Gedo Senki – A first response by Ursula K. Le Guin


Gedo Senki

A First Response to “Gedo Senki,” the Earthsea film made by Goro Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli.
Written for my fans in Japan who are writing me about the movie, and for fans elsewhere who may be curious about it.

Preliminary Note:

Very few authors have any control over the use
made of their books by a film studio. The general rule is that once the
contract is signed, the author of the books is nonexistent. Such labels
as “creative consultant” are meaningless. Please do not hold any writer
except the script-writer responsible for anything in a film. Don’t ask
the book’s author “Why did they . . . ?” She is wondering too.

Brief history:

Twenty or so years ago, Mr Hayao Miyazaki wrote me
expressing interest in making an animated film based on the (then only
three) books of Earthsea. I did not know his work. I knew only
Disney-type animation, and disliked it. I said no.

Six or seven years ago, my friend Vonda N. McIntyre told me about My Neighbor Totoro
and we watched it together. I became a Miyazaki fan at once and
forever. I consider him a genius of the same caliber as Kurosawa or

Some years later, when I found that the delightful Japanese
translator of the later Earthsea books, Ms Masako Shimizu, knew Mr
Hayao Miyazaki, I asked her to tell him that, if he was still
interested in Earthsea, I would welcome talking with him about a film.

I had a pleasant correspondence with Mr Toshio Suzuki of Studio
Ghibli. In our correspondence, I urged the unwisdom of radical changes
to the story or the characters, since the books are so well known to so
many readers, in Japan as elsewhere. In order to have the freedom of
imagination he ought to have in making his film, I suggested that Mr
Miyazaki might use the period of ten or fifteen years between the first
two books: we don’t know what Ged was doing in those years, aside from
becoming Archmage, and Mr Miyazaki could have him doing anything he
liked. (There is no other film maker to whom I would make such a

In August 2005, Mr Toshio Suzuki of Studio Ghibli came with Mr
Hayao Miyazaki to talk with me and my son (who controls the trust which
owns the Earthsea copyrights). We had a pleasant visit in my house.

It was explained to us that Mr Hayao wished to retire from
film making, and that the family and the studio wanted Mr Hayao’s son
Goro, who had never made a film at all, to make this one. We were very
disappointed, and also anxious, but we were given the impression,
indeed assured, that the project would be always subject to Mr Hayao’s
approval. With this understanding, we made the agreement.

At that time, work had already started on the film: a copy of
the poster of the child and the dragon was given us as a gift, and also
a sketch of Hort Town by Mr Hayao and the finished version of it from
the studio artists.

Work on the film went on extremely rapidly after that. We
realised soon that Mr Hayao was taking no part in making the film at

I had a very moving letter from him, and later one from Mr Goro. I answered them as well as I could.

I am sorry that anger and disappointment attended the making of this film on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

I am told that Mr Hayao has not retired after all, but is now
making another movie. This has increased my disappointment. I hope to
put it behind me.

The Film.

As my son and I could not go to Tokyo for the
premiere of the film, Studio Ghibli very kindly brought us a copy, and
gave us a private screening at a downtown theater on Sunday August 6,
2006. It was a joyful occasion. Many friends with children came. It was
entertaining to get the kids’ response. Some younger ones were rather
frightened or confused, but the older kids were cool with it.

After the screening we went to have dinner at my son’s house.
Elinor the corgi behaved with great propriety, while Mr Toshio Suzuki
did headstands on the lawn.

Mr Goro Miyazaki asked me just as I was leaving, “Did you like
the movie?” It was not an easy question to answer, under the
circumstances. I said: “Yes. It is not my book. It is your movie. It is
a good movie.”

I did not realise that I was speaking to anyone but him and
the few people around us. I would have preferred that a private reply
to a private question not be made public. I mention it here only
because Mr Goro has mentioned it in his blog.

So, in the spirit of everything being public all the time for
fifteen minutes, I will give a fuller report of my first response to
the film:

Much of it was beautiful. Many corners were cut, however, in
the animation of this quickly made film. It does not have the delicate
accuracy of “Totoro” or the powerful and splendid richness of detail of
“Spirited Away.” The imagery is effective but often conventional.

Much of it was exciting. The excitement was maintained by
violence, to a degree that I find deeply untrue to the spirit of the

Much of it was, I thought, incoherent. This may be because I
kept trying to find and follow the story of my books while watching an
entirely different story, confusingly enacted by people with the same
names as in my story, but with entirely different temperaments,
histories, and destinies.

Of course a movie shouldn’t try to follow a novel exactly —
they’re different arts, very different forms of narrative. There may
have to be massive changes. But it is reasonable to expect some
fidelity to the characters and general story in a film named for and
said to be based on books that have been in print for 40 years.

Both the American and the Japanese film-makers treated these
books as mines for names and a few concepts, taking bits and pieces out
of context, and replacing the story/ies with an entirely different
plot, lacking in coherence and consistency. I wonder at the disrespect
shown not only to the books but to their readers.

I think the film’s “messages” seem a bit heavyhanded because,
although often quoted quite closely from the books, the statements
about life and death, the balance, etc., don’t follow from character
and action as they do in the books. However well meant, they aren’t
implicit in the story and the characters. They have not been “earned.”
So they come out as preachy. There are some sententious bits in the
first three Earthsea books, but I don’t think they stand out quite this

The moral sense of the books becomes confused in the film. For
example: Arren’s murder of his father in the film is unmotivated,
arbitrary: the explanation of it as committed by a dark shadow or
alter-ego comes late, and is not convincing. Why is the boy split in
two? We have no clue. The idea is taken from A Wizard of Earthsea,
but in that book we know how Ged came to have a shadow following him,
and we know why, and in the end, we know who that shadow is. The
darkness within us can’t be done away with by swinging a magic sword.

But in the film, evil has been comfortably externalized in a
villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving
all problems.

In modern fantasy (literary or governmental), killing people
is the usual solution to the so-called war between good and evil. My
books are not conceived in terms of such a war, and offer no simple
answers to simplistic questions.

Though I think the dragons of my Earthsea are more beautiful, I
admire the noble way Goro’s dragons fold their wings. The animals of
his imagination are seen with much tenderness — I liked the
horse-llama’s expressive ears. I very much liked the scenes of plowing,
drawing water, stabling the animals, and so on, which give the film an
earthy and practical calmness — a wise change of pace from constant
conflict and “action”. In them, at least, I recognised my Earthsea.

The issue of color:

My purpose in making most of the people of
Earthsea colored, and the whites a marginal and rather backward people,
was of course a moral one, aimed at young American and European
readers. Fantasy heroes of the European tradition were conventionally
white — just about universally so in 1968 — and darkness of skin was
often associated with evil. By simply subverting an expectation, a
novelist can undermine a prejudice.

The makers of the American TV version, while boasting that they
were “color blind,” reduced the colored population of Earthsea to one
and a half. I have blasted them for whitewashing Earthsea, and do not
forgive them for it.

The issue is different in Japan. I cannot address the issue of
race in Japan because I know too little about it. But I know that an
anime film runs smack into the almost immutable conventions of its
genre. Most of the people in anime films look — to the
American/European eye — white. I am told that the Japanese audience
perceives them differently. I am told that they may perceive this Ged
as darker than my eye does. I hope so. Most of the characters look
white to me, but there is at least a nice variation of tans and beiges.
And Tenar’s fair hair and blue eyes are right, since she’s a minority
type from the Kargish islands.

When can we see “Gedo Senki” or “Tales of Earthsea” in America?

When the contract with the TV people for their film and rights runs out: not before 2009. Alas! There are dogs in the manger.


Note: The version shown us was subtitled, not
dubbed. Studio Ghibli does excellent dubbing, but I was delighted to
hear the Japanese voices for once. Ged’s warm, dark tone was
particularly fine. And I hope the lovely song Therru sings is kept in
its original form when the film is dubbed.


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