Thoughts On: Tales From Earthsea - The Archetypal & The Cliched


Tales From Earthsea - The Archetypal & The Cliched

Thoughts On: Tales From Earthsea (ゲド戦記, 2006)

A wizard and a prince journey to find the force of great imbalance in their land.

Tales From Earthsea is quite clearly Studio Ghibli's most contentious film. Looking at this film with both my critic and spectator hat on, I feel this contention pulling me in two directions. In such, the content of the film is quite evocative, and upon analysis (which I believe film critics overlook) it holds up incredibly. However, and this is what the critics would pick up on, the style and form of this is lesser than that of other Ghibli pictures. With the production of Tales From Earthsea having a little story of its own, it seems that, to some degree, knowing that Miyazaki's son tried to follow his father's footsteps leaves you a little biased and ready to see that archetypal story of failure play through. This is not to say that it is incorrect that Gorō Miyazaki fails to prove that he is as good of a director as his father, but, I think it is fair to assume that people also jump on this bandwagon quite readily.

Because of this contention, because I see a lot of where this film goes wrong, I'm reluctant to do a deep analysis. So, whilst I may return to this film another day to map out its intricacies, today we should discuss a very difficult topic to manage as a storyteller: the archetypal and the cliched.

As most will know, archetypes are recurrent things or people that pop up in a vast plethora of stories across all of time and from most cultures. One example of an archetypal figure is a dragon. No matter where you go in the world or in time you should be able to show someone a picture of a dragon of some kind and be able to communicate with them. Such a phenomena is profoundly intriguing if you sit and think about it; you could travel far back to 4000 B.C, to Ancient Mesopotamia, and, though you do not speak the same language, nor live in anything near the same society as the people back there, you would still have a complex tool and concept that would unite you with those people in the dragon. (I am not suggesting that it would be a particularly good idea to time travel to Ancient Mesopotamia with a picture of a dragon though - you might find yourself in some trouble).

Whilst archetypes are one of the most profound and rich elements of storytelling, they are very closely linked to cliches. A cliche is, in essence, a weak archetype. Instead of pulling complex symbols from the collective, ancient wisdom of humanity with an archetype, you can just slap down something you've seen before and expect it to work as is. The cliche is an attempt towards honing the archetype, but it is often a failed attempt, not necessarily because a storyteller doesn't understand the archetype, but because they think they do. That is to say that great stories can emerge from unconsciousness - just like archetypes, presumable, originally would have. However, though we can start to become conscious of tropes of storytelling, conventions and archetypes, it is so easy to think you get it all and try to show off that fact. Because I both write scripts and analytical posts about films, this is what I always fear I may do: wrongly assume I understand story and archetypes.

I think this is quite a common phenomena among storytellers; we all know a plethora of stories, books, plays, films, poems, etc. However, we don't just want to copy them or be a hack; we don't want to assume we fully understand and can better or equal great stories. Here, then, lies this conflict between consciously utilising archetypes and falling flat on your face with nasty cliches.

In my opinion, a film such as King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword appears much like Tales From Earthsea. Both of these films consciously use archetypes. However, I believe that, whilst people talk down upon King Arthur as cliched, muddled and stupid, it is a brilliant example of how to consciously manipulate archetypes and integrate them into a story. Tales From Earthsea, however, fails to, not necessarily construct or manipulate archetypes, but to bring them to life and integrate them into its narrative.

The archetypes of Tales From Earthsea are obvious: deceitful sons, kings, princes, princesses, wizards, dragons, shadows, demons. These archetypes are all brilliantly edited into a chronology of narrative - one that resembles other Ghibli films such as Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind. However, these archetypes have no life in them. And this is most clear with the female characters because of how focused Ghibli usually are in constructed them. In Tales Of Earthsea, however, they are not set up well at all and, though they are archetypal, are like machines and devices of a narrative. This is also true with the male characters, but, because we're dealing with Ghibli, the poor female characters stick out like a sore thumb. Most telling, however, is actually the design of the characters:

I see very little light and life in this character's eyes (I have forgotten her name, forgive me, but she is quite forgettable). In contrast, take a moment to look at Kiki:

There is something different about these two images, no? This something has much to do with the fact that we may like the narrative surrounding Kiki more. However, this also has much to do with photogénie. We have discussed this in the Ghibli series before, but this is the quality of an image that morally enhances its subjects. We feel photogénie when looking at Kiki. I don't think I can accurately say why, but I know that there is something unique and uplifting about her; we see, as the metaphor goes, her soul through her eyes. In contrast to this, the first character is a little drab, anonymous and rigid. And this is what plagues the entirety of the film around her - I could reference a plethora of characters from our protagonist down to two village women who play a minor role, but I won't exhaust you. In short, though both Kiki and Therru are archetypes, a witch and a princess, their presentation and characterisation yield different results. Why?

Some of this is a little too subjective and subconscious for me to analyse - the source of photogénie for instance - however, the fundamental problem seems to be the fact that Hayao Miyazaki doesn't make it obvious that he's playing with archetypes whereas Gorō does. Gorō then uses dialogue, dreams and plot beats in a highly emphatic way that brings attention to subtext and the fact he's telling us a story with greater intentions. I do not fully subscribe to the idea that subtext must be buried deep within a film, but, it seems clear that you should not exhaust your own subtext by making it so obvious. Gorō does this very often with clunky exposition and unreserved visual language, and though there is much of this film that we could expand upon, much of it is plain on the page. For example, we are constantly told of death giving life meaning being one of the major philosophical quandaries of the film. But, this unmasking of an archetypal story trope reduces it to a cliche because there is much more to the film than what the exposition tells us - which ultimately discourages the audience from caring about subtext because we sense a masturbatory arrogance about the film.

'Masturbatory arrogance' may be a little to harsh when describing what doesn't work so well in Gorō's film. However, with his inability to transcend the cliche, Gorō shows that he is smart, but not wise. A wise storyteller knows where the line between archetype and cliche sits.

To bring things towards a close, I have to say that I think Tales From Earthsea is a good film that I wish could have had more care and attention given to it. Gorō adopts a directorial style that is a little more dynamic, contemporary and fluid than that of his father's, but ultimately constructs a style that is not far enough removed from Hayao Miyazaki's to be viewed beyond his shadow. What's more, Gorō tries to bring something significant and profound to the table, and partially achieves this, but does so in a manner too cliched and immature. And, ultimately, all that Hayao Miyazaki does better than his son matters far more than the little that Gorō does well.

With that said, I'll end by asking what your thoughts are on everything we've covered today? Do you think Tales From Earthsea deserves a deeper look? If so tell me why below?

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