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Friday, July 28, 2006
Japanese animators used to make films mostly for the "family market" -- meaning kids and their bored parents. They also enjoyed relatively little critical prestige, or, with the exception of the occasional manga-superstar-turned-animator, public recognition.
Hayao Miyazaki, more than any of his colleagues, changed all that, with films that appealed to adults as well as kids and had many critics hailing him as a true auteur. He has been showered with honors and awards, while making three of the biggest box-office hits in Japanese movie history, headed by the Oscar-winning "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)" in 2001.
Miyazaki, however, is now 65 and his next film may well be his last. Studio Ghibli, which he helped launch in 1985 and has been his professional home ever since, has been wrestling with its post-Miyazaki future for some time now, but has yet to come up with a satisfactory successor.
This includes the latest candidate, Miyazaki's son Goro, an animation neophyte who has directed the new Studio Ghibli film "Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea)." Based on the third book in the eponymous fantasy series by Ursula K. Le Guin, the film remixes familiar Miyazaki imagery and themes, but without his knotty, wayward genius. It's like a tribute band playing a new number "in the style" of some departed great -- and delivering everything but the greatness.
The story is of the maturation of a young prince, Arren (voice: Junichi Okada), who abandons a comfortable home and certain future to seek he knows not what while battling his own dark side. On a desolate coast populated by wolves, he encounters Haitaka (Bunta Sugawara), a kindly middle-aged wanderer with a facial scar and powers he is reluctant to reveal.
He is, it turns out, a great wizard on a mission to restore equilibrium to a world out of joint. They arrive at a port city where evidence of dissolution is everywhere, including shoddy goods in the shops and slave traders in the market-place. Arren soon gets an up-close view of this moral decay when he is tempted with drugs by a knavish pusher and threatened with death while rescuing a hot-tempered girl, Therru (Aoi Teshima), from thuggish soldiers. She repays his chivalry by stomping off in a rage.
The source of all these woes, we learn, is a slinky female mage, Kumo (Yuko Tanaka), who is on a mad quest for eternal life and is willing to upset the balance of the natural order to acquire it. Instead of immediately confronting her, however, Haitaka and Arren enjoy a rural idyll at the farm of Tenar (Jun Fubuki), Haitaka's longtime friend, ally -- and something more.
Tenar, it turns out, is also the guardian of the abandoned Therru. She is still toweringly angry at Arren -- an infallible movie sign that romance is about to bloom. But danger looms and duty calls. Haitaka and Arren set out for a final confrontation with Kumo and her minions.
Having not read Le Guin's novel, I can't say how far the film departs from it, but for Miyazaki fans "Gedo Senki" will be like a best hits collection from his films, including the mysterious dragon who turns out to be -- let's not say what (found also in "Sen to Chihiro"), Haitaka's steed, which resembles a horse, but isn't (like Ashitaka's mount in "Mononoke Hime"), the creepy black slime that nearly envelops Arren (similar glop seen in "Princess Mononoke") and Kumo's scary metamorphoses into a giant winged creature (like Yubaba's in "Sen to Chihiro").
Fans of old Hollywood B movies will also recognize many a cliche, beginning with the sneering, mustache-twirling incompetence of Kumo's chief minion, Usagi (Teruyuki Kagawa), who bungles chance after chance to put away the good characters for good. Kumo will also be a familiar figure to fans of the "Wizard of Oz" -- and not only for her Margaret Hamiliton-ish cackle. But I prefer the original -- and miss the originality Miyazaki might have brought to even this often-filmed material.
"Brave Story," the Fuji TV and Gonzo Studio animation based on a Miyuki Miyabe novel, has a Ghibli-esque look, but the story and treatment are more in the usual Hollywood fantasy film mold and are more directly targeted at the family market.
The hero is Wataru (Takako Matsu), an ordinary 11-year-old boy whose parents are not getting along. One day, playing with a friend in a spooky old building, Wataru comes across a mysterious door leading to who knows where -- and a new boy, Mitsuru (Eiji Wentz), who is handsome, cool, athletic and smart -- everything Wataru is not.
Mitsuru also knows what is behind the door -- a magical kingdom called Vision where the brave and resourceful can make wishes come true. When Wataru's parents finally split -- and his mother faces a life-or-death crisis best left undescribed, he decides to go through the door for one of those wishes. First though, he has to find five magical jewels -- not an easy task when you're a kid without any superpowers, or even everyday talents.
From here the action is fast and furious. Wataru acquires a sword and cute/funny creature companions, while facing down various monsters and enemies. On the way, he reunites with Mitsuru, on a morally ambiguous mission of his own -- one that endangers the very existence of Vision.
This is also familiar stuff, recalling the "Doraemon" series (Wataru being an updated Nobita, the main child character in that show), the "Dragonball" series (the "quest for five jewels" motif) and even Narnia. Also, Gonzo's animators, directed by Koichi Chigira, are not yet as adept as Ghibli's at seamlessly integrating the film's 2-D and 3-D images. Even so, as fast-paced, visually arresting, narratively twisty entertainment, "Brave Story" will keep the kids from squirming in their seats -- and dad from drifting off.
Will it also be a serious threat to Ghilbi's box office dominance? Probably not. But more challengers will appear -- and the Ghibli name alone, minus the man who made it the quality brand in Japanese animation, may not be enough to fend them off.