What Cannot Be Seen


Beauty, loss, longing, mystery: Fans of Tolkien might reach for such language in describing the power of Middle-earth. They are not words that many Americans naturally associate with animation. American animation typically means humor, slapstick, sentiment, and perhaps a positive message about family or believing in yourself.

Tales of Earthsea

Goro Miyazaki’s Tales From Earthsea opens August 13.

Only Pixar rises significantly above that level. The Incredibles and Up are among the most emotionally affecting movies I’ve ever seen. But there’s something that myth does that we don’t find even there. Perhaps WALL-E comes close to “ripping open the inconsolable secret,” as C. S. Lewis put it in “Till We Have Faces”—to awakening us to awe and spiritual hunger for something beyond the scope of the mundane. If so, it’s just about the only American animated film I can think of that does.

Now consider the preview below for an animated film coming to American theaters in August. I know that my readers include numerous fans of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, so the director’s name will be familiar to many—although it’s a Miyazaki we’ve never seen before. The film is the directorial debut of the great director’s son, Goro Miyazaki. (The elder Miyazaki’s last film, last summer’s Ponyo, featured a young protagonist based on the young Goro.) As with other recent Studio Ghibli films, Tales From Earthsea is being distributed stateside by Walt Disney Pictures. Disney hasn’t released an English trailer yet, but the Japanese trailer is well worth watching.

Visually at least, Tales From Earthsea looks like vintage Studio Ghibli: an ambitious exercise in world-building (or “sub-creation” as Tolkien called it), with striking images of half-ruined architectural splendor, derelict ships on desert sands, bucolic landscapes, water and light, clouds and sky, and the joy of flight.

Intriguingly from an American perspective, the trailer features no dialogue or voiceover narration (or almost none), and characters and plot points are given secondary importance. Instead, the trailer is dominated by a haunting, elegiac-sounding melody sung a lone female voice, intially a capella, complemented by poetic subtitles:

The balance of the world is collapsing … People bustle from place to place but without any sense of purpose … Their minds are fixed on far-off dreams or on death, and what they see with their eyes is not of this world … People are beginning to go mad … What cannot be seen is most important.

In the United States, this qualifies as art-house cinema. In Japan, Tales From Earthsea opened at the top of the box office and stayed there for five straight weeks. The elder Miyazaki’s animated films are also box-office heavyweights—bigger than Pixar in America. Spirited Away actually sank James Cameron’s Titanic at the Japanese box office, becoming the highest grossing film in Japanese history.

I don’t know whether Tales From Earthsea will live up to the promise of its trailer. (Critical response in Japan and elsewhere has been mixed.) From what little I’ve read (I’m trying to stay spoiler-free), the film is apparently about as faithful to Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea stories as the elder Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle was to Diana Wynn Jones, which is scarcely at all. (Before anyone asks: Yes, I’m familiar with what Michael O’Brien has written about LeGuin, and yes, I have reservations about her too, though I haven’t read the Earthsea stuff. Whatever issues may affect the Earthsea books, and whether the film is or is not affected by these issues, or by other ones entirely, are all questions beyond the scope of this post.)

My point here is simply this: Here is a mainstream Japanese animated film with a trailer that has an evocative, haunting power that eludes virtually the whole of American animation—and that’s just the trailer. And it’s not just American animation either, but pretty much the whole Hollywood machine. What was the last Hollywood box-office blockbuster that made you think of beauty, loss, longing and mystery? (Yes, other than The Lord of the Rings.)

Whether this particular film turns out to be good or not, it’s part of a cinematic culture that aims at, and sometimes achieves, something that isn’t even on the radar in Hollywood. This trailer reminds me of how I felt during the first five minutes of Howl’s Moving Castle, even though the film ultimately turned out to be a disappointment: Just the promise of the first five minutes, even a promise unfulfilled, was worth more than some American animation studios have delivered in whole films if not their entire outputs.

One might expect Americans to throng to these rare films like thirsty camels to a desert oasis (even if the water were less than pristine). Surely, beauty, loss, longing and mystery are universal. But no, we barely notice them. We apparently prefer animated sequels featuring computer-animated funny ogres or prehistoric animal comedy trios. (The Japanese flock to these too, but somehow they manage to have an appetite for both.)

I honestly don’t know why that is. It can’t be that the “mere trousered ape” is so much more prevalent in the US than abroad. Can it?

Here is a question: Will Disney’s forthcoming English-language trailer have the same elegiac, poetic power as the Japanese trailer? I wouldn’t count on it.

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