the book can't be improved upon by a medium as vulgar as cinema, or in fact by anyone or anything, but as I said, this is an objective review and so I shall proceed to provide an outline of some elements of the story. There are some spoilers below, so if you are planning on knowing nothing of the events of the movie, stop reading.

The first thing I should note about this movie is that it was made by Miyazaki Hayao's son, so will have a different style to the movies I mentioned above. Indeed, it had a lot less flight and less of the rollicking adventure scenes to be seen in the earlier Ghibli works, but it was still engaging and even though I didn't understand much, it held my attention for the whole time. Many changes had been made to the figures from the plot, particularly Cob (who seems to be a woman) and the Dragon. Also, in the novels Ged flees from a shadow, but in the movie it is Arren who is fleeing from a shadow, and Ged has previously done the same. Still, one crucial element of the nature of that shadow - that it is a reflection of its creator - is retained, the shadow taking on Arren's form near the end of the movie.

The Dragon's name was a secret in Japan before the movie came out, and I was expecting Kalessin or Orm Embar - I wanted to hear that wonderful "Hah!" and see someone turn to cinders! But the Dragon turns out to be Therru, which is perhaps not entirely a departure from the original story, and kind of shortens the movie by a few minutes. In my opinion the dragon seems intended to be based on Ms. le Guin's descriptions, being all grim mail and sparks and very ferocious, and the moment when you see it first is really rather inspiring. Dragons in cinema are generally shit, but this one isn't. I thought there was one scene where it was a bit naff, but mostly it was really ferocious and very cool, looking like an armoured dragon of yore and trailing sparks and being grim everywhere.

Another really good thing about this movie is Ged, who is stern, commanding, humble, quiet, capable of turning into a sparrow hawk, and called Sparrowhawk (in fact, I don't know if he is called Ged at any point). Everyone's names and true names are the same. Sadly, Ged doesn't have his little friend, the Otak, but I think there is a simple reason for this - Miyazaki Hayao put an Otak into Nausicaa 20 years ago, a direct and obvious rip off, and so therefore his son couldn't really put the same creature into Gedo Senki - oops. Oh well, live and learn.

On the topic of Ged's general demeanour, there is the ongoing issue of is he white?. Non-Americans reading this may want to tune out and flip on to the next paragraph. I have some theories about this issue and American Exceptionalism which I shall hold over, and here I shall jsut report the obvious facts - in this movie, Tenar is white with blonde hair, Therru is darker with a mark on her face, Ged is a light brownish colour offset by a very pale mark, and Arren is quite pale. Everyone is of generally European-manga appearance, so not quite Japanese and not quite European. Tenar, as far as I can recall, is the only person with blonde hair anywhere in the movie. I think this means that Studio Ghibli have tried to preserve the colour gradings of the original book while also retaining the standard Europeanized Japanese features which are absolutely mandatory for Japanese Animation (remember, in Japanese animation no-one is ever Japanese or black, though they can be blue or green). I don't know if this represents a deliberate effort or not, but if it is not a deliberate effort they have done a remarkably good job of making sure Tenar is whiter than everyone else. Some posts and opinion I have read in the US, based on the poster for the film, assume that Ged is white - but the kid in the poster is not Ged, it is Arren, who is really the main character of the movie.

Arren is a little weaker and more vulnerable than he is in the book and doesn't know Ged is the Archmage until halfway through, so Arren maybe has changed quite a bit. He has the sword and uses it well, and he needs Geds help to confront his own shadow (which is obviously writing Ged's history from book 1 into this story so as to preserve this important element of the series).

Also, Cob has been changed a fair bit - he seems to be a woman, and very pale, and turns into a classic Japanese slimy monster a few times. She is essentially doing the Cob of the book, though, trying to live forever by pulling a nasty trick which will damage all of humanity.

So the movie overall seems to stick to a general set of themes to do with being weakened by your own fears, fear of ones own mortality being a cause of evil, women being important actors in the protection and the destruction of humanity, and the dangers and wonders of allowing someone to know your true self (your true name). Whether these themes were explored well would require a knowledge of the language, which I don't have; and whether they honestly represent the ideas in Ms. le Guins novels is not for me to say, but I think they have at least *tried* (as much as people from a completely different culture can) to represent some of the ideas which can be represented. I think there is even a conversation where Arren asks Ged "why don't you use magic to do this simple task", in which case that whole speech Ged does in book 3 about the stone gets to be had in this movie; I can't follow conceptual conversations in Japanese though, so I can't tell if that was the gist of it or not.

My only real disappointment came when Therru got rid of Ged's shadow with a short conversation - I don't know what she said, and it's a classic Japanese Animation trick for the evil scary thing to suddenly turn good and not be so bad after all - because in Anime, everyone has their reasons for what they do - but it seemed a little too short and sweet to be consistent with the situation, and made me think of a plot device to shorten a movie that was otherwise going to grow too long. But again, I didn't understand the details. Sorry to anyone who has read this far thinking I am doing the classical Australian thing of understating my achievements - and sorry to anyone who is hoping to be good at Japanese after a 3 month full-time course - I just couldn't understand these sorts of conversations.

Anyway, if you are planning on watching a movie of the Earthsea series which accurately represents the story, don't bother. If you want to see Orm Embar and the Tombs of Atuan and the chasing of the shadow, don't bother. But if you want to see a fairly decent version of Ged, in a fairly cool movie with a cool dragon and a very interesting bad guy, that seems to show some of Ms. le Guin's simpler ideas, produced by one of the most progressive film houses in Japan, then give it a go. And send me the English-language version once it's out - because even though I'm going to watch it a few more times, there's no way I'll understand it!


Blogger Cracklypork said...

Excellent review. I'll have to manage my expectations I think. At least it doesn't sound like Miyazaki Jnr didn't botch it up as badly as I have feared. Animania convention is happening this Saturday - maybe I'll ask questions pertaining to this film, as to when the English language version will be out.

9:30 AM  

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