Saturday, June 28, 2008

Spiritual Bridges in Anime - Tales From Earthsea

Well, after a long hiatus, the Spiritual Bridges series is back, and this time with a guest writer. Expect to get more in this series in the next two months. I have one post that is almost done, and we have another guest writer working on a different piece right now.

Let me tell you a bit about today's entry. It is written by Robin White, the author of the Japan Log blog and the SkitZo MaN comic. We met through this blog, when he left comments on my post on Manga Outreach. He is a missionary based in Nagoya, and he shares a very similar vision to Paul and me. It's a priviledge to have him write for us. When we were talking about which series he would write about, we decided to have him write about an easily accessible one--a movie. I, for one, think he did a very good job. So, let us begin.
Tales From Earthsea:

Japanese title: “Gendo Senki”, ie “Ged’s War Chronicles”

(Very loose adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels)
Director: Goro Miyazaki
A Studio Ghibli film

Studio Ghibli’s Tales From Earthsea is the directorial debut of Goro Miyazaki, son of the more famous Hayao Miyazaki. Reviews for the film have been mixed at best: Fans of the novels were disappointed that it’s such a loose adaptation of the books, while Studio Ghibli fans can’t help but compare it to the studio’s other movies -- which form a pretty impressive list. Let’s face it, Goro’s got some pretty big shoes to fill. So let’s not be too hard on the guy.

I can’t compare it to the books, since I’ve not read them, but if any readers want to chime in on that aspect, feel free to leave a comment. I can compare it to other Ghibli films, however, as I am a big fan of them. Earthsea is missing a lot of the fun and whimsey of previous Ghibli films (in fact, I don’t remember any comic relief at all). And it’s a more “typical” kind of fantasy story (with wizards and dragons, etc) than the others. Another weakness is that there are parts of the plot that don’t seem to have been fully explained.

But the animation is still classic Ghibli, while the characters are interesting and the story is engaging.

There are also some great spiritual bridges. But let’s talk about the story itself first.

Tales From Earthsea opens with a storm at sea and two dragons doing battle. We soon learn that this is a bad omen, a sign that something is wrong with the “balance” of world. Soon after, we meet the main character, Arren, who in his first appearance kills his father, the king. After murdering his father, Arren is on the run. He meets up with Sparrowhawk the Archmage, and ends up accompanying him on his journey.

Sparrowhawk, as it turns out, is searching for the cause of the disturbance in the balance. What we eventually find out is that the very thing causing the darkness within Arren, and from which he is running, is the cause of the disturbance: Lord Cob, an evil wizard searching for the key to eternal life.

The other main characters in the story are Tenar, a peasant woman whom Sparrowhawk has known for years, and a young girl named Therru, who is cared for by Tenar on her farm. After a run-in with some slave traders, Arren and Sparrowhawk retreat to Tenar’s farm for a few days. The slave traders, who work for Lord Cob, use Tenar to lure Sparrowhawk into a trap. Meanwhile, after an angsty Arren has run away from the farm, Lord Cob manages to capture him.

And this is where the spiritual bridges come in:

Before running away, Arren has a conversation with Therru, to whom he confesses that he killed his father. He talks about the darkness and anger he feels, and how at times he feels like there is “someone else” inside him. What a perfect bridge for talking about our sin nature. In this fallen world, sin comes naturally to us. Outside of Christ, while we still have the freedom to choose, we have something else inside us always drawing us toward sin. Thankfully, because of God’s grace, we can be saved from our sins.

In Earthsea’s mythology, everyone and everything has a “true name”, a secret name. The key to magic is knowing that name and how to use it. I’m told the author of the Earthsea books, Ursula K. Le Guin, is the daughter of an anthropologist, and that this idea of our true names was influenced by a concept found in the belief systems of various tribal peoples (such as the Motilone of Cambodia). As we’ll see, there’s also a Biblical parallel.

As I mentioned above, Cob’s quest is to gain eternal life. He does this by delving into a kind of dark magic that is forbidden, and somehow Arren is a part it. There’s a scene where Cob is manipulating Arren into revealing his true name to him. I can’t help but think about the parallels between that scene and the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden, or of Jesus in the desert. In the film, Cob tempts Arren by trying to convince him that he’ll gain something in return -- eternal life. He preys on Arren’s fear. This is another great bridge to talk about sin and temptation. What looks good and appealing is often the devil in disguise; what we think will bring us life leads to death.

It is through Arren and Therru’s revealing their true names to one another that Arren is saved and Cob is finally defeated. The message here seems to be about being true to yourself -- your true self. The Christian could take this message a step further: it’s only through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that we can truly know ourselves and be the person we were meant to be. There’s an interesting passage in the book of Revelation that reflects this, where Jesus says He will give His followers a “white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). God knows us better than we know ourselves. We’re not really free to be ourselves or live life to the fullest outside of a relationship with Him.

There’s a great quote near the end where Therru says to Arren, “Death isn’t what you fear most -- you’re afraid of being alive!” That’s true of so many of us, I think. We let our fears control us and keep us from truly living life to the fullest. But the Bible tells us that “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). And where else does perfect love come from but God?

The most obvious spiritual bridge, of course, is on the subject of eternal life. In the world of Earthsea, we find out, there is no possibility of eternal life. Instead we should live our only life to the fullest and be true to ourselves, and in doing so find real life. While the Christian would disagree, and say there is indeed eternal life, there’s also a kernel of truth here: It’s not in selfishly grasping for life that we find it, but in giving our lives to something -- someone -- greater than ourselves, someone who gave His life so that we can truly live -- and yes, live eternally, too!

Jesus said “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:24-25)

It’s only in Christ Jesus that we can really know ourselves. It’s only in Him that fear can be driven out of our hearts completely. And it’s only through Him we can truly live.

Arren starts out as a murderer, running from his past -- from himself, really. Eventually he comes to terms with what he’s done and who he is. Tales of Earthsea, while not Ghibli’s best offering, is nevertheless an engaging story of redemption. But even better, it can be used to point the way an even better story of redemption: the true story of the Gospel.


Paul Nethercott said...

Thanks for the great post Robin! Really good to have you as a guest writer. This is really good content --- hard to find anything like it.

Thanks to you too Scot for your editing role!

Roseline said...

Hi, great stuffs here! Thanks!

Had you done anything on Evangelion? Hope to read it!

Paul Nethercott said...

Roseline, thanks for your comment!

A few days ago I borrowed the Evangelion series from a friend. Unfortunately, I only had time to watch the first and the last DVD of the set... but, was deeply impressed. In particular, the way the series ends, by exploring the important questions of life (and death) is awesome.

I hope we can do a post on it sometime.

Thanks again, Paul

Scot Eaton said...

Evangelion seems like the obvious choice for a Spiritual Bridges article, but I don't anticipate ever covering the TV series or "Death and Rebirth". The thing is, most of the spiritual references in the show are deeply rooted in Kabballah and Gnosticism, and are NOT actually Christian. I think the whole thing comes together more as a confused mess than as a coherent worldview that someone can draw bridges from.

That being said, I've been strangely impressed with the Rebuild movies so far, so maybe I'll cover those when they finish in 4-6 years.

yuin-y said...

Ah, Earthsea. I watched this recently. As one who has read the books before, my opinion was that it's not a bad movie, but it could have been a lot better. I felt they tried to merge too much of the different stories together - it was a huge mash of all five books, but with the main storyline coming from the third and fourth books in particular. It looked to me like it would be somewhat confusing to viewers who have never read the books, as certain concepts weren't (and couldn't, given the time constraints of a movie) explained properly.

But that said, I do think that the spiritual points you raised about the show are good ones!