Out With the Old, or: Art in a Time of Monsters

Tales From Earthsea and the Tyranny of Gerontocracy

Image: Studio Ghibli

An increasingly vocal part of me believes that there are no bad movies, only movies that we don’t yet know how to interpret. Perhaps during their first screenings, we lack the vocabulary to discuss what they’re doing; perhaps we have not lived enough—or have lived too long—to be receptive to what they’re trying to convey. Whenever a film flops, maybe it’s simply a sign that we weren’t ready for it. But everything has its time. Limelight and obscurity are as transient—and as inevitable—as the coming of night or day.

This is all a rather roundabout way of explaining why I’ll rewatch plenty of shitty movies until I can concoct justifications for them. My fiancée calls it an addiction. I call it an ethos.

That same ethos has me thinking about Tales From Earthsea, which the two of us recently watched in our ongoing efforts to screen every Studio Ghibli film. At the time of its release, Tales From Earthsea was considered the studio’s worst outing. Yet I contend that, like far too many so-called creative failures, it tried to address an audience that wasn’t primed for its message. And in light of that message’s increasing resonance, I say Tales From Earthsea deserves to be reconsidered.

The story of Tales From Earthsea is a chronicle of a misused director and the parade of misunderstandings that torpedoed his debut, nearly taking his career with it. But it’s also the story of an unheard millennial battle cry loosed years before anyone recognized the stakes of the fight or its theaters of combat. In other words, it’s a story worth telling—and worth heeding.


Imagine being Gorō Miyazaki, circa 2004. This is long before he’ll make Earwig and the Witch (2020), which review aggregators will dub “a surprising—and near-total—misfire for Studio Ghibli.” The happy, hopeful months leading up to 2006 place him a couple of years before his directorial debut nets him not one, but two, Bunshun Raspberry Awards: the first for Worst Movie, and another for Worst Director. It will be a little while yet before the iconic Ursula K. Le Guin feels the need to write a detailed missive articulating her many disappointments with his first film—and to disavow any involvement with it. (“Please do not hold any writer except the script-writer responsible for anything in a film,” her prefatory remarks will read.) And he won’t have hit the point where his own father walks out of its introductory screening after 60 minutes, claiming he “felt like [he]’d been in there for three hours.”1

Right now, he has no idea he’s practically being set up to fail. And he’d never guess that he’s poised for critical dismissal as the prodigal failson of animation royalty. Here, in these halcyon moments, is what Gorō does know. For nearly 20 years, Le Guin has been extraordinarily protective of her beloved Earthsea books, whose reception and reputation made her a Grand Master of fantasy and science fiction, and a literal living legend. Plenty of animation studios, including his father Hayao’s storied Studio Ghibli, have sought her blessing to adapt her work. But Le Guin, whose American moviegoing experience has convinced her that most animation amounts to saccharine Disney drek, has proven unwilling.

The senior Miyazaki’s boundlessly charming My Neighbor Totoro (1988), however, has made an impression. (It seems to have that effect on people. Even Akira Kurosawa loved its many-legged Catbus.) After seeing Totoro for the first time around 1999 or 2000, Le Guin says she “became a Miyazaki fan at once and forever.” She now considers Hayao “a genius of the same caliber as Kurosawa or Fellini,” and welcomes a Studio Ghibli rendition of Earthsea—provided Gorō’s father is at the helm. “There is no other film maker to whom I would make such a proposition,” she notes.

Unfortunately for Le Guin, Hayao has retired. Or, mostly retired. At the moment, he’s waist-deep in the forthcoming Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and claims to have no intention of making another film once he finishes. In light of this development, Toshio Suzuki, the head of Studio Ghibli, has a proposal for Le Guin. As she tells it:

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.

The matter is decided: Gorō will take the reins and direct the movie. He’ll record in his blog the reasons why the project especially excites him: “First is the attraction I felt to the original ‘Earthsea’ stories. The second is that I had discovered within myself a love of animation which, because of my relationship with my father, I had pretended for a long time not to notice, until now.” This unicorn of a project will let him realize two joys at once.

He couldn’t ask for a more favorable opportunity. He can finally justify trying his hand at animation. He’s been given license to adapt a major literary property that he respects and cherishes. And he’ll have his father, a titan of the industry, for counsel and support.

He’ll do great. He’s got this.


Hindsight makes apparent how Tales From Earthsea’s production invited imperfections. The project conspires against Gorō in both concept and practice, undermining his strengths and exacerbating his weaknesses. Where he expects opportunities for creative freedom, he’ll find constraint. And where he’d hope for scaffolding, there won’t be support.

Despite his earlier assurances, Hayao shuns any involvement with Tales From Earthsea. (An incredulous Le Guin recalls realizing that “Mr Hayao was taking no part in making the film at all.”) Dear old Dad, who knows a thing or two about adapting literature for the silver screen, spends most of the production avoiding his son’s studio. “Because he makes me uncomfortable,” says Hayao, before admitting, “I’m not very mature.” So much for Gorō’s promised support structure!

Gorō is also denied the key creative ingredient afforded his father. Documentarian Kaku Arakawa, after studying Hayao’s process and methods for the four-part NHK series 10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki (2019), credits his magic to an uncommon procedural luxury. “Animation movies usually start with a screenplay,” Arakawa observes, “but Miyazaki films begin with images. Here lies the secret to Miyazaki anime. Working without a script gives Miyazaki maximum creative freedom.”

For Hayao, the entire point of animation is to think in images first—to prioritize visual experience before narrative domineers it. “Logical storylines sacrifice creativity,” he claims. “Easy-to-understand movies are boring.” Hence, Hayao’s artistic philosophy aims to do away with the primacy of the script: “I’m all about breaking conventions.” But Gorō, tasked with adapting the Earthsea books, doesn’t enjoy such luxury. The texts loom large, ready to overpower whatever imagery he attaches to them.

The arrangement suits Gorō poorly. Some artists thrive under restriction—the Sirks, the Perecs, the von Triers—finding that limitations sharpen focus, that universes open in their interstices. But Gorō is interested in building edifices from the ground up, in exploring wilderness that hasn’t already been trodden into footpaths. He wants to do things with unclaimed space. It’s why he originally avoided animation: so he wouldn’t have to trace his father’s well-established route. (He laments how, whether he likes it or not, “I can easily imagine that I will be labelled with the adjective ‘Miyazaki Hayao’s son.’”) 

It’s also why he attended Shinshu University’s School of Agriculture instead of an arts college, and trained in architecture and construction management. He designed parks and gardens and urban greenery before joining Studio Ghibli; he thinks in terms of what beautiful things might be summoned to fill places no one else has been. Yet the hand Gorō’s been dealt is constraint all the way down, made even more dispiriting by the two artistic giants hanging over his project.

The situation would fluster any fledgling creator. The older generation owns all the creative real estate. They’re established. They’re connected. They dictate the terms of the artistic landscape; they choose who’s allowed to participate, and in what capacity. They’re everywhere when you don’t want them around. But as soon as you need their assistance—or as soon as you ask them to make good on what they’ve promised—they’re nowhere in sight.

Through it all, however, Gorō makes his movie. And it’s nigh impossible to believe that the painful, frustrating lessons he’s learning along the way are going unused.


There’s a segment of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” that I revisit whenever I’m tempted to pass judgment, aesthetic or otherwise, on recent movies or music or Internet fads, and which more would-be cultural critics should take to heart: “And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” It’s from the verse directed at “mothers and fathers throughout the land”—those people tasked with nurturing, protecting, and instructing the younger generation. The people whom we all someday, in some capacity, become.

Dylan’s admonishment reminds us that the old’s judgments of what’s inferior or undesirable often fail to grasp a reality that’s apparent from a more youthful vantage, dismissing out of hand what does not conform to—or has eluded altogether—their lived experience. It’s probably safe to assume that this out-of-touch urge to criticize is all the louder (and all the more important to ignore) when the thing judged is a critique or wholesale rejection of what the old hold dear.

When I consider Tales From Earthsea’s chilly reception, I hear Dylan’s cautionary warble.

Le Guin accused Gorō’s film of “treat[ing] 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.” She further jabbed, “I wonder at the disrespect shown not only to the books but to their readers.” Gorō’s own father didn’t have much to say in its favor, either.

“You shouldn’t make a picture based on your emotions,” a distressed Hayao tells the documentarian Arakawa after abandoning the inaugural Tales From Earthsea screening. Arakawa also discloses that “Miyazaki had fought against his son directing this film” because he felt he wasn’t ready.” It’s as wounding an assessment as one creative can give another, and one that wasn’t lost on poor Gorō, whose blog prologue is titled, “My Father Was Against It.”

A special sting lies in being called “unready”—as if artistry were some exclusive clubhouse whose earlier arrivals refuse to open the door. Perhaps sensing the understated viciousness of Hayao’s commentary, Arakawa helps him save face by noting the elder Miyazaki later “sent a message to his son: ‘Honest, and well done,’ he said.” But the alternative translation supplied in Gorō’s blog—“It was made honestly, so it was good”—conjures the indirect encouragement (“You tried! Good effort!”) offered children who present crude crayon scrawls. It praises what went into the work; what came out cannot, in good aesthetic conscience, be celebrated.

Le Guin and Hayao’s critiques have largely the same root. Hayao judges his son as if he were attempting to mimic his own animated films. Le Guin wants to see her exact book on-screen in Hayao’s style. Their core complaint amounts to a desire for things as they have known them, in the misguided belief—far too common among the old—that this is synonymous with how things must always be.

I wanted what came before, they say, envisioning the inaccessible treasures of an irretrievable past. I ended up with this.


The irony, of course, is that this complaint echoes a millennial watchword.

Mine is a generation educated in—and raised for—a world that no longer exists. A few cases in point: We’d have loved to be able to afford a house without a college education. (Hell, we’d love to afford a house, period.) It would’ve been great if we could have covered the costs of our higher education with a part-time summer job’s worth of work. We’d have made good use of political offices and the right to vote if the people in charge during our childhoods weren’t still ensconced in their seats. Imagine what we could have accomplished with the more or less functional social safety net our parents and their parents enjoyed before they shredded it for tax cuts. Even after all these indignities, we’d have settled for the bare minimum of having a planet that climate change wasn’t about to render uninhabitable. 

We wanted what came before. We ended up with this.

A quote from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks has lately been making the rounds among certain segments of the Internet because of how succinctly it captures the millennial plight. “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born,” goes Slavoj Žižek’s widely-repeated—and rather tendentious—translation. “Now is the time of monsters.” It’s a comforting string of words, in the way that lashing out is comforting: the “monsters” may be the older generation, richly deserving of our moral condemnation; or else the arrival of a “time of monsters” grants us license to act as rashly as we must in the name of righting what’s wronged us. But it’s also not quite what Gramsci says. A more accurate translation reads, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Gramsci’s observation is more of a medical diagnosis: nothing old should stick around too long, lest disease creep into the body politic.

Things go wrong—pathologically so—when the future is refused a berth.

If you consider Tales From Earthsea through this lens, the movie begins to make far more sense. It’s even tempting to think that Gorō might have shared similar Gramscian concerns, and the Earthsea books provided him an ideal vessel for exploring them. When discussing how parts of the Earthsea books have soured for him since his youth, Gorō’s reasons as to why channel a similar millennial malaise: “Society is appreciably more mature now than it was then. (Definitely not in a good sense), and ideas like ‘If I try, I can change myself’ and ‘Maybe we can change the world’ hold less reality for me.” 

Change and betterment belong to a different era; today’s society has ossified beyond correction. Yet what still appeals to Gorō is how magic in the Earthsea books is “nothing other than the study of reality itself.” They’re about more than the typical fantasy fare of tits and dragons; they’re concerned with the mechanisms that move the world—how they work, how they break down, and what it takes to repair them. If you were experiencing firsthand the morbid symptoms of a dying society, what better source material could you ask for to help articulate the disease at its root?

Gorō opens his blog with a simple, reasonable entreaty: “My wish as a director is: ‘Please watch Tales From Earthsea, with a completely fresh mind, free from distractions,’—that’s all.” What if we take him at his word, and accept that Tales From Earthsea is not a half-baked Hayao knockoff, nor a botched adaptation of a Le Guin classic?2Le Guin even entertained that possibility, however briefly. “It is not my book,” she reportedly told Gorō. “It is your film.”[/efn_note] I can’t read Gorō’s blog, nor follow Tales From Earthsea’s benighted production history, without supposing that the younger Miyazaki’s errors are, if not volitional, then at least the portals of discovery. In that spirit, I urge us to interpret Tales From Earthsea on its own terms.

What if we reframe the film’s purported suckage as a deliberate aesthetic—and philosophical—choice? What if we viewed its alleged points of failure as calculated rejections of accepted wisdom, made in an attempt to highlight how oppressive those conventions have grown? What if the film is one long artistic feint, a repeated reminder that we could have good and cool and nice things if our accursed progenitors would simply get the fuck out of the way?


Appropriately enough for a film that’s fundamentally about how the prior generation has boned us, the aesthetic of Tales From Earthsea is that of the false start, of the waylaid plan, of the unkept promise. When you think you have an inkling of where the plot is going, it abruptly changes course, redefining or disregarding entirely the rules it appeared to establish. What it trains you to expect is not what it delivers.

For a good chunk of the film, Tales From Earthsea is a whirlwind of narrative impressions until a traditional sense of plot coheres. It opens with a storm-tossed ship and a wizard powerless to aid its beleaguered crew, with serpentine dragons hurtling skyward to tear into one another amid a cacophony of rain and lightning. Exactly none of these characters will reappear; dragons don’t even figure into the plot, despite the tagline for the English release (“There was a time when humans and dragons were one”) and the theatrical release poster/video cover art. We’re introduced to protagonist Arren when he darts from palace shadows to fatally impale his father, the King. 

Yet the murder carries no consequences, and won’t even be revisited except in some throwaway lines of Arren’s dialogue. It also doesn’t occur in the books, making its inclusion extremely funny. (Maybe the patricide is what prompted the elder Miyazaki to flee the first screening and bemoan his son’s emotional approach to filmmaking.) In what might be the most ludicrous subplot from a storytelling perspective, Arren is both kidnapped and rescued within a span of approximately two minutes.

The bait-and-switch method particularly upset Le Guin. “I kept trying to find and follow the story of my books while watching an entirely different story,” she reported, “confusingly enacted by people with the same names as in my story, but with entirely different temperaments, histories, and destinies.” For example, the character Hare morphs from a substance-abusing former wizard in the books, to a cruel and duplicitous warrior in the film. The androgynous villain, named Kumo (the Japanese word for “spider”) in the original screenplay, is fancifully—or bewilderingly—translated as Cob in the English one. Book Arren doesn’t murder his father, and the dark doppelgänger that Gorō gives Arren is instead attached to series stalwart Ged in the first novel.

If you go in having read the Earthsea books, Gorō strays so far from them within a matter of minutes that it can only be construed as an intentional puréeing of the prior narrative. The signal couldn’t be clearer: once you enter Tales From Earthsea, you’re not in Le Guin’s world anymore. This is Gorō’s movie, and the master himself has conceded that logical storylines sacrifice creativity.


If a film won’t let you cling to its script, it wants your attentions directed elsewhere. In Tales From Earthsea’s case, its concerns are thematic, its true story crystallizing around abundant imagery of ruin and rot. Tales From Earthsea takes place in a world that’s not just used—it’s used up. It hasn’t collapsed yet, but anything longer than a cursory glance soon detects its waning integrity. Sweeping vistas of port cities give way to crumbling buildings and ill-maintained infrastructure. Bustling streets shelter frenzies of meaningless consumption and petty theft. Certain segments of the population retain the memory of magic, but not how—or why—to command it; shallow advertisement is the last of its imagination-starved applications.

But hey, at least there are drugs! Hazia, an addictive downer, is there to console whomever lingers too long on the world’s void of hope and magic. The best days of Gorō’s Earthsea are long behind it, and its poisonous present chokes out the possibility of repair or renewal. After all, one can’t spend time in a spent place. How much time is there left to spend? (If this arrangement sounds depressingly familiar after another season of unprecedented flooding and forest fires and heat indexes, it should.)

Of course, the world didn’t fall out of whack on its own. The reason for Earthsea’s steady downward trajectory can be traced back to Kumo, whose all-consuming fear of death has driven him to seek immortality by any means necessary. By some measures, he’s succeeded—but his antics have damaged something alternately called “the Balance” or “equilibrium,” a force of movement and change that acts like the world’s circulatory system. Without it, nothing begins and nothing ends; as a consequence, all the currents that drive the world toward replenishment are slowing to a standstill, and magic is gradually being muzzled in the process.

Kumo is a boomer allegory if ever there was one. He inhabits a world that once had room for magic and aspiration, until his radical selfishness drained it dry. He pretends to be what he isn’t; a panoply of cosmetic illusions allow him to play at being young and suave, but they only mask a doddering old man who refuses to accept his own (conspicuous!) decline. The film’s message to him is repeatedly, You weren’t supposed to live this long. Die already.

While Kumo is unarguably the film’s main antagonist, Tales From Earthsea does not treat him as the sole object of contempt—despite Le Guin’s misreading that “evil has been comfortably externalized in a villain, the wizard Kumo/Cob, who can simply be killed, thus solving all problems.” In Tales From Earthsea, everyone middle-aged or older is part of the problem. They are each their own kind of useless, and their variance from Kumo proves merely a question of degree. 

Strong, supportive Tenar spends the climax of the film shackled, baiting the other characters into an obvious trap. The wise and powerful Ged, also captured and restrained during the final confrontation with Kumo, offers a similar perversion of the parent/child dynamic. Where both Tenar and Ged are initially portrayed as protective, problem-solving parental figures for the vulnerable Arren and damaged Therru, the end of the film leaves them helpless and awaiting rescue by their so-called children. In the clutch, they are weak and unreliable; they take where their role is to give. More dramatically, Therru’s unseen parents are openly harmful, revealed via dialogue to have burned her and left her for dead. In Tales From Earthsea, the older generation is simply not to be trusted. Even when they have the best of intentions, they’re going to screw things up.


What’s a young person to do? Tales From Earthsea urges them to disregard the old, their expectations, and their machinations—if not force the stubborn predecessors from the stage. If the old won’t listen to Dylan’s advice, they can answer Pete Townshend instead: “Why don’t you all f-fade away?”

Arren’s opening-scene patricide appears to be motivated by the desire to claim a scrotal sword belonging to his father. (Paging Dr. Freud!) But the kicker is that he can’t even use it, because an ancient enchantment forbids it to be drawn except in defense of life. If this turn-the-other-cheek mentality helped Arren’s father, it clearly won’t serve him—least of all when the problem at hand calls for offense. None of the outdated laws of the forebears are prepared to help with the unique concerns of today; what we might have called received wisdom isn’t so wise when it applies exclusively to a vanished world. 

Perhaps this rejection of the old order is why the murder of Arren’s father doesn’t meaningfully resurface until the film’s conclusion, and only then at Arren’s behest. Arren has done what he had to do to save the world. Now that the crisis is past, he can reckon with the rightness or wrongness of his actions. But the decision to do so is entirely up to him—not the prescriptions or proscriptions of an antiquated, obsolete moral code.

The theme of generational obsolescence is even baked into the scenery. In an extended visual joke, Gorō’s Earthsea is peppered with strange rock fixtures that look suspiciously like gravestones. They pass unremarked for most of the movie. But when a harried Therru needs to figure out which road to follow, it’s shown that these stones are actually directional markers. It’s death that points the way forward, and the path only grows clearer when there are more of those signposts kicking around.

But what is the way forward? Tales From Earthsea offers some hints, and not all of them involve consigning the boomers to the ash heap of history. The film outlines what a positive relationship with one’s own mortality might look like via a study of contrasts. On the one hand, we have Kumo, vaporized like a vampire with the coming of dawn while he babbles about his own unrelenting fear. He’s driven by cowardice instead of courage; he resists what cannot be resisted. He does not understand how to make peace with the natural order, where the future is always coming, like it or not.

On the other hand, the film’s moments of peace and delight occur during scenes of farming and animal husbandry: tilling soil, sowing seeds, welcoming new lives in the manger. But these scenes aren’t the usual rustic idyll where modernity is cast aside in the name of tradition. Instead, they’re snapshots of a healthy relationship toward time. 

The irony, of course, is that farming is often seen as one of those timeless occupations—whereas here, it’s freighted with time. Harvesting crops is accepting the generosity of past labors; planting seeds is an act of care for those to come. When Arren and company work on the farm, they work with nature in all its aspects—not only the flora and fauna, but also the tempora. Past, present, and future are made harmonious as each time acknowledges what it owes the others.


My working hypothesis for why Tales From Earthsea initially fell flat is that we weren’t yet living the nightmare it predicted. Generational conflict in itself is nothing new. But we hadn’t fully grasped what it meant for the older generation to repeatedly win that conflict: for the young to be sapped of opportunities so that they may accrue to the old, for the past to cannibalize the future in the name of an unsustainable present. Tales From Earthsea dramatizes this tragedy in all its disorienting, uncomfortable, unnatural spectacle. It makes plain a truth that grows more apparent to millennials by the day: under gerontocracy, renewal and its attendant joys become impossible. And what does not renew is doomed to decay.

  1. All Hayao Miyazaki and Kaku Arakawa quotations are from the documentary 10 Years with Hayao Miyzazaki unless otherwise noted.