Wednesday, June 21, 2006

At the Risk of Offending Ursula K. Le Guin and Studio Ghibli Fans...

...neither of which I personally am*, can I just ask why, in light of the furor that met the Sci Fi Channel's decision to cast their version of Earthsea with white leads, hasn't there been a similar uproar at Studio Ghibli's decision to do the same?

I mean, hell, even the Sci Fi Channel cast Danny Glover as Ogion.

* For, interestingly enough, roughly the same reasons. I admire the craftsmanship in both Le Guin's novels and Hayao Miyazki's films, but find both sadly lacking in humor, appealing characters, or a coherent plot. Both novels and films are very beautiful, but offer me nothing to hold on to.

16 comments:

Greg G said...

I'm not sure Ged is white in that preview. Can't remember what happens in the last two books - could the other characters be Kargish?

It does look like Goro Miyazaki is pretty much apeing his dad though... which may be why his dad didn't want him doing this.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not sure Ged is white in that preview.

I was on the fence on that too for a while, but in several shots his hair is obviously brown, not black, and the rest of the characters are clearly caucasian.

Can't remember what happens in the last two books - could the other characters be Kargish?

I haven't, to be perfectly honest, read the entire Earthsea series, and my memories of what I have read are faint, but I remember a lot of noise around the time that the Sci Fi Channel's version came out in which it was repeatedly stated that most of the characters (certainly the good guys) were supposed to be non-caucasians.

It does look like Goro Miyazaki is pretty much apeing his dad though

True. I was sure that the film was being made by the father when I watched the trailer, but some vague memory of having heard otherwise sent me to the IMDb to make sure.

Anonymous said...

I assume most folks are waiting for more footage to make a call, but I know in my household we were MORE dismayed with this development than with the Sci-Fi descision, mostly because we were hoping the animated version would rectify some of the decisions made in the miniseries.

Apparently it's been quite a controversy in some Miyazaki fan groups, and we'll probably hear more about it when the movie comes out. Big disappointment for me though. :(

ca said...

Ack! No, the only white character, really, is Tenar/Arha (and her supporting cast in Tombs of Atuan). This is terrible. I still remember how cool it was when it dawned on me (she does this in a masterful way) while reading those books that, in fact, all the heroes are dark-skinned.

Abigail, I love Tombs of Atuan, and if you were to give the Earthsea books another try, I'd start there. And possibly end there, too (I love all the others, but Tombs is the only one that I would actually recommend to others.)

Oh, I'm distressed about what you say about Miyazaki, though... have you seen Spirited Away? It is quite possibly my favorite movie ever. I do think it has quite a bit of humor as well as appealing characters, actually. Um... not so much for the coherent plot. A friend described it as like "a really good dream." It has that sort of neat although incomprehensible dream-logic that somehow makes sense to me within the movie, even though it doesn't make any sense when looked at from the outside.

I do have to say that I don't find his other movies all that engaging for the reasons you give, even Howl's Moving Castle, which I was expecting to really like, as the book is chock-full of humor, characters, and plot. Somehow these all got lost in transition to the movie.

(This reminds me-- not at all the subject of this post, but I just finished watching Season 1 of Veronica Mars, and I blame you in large part for my new TV addiction.)

Abigail's Mom said...

My sister and I first read Ursula Le Guin when we were Abigail's age [oh so many moons ago] and loved her -- just one of the many times mine and Abigail's tastes in books differ.

My favorite still remains The Left Hand of Darkness, but I can also heartily recommend her non-SF short story collections like Orsinian Tales.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I have seen Spirited Away, ca, and thought it was made up of stunningly beautiful (and, on occasion, quite funny) pieces that didn't come together into much of a whole. Which is a valid choice and quite entertaining (I like your friend's description of the film as a dream), but as a result the film left very little resonance with me.

I just finished watching Season 1 of Veronica Mars, and I blame you in large part for my new TV addiction.

One down, an indeterminate number to go!

telepresence said...

My Neighbor Totoro is quite simple compared to later works, truly a children's story, but I certainly thought it had humor and appealing characters.

As far as the LeGuin goes... race or racial presentation in anime are a topic so messy and weird, I'm really kind of glad they didn't go there.

chance said...

I find LeGuin's novels similarly unreadable - I always find myself longing for something more and deeper. Her characters are always so flat and cold.

I find her a bit more palatable at the short fiction level.

Greg G said...

"I'm really kind of glad they didn't go there."

They did though - white (even anime "white" which look european to europeans and japanese to japanese) is a choice, not a default.

Fred said...

Regardless of how any of us may feel about Le Guin as individual readers -- I'm a fan and am actually now reading the second book in the series -- the Earthsea characters are very deliberately non-white, and many fans were understandably upset when the Sci-Fi Channel chose to disregard this. Le Guin herself has been rather vocal in her displeasure over the miniseries, so this is a little surprising and all the more disappointing.

I understand that this is first, and maybe foremost, a Japanese film for Japanese audiences, and there just aren't a whole lot of Japanese people with Ged's copper-colored skin. But this seems like a very deliberate and unfortunate choice.

Anonymous said...

Hey there!:)

I admire both of these creators you mentioned. "Spirited Away" is one of my favourite movies and I've read the entire "Earth Sea" series as a child when it came out in Hebrew. I was so effected by the work I recently went through some lengths to buy the Hebrew books and when I lived in Baltimore I sent U.L.G a request for three of her autographs and they are now in these same books. (She still does this btw, check out her website any of ye who wishes to do the same).

And I really could not care less about the movie being made out of it. I'm white, but the "Non-Whitness" of Ged didn't register with my ten year old self at all. Not as a source of conflict anyway. Just like the Christianity of Robin Hood didn't conflict with my Jewishness. I really enjoy the story and the idea that there's a "true language" the world is made with. If the company making the movie belives they can bring more viowers in if the heroes are white, that's fine with me. As long as they don't touch the STORY. ("Ged drinks PEPSI COKE"!:)

Also, I know very little of Anima culture, but in the one book I once read about it they said that in Japanese the word for the Anima world means "Without roots" or something to that effect. It's suppoused to look "Un-Japanese", as an alien, diverse world. Hence the blonde, black, and animale like charecters.

Cheers:

Hagay

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Fred, I think I would have been OK with it if Miyazaki had chosen to draw the characters as Japanese, for exactly the reasons you cite (I was actually a little surprised at his father's decision not to do so in Howl's Moving Castle, and assumed that he had chosen to remain faithful to his source material). What he seems to have done, however, is draw caucasian characters, which makes no sense however you slice it.

Hagay:

the "Non-Whitness" of Ged didn't register with my ten year old self at all. Not as a source of conflict anyway.

Well, of course not. You're white.

Back when the Sci Fi miniseries was released and Le Guin made a fuss over what she called the whitewashing of Earthsea, I read dozens of testimonials by people of color all saying roughly the same thing: that the experience of reading Earthsea and discovering that it was peopled by characters who looked like them - something that they had never experienced before within the fantasy genre - was a vitally important moment in their development as readers and genre fans. You and I don't have a corresponding frame of reference (and no, being Jewish doesn't count, not when we've both lived our lives as part of a religious majority).

That said, one shouldn't have to be a person of color to be offended by what the Sci Fi Channel and, apparently, Studio Ghibli, are saying by making the Earthsea characters white - that they want white people's money, and that they don't believe white people will watch a film about non-white people.

Daryl McCullough said...

I love Studio Ghibli, generally, and I think that the incoherent plots are part of the attraction. In the typical American animated movie, there is a clear good-guy versus bad-guy distinction, and there is an unbridgeable gap between these two poles. In contrast, good and evil are much more fluid in Miyazaki films. Even the most evil characters can sometimes do good and characters who are evil and scary can morph with time into good guys.

I much prefer that fluidity over the rigid roles of American cartoons.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree that American animated films tend to feature a stark moral division, Daryl, and I'll take your word for it that Miyazaki's films don't (those I've seen don't seem to have dealt very strongly with morality at all, which is refreshing in and of itself). I'm not convinced, however, that this moral complexity must necessarily come at the cost of a coherent plot - certainly that's not the case with live-action films.

Dotan said...

Yep, Le Guin doesn't do humor; she does "stately dignity and wisdom" pretty wonderfuly, though. She still has that tone on her website - other writers can be friendly and chatty, but Le Guin online voice is that of a sagacious elder.

I was awfuly impressed by this when I first read her (I read The Language of the Night, her collection of essays, after the Earthsea trilogy but before any of her other novels; perhaps that had something to do with my impressions). This is a writer who can get you to go along with the idea that her fantasy and science fiction works are not escapist adventures but spiritual reflections suffused with taoist wisdom.

I suspect that a big problem with Le Guin's later works comes precisely because her usual sage style actively works against her insistance on "human" protagonists.

The early, literary motive for this insistance is laid out in her essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown", collected in Language of the Night, where Le Guin talks about whether SF and Fantasy ever achieved the goal Virginia Wolfe set for fiction, that of being capable of creating a real human protagonist, a "Mrs. Brown"; add to this her growing femenist awareness, from the early essay "SF and the Other" to her modern, more ideological approach, which questions the underlying cultural assumptions of her earlier adventure stories. I think it is very important for Le Guin that her protagonists should not be traditional "heroes", ordinary rather than remarkable people, "common humanity":
It is a very delibrate choice to make the protagonist of her two later Earthsea books a middle-aged peasant woman rather than a young male (or even a female in the traditional male hero role).

But to engage the reader with a protagonist that isn't central, active and dynamic, the writer needs to be able to make that character an engaging, human person: humor is a terrific tool for humanizing a character; so is anything which involves us in the mundane details of their life. But this doesn't work that well in a narrative involving Dragons, magic and the cosmic balance, told in the wise voice of a recording angel.

It is worth noting that The Other Wind actually had me amused, which no earlier Earthsea book did. I think the funny was in the segments with the King and the Kargish princess, which also have some wince-inducing anti-Burqah polemicizing. But humorous romantic fantasy isn't really what I read Le Guin for.

About the race and skin color thing, I recall Le Guin saying she would have been happy if the SciFi channel production had used Native American actors who had appeared in other Hallmark productions; Ged and co. aren't European, but I think they are more Polynesian than African. Also, I think they have fair hair (and dark skin). So, you could bend over backwards and say that brown hair is OK and that they are Manga-colored (though the trailer had a woman that looks Gypsy or Arab, which makes everyone else look white European again).

Anonymous said...

I think that the characters are Japanese. I think they look white because that's how anime people draw Japanese people, kind of like with Princess Mononoke. I think that the race of the characters shouldn't really matter though. Let the characters transcend race.

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