May 25 to 30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.
Tales from Earthsea begins with the Kingdom of Enlad in ruins. Crops are dying, dragons are fighting, and humans are going insane for seemingly no good reason. The king and his council discuss the current circumstances of their world, and the history of dragons — how once upon a time, humans who chose possessions over anything else remained mortal, but those who cherished freedom became dragons. Root, a wizard in the king’s council, says that with everything in chaos between dragons and humans, the world is out of balance. Just as this chaos is brewing in the human world, the skies darken and a storm hangs overhead.
The outside chaos is symbolic of an internal storm, too — inside Prince Arren, the king’s son. Shortly after the movie begins, he kills his father because of a sudden, unexplainable impulse. Then he flees his kingdom. Although Studio Ghibli’s Tales From Earthsea, directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki, was adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s series of young-adult fantasy series set in the Earthsea world, the movie focuses more on the journey of self-growth and overcoming fear and anxiety than on the original allegory about global warming.
That may sound like a strange way to start a movie, but it’s common for Studio Ghibli films to begin in ways that jolt viewers into full immersion in a highly specific fantastical world. And the fast-paced intro lets the story get to its central messages faster. After Arren meets a sorcerer named Sparrowhawk, he begins to learn about the light and dark forces disrupting the world’s balance. Sparrowhawk knows that darkness lives inside Arren, and all people, just as much as positivity and courage do.
Tales From Earthsea mainly explores how human arrogance leads to larger consequences in the world, including global warming and environmental devastation. But the movie’s real strengths are in the ways it speaks to the hellish void of anxiety that lives in all of us in some way, and the things we do to escape it. So after Prince Arren stabs his father, worrying that there’s an unknown presence following him, the film reveals that at his tail is a mysterious, evil mirror image of himself.
When the ghostlike stranger finally confronts Arren, he flees it in fear, stumbling into a swamp and nearly drowning. While the scene feels dramatic, it’s a metaphor for the ways we ultimately hurt ourselves when we run away from our own failures and negative emotions instead of confronting them. Although Arren spends most of his journey attempting to outrun his dark doppelgänger, he decides to turn himself in for killing his father and repent for his crime. This is the core of the conversation the movie brings forward about anxiety, grief, and our deep human desire to avoid confronting our own pasts. We can run, but the only thing that will actually help us move forward is taking responsibility for the worst parts of ourselves.
The darkest parts of Tales from Earthsea explore the parts of ourselves that eat at us, make us doubt our goodness or capabilities, and push us to act impulsively in ways that hurt other people. The film interrogates whether anxiety and regret are as much a part of our identities as the parts of ourselves that make us feel confident and good. Arren’s attempts to overcome the dark inner leanings he doesn’t understand, and whose source he can’t seem to discover, are filled with relatable missteps. Early on in the movie, he toys with the idea of taking drugs to skirt past his misery and forget his troubles. The magical drug hazia promises to take away his sorrow and fear, so he’ll never again be forced to deal with the “misery and suffering of this world.”
But while Arren is tempted by the emotional oblivion that hazia offers, Sparrowhawk warns him away. In this scene in particular, the film points a mirror toward the audience, asking how many of us try to outrun the void of anxiety by turning to questionable coping methods, instead of wanting to see out the long journey that might be before us. There’s a risk of interpreting this scene as dismissing the idea of anti-anxiety medication, or antidepressants, but it’s more a warning against trying to disassociate from or cover over feelings, rather than addressing or treating them. It’s meant as a reminder that problems don’t disappear simply if we ignore them. This kind of nod to Buddhist concepts of sitting with one’s demons fully, and without trying to escape, has been explored in other Ghibli films, like Princess Mononoke. The price of magic and power in these films can be high, and the price of selfish choices is just as weighty.
While Tales from Earthsea packs a lot of action into a relatively short period, the film’s real adventure mostly isn’t external. That storm in the beginning is just foreshadowing. The true journey is the one that inevitably follows in the wake of grief — the journey Arren takes inside himself, and the adventure we each embark on when we do something wrong and don’t know how to forgive ourselves. Earthsea shows us that while we might want to escape the pain of regret or discomfort in the moment, soberly examining our choices and the consequences eventually leads to growth. But it requires painful self-questioning and examination.
Although Earthsea shows the tumultuousness of the road to growth and self-acceptance, it does not condemn that journey, or the anxiety that comes with guilt and self-doubt. The message is subtler. The Ghibli film sheds light on the ways exploring and accepting your own behavior is a form of strength that brings balance to the world. This, too, seems to shed light on the specific Buddhist concept of the three poisons — ignorance, attachment, and aversion, which are said to be the primary causes that keep humans trapped in suffering.
By the end of the movie, the world is once again at peace — not because Arren has defeated his darker self, but because he takes responsibility for his actions and confesses to murdering of the king, even though he knows it was literally the darker version of himself who did it. While that darker self is physically embodied at points throughout the movie, it’s merely a representation of Arren’s worst impulses.
And holding himself accountable for its actions is an overwhelming reminder that redemption and self-acceptance may mean abandoning our preferred self-images, our beliefs about who we wanted to be, or believed we were. Arren eventually learns to live with a more complex version of himself than he originally thought. And in the process, the audience vicariously learns how we, too, might learn to live with a more complex understanding of ourselves — not as good people or bad, but just struggling, suffering, striving humans.