Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Space to Breathe: The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)

Based on Mary Norton’s classic children’s book The Borrowers and adapted for the screen by the great Hayao Miyazaki, the latest film from Studio Ghibli*, The Secret World of Arrietty, is a delight, offering its viewers a gentle sweetness tinged with the slight ache of melancholy.   

After sitting through the energetic trailers for coming children’s films, all advertised as being in 3D and all featuring glossy, computer-generated characters aping for the camera and up to all kinds of hilarity-inducing shenanigans, the first frames of the 2D, beautifully drawn Arrietty came with such a mildness and such a tender, self-effacing beauty that those initial moments were something like stepping out of a car full of excited, screaming children, closing the door on the riot, and walking out onto the grass of a cool-warm spring day – the raucous sounds shut off, and the hum of the bumblebee going about his business and the rustle of leaf on tree enveloping me instead.  Except in this case, in stepping out of the noisy car, my children are quietly with me.  We don’t have to speak to each other – we can be in the stillness together, perhaps stooping to look at a flower or pausing mid-step to let the breeze tickle our faces. 

Of course, all of my family members do laugh at many of the broad jokes and shenanigans of a Kung Fu Panda or a Megamind, but we also love what Arrietty gives us and perhaps we need it more these days.

A Studio Ghibli film always provides something of an alternative pace and a new perspective, and Arrietty gives no less nourishing a provision.  Those familiar with the source material will know that Arrietty is the only daughter of Pod and Homily and that the three are “borrowers,” little people who live secretly near or in the houses of the big people, the human “beans,” as the borrowers call them.  These borrowers take, or, rather, borrow with dignity, only what they need from the humans and do everything they can to remain unknown, aware that even kindly humans can be terribly dangerous.  The film opens as Arrietty is allowed to go with her father on her first borrowing mission—for tissue and a bit of sugar—and we are introduced to the borrowers’ secretly carried out life business and to Arrietty’s keen curiosity and zest for adventure. 

The main tension of the film is, of course, not difficult to predict: the borrowers need to remain hidden, but an eager young borrower resists that need, and the question becomes not “Will the borrowers be discovered?” but “What will happen when they are?”  While this tension carries the story ably along, we are, throughout, nonetheless allowed to rest and to breathe deeply in this world; we are given the time to be fully immersed in its beauty and gentle pathos, without being hustled along by a barrage of gags.
And my children loved Arrietty’s small adventures: her first trip to the vast kitchen; her practice in scaling a cupboard with fishhook and line; her ginger, then confident, steps across the line of high nails, her encounter with a hungry crow.

And my older daughter was particularly taken by the film’s use of sound.  She turned to me at one point, with delighted eyes, saying, “Listen! The clock – it’s how Arrietty hears it.”  And it was.  Small sounds like the soft tick-tocking that the humans hear – or do not hear at all – registered as loud bangs, bongs, rattles, rustles, gurgles, and rushes to the borrowers and by extension to us, viewers and hearers on their journeys with them. 

The central tension, the small adventures, the wonderful sounds – all of these things entranced me as much as they did my children, but it was other small but rich elements of the film that have made it even more lastingly resonant for me: 

Arrietty’s father, a taciturn but clearly kind and loving man, who bears the burden of a sorrow, of a history, or perhaps of an uneasy future, a burden that is never fully told;

 the human boy of the house, who labors too much for breath when he runs and who yearns, but never explicitly so, for his absent parents;

 and the last moments of the film that aren’t quite a happily ever after.  

These things, so full of quiet pathos, flow as an undercurrent to the gentle rhythm of the story and leave me in thoughtfulness.

There is not in this film the neat tidiness, where loose ends are tucked away, where all sadness is banished forever.  The borrowers’ lives will not be substantially different; they are borrowers, and they will always have to scrabble in some way for their subsistence, their little, precious existence, never quite free from fear of the big people.

The film, to be sure, did not make my children sad in the least; their lighted faces and happy skips out of the cinema would deny that, but its story, while a magical fiction about little people, strikes a true chord like the best fairy tales do, reflecting back to me a something that is the real beauty, real vibrancy, and real pain of life. 

*Studio Ghibli is the Japanese studio of such marvelous films as My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and Ponyo, and others.


  1. Glad everyone enjoyed the film, and I actually found myself quite taken with most of it as well. I had a little trouble with the father character, specifically feeling that Arnett's performance just conveyed disconnect rather than some hidden weary pain. Perhaps just a bit too dialed back for my liking. I felt all of the other performances were top notch though, especially Poehler who probably could make a career out of voice acting if she desired.

    I'm glad you brought up the underpinnings of sadness, especially toward the end of the film, because those were the moments that really pushed me over the top. When I was driving home I started breaking them down and felt like they didn't work as well as they could have removed from the moment, if only because Shawn and Arrietty are so removed for so much of the film that their relationship seemed more innate and stock than fully developed, but in the final scene I felt that, with a few more button presses, I'd be full on in tears.

    Sadly there is the voice over toward the end which, even though it implies that all sadness isn't banished, as you so excellently observe, it kind of undercut the greater emotional cues and elements of tragedy (or perhaps ambiguity?) that could have be conveyed either without words or without providing as much resolution.

    I loved how the film conveyed these slow changes though that made the smallest of gestures, thinking back to the final exchange, generate beautiful cathartic release. For me it's the way so much was implied, but justifiably so for the most part, that allowed me to track these huge changes in Arrietty's (and to a lesser extent, Shawn's) life. Combined with the traditional Japanese animation, always refreshing to see on the big screen in the world of CGI animation, these elements were more than enough to allow me to overlook the noticeable faults I found with the film such as the underdeveloped/poorly inserted antagonistic force or the constant separation early on between Shawn and Arrietty. I really can't wait to see this again in the future.

  2. Interesting, your reaction to the father. I think his character worked for me in large part, too, because my own father is very much like that - and he was when I was growing up. He wasn't sad - he just didn't speak much, and he was more of a presence, but one whose presence was always very much felt. So I think I appreciated the dialed back feel - no animated father character has come closer to my own father before. :)

    I can see your point of view in regards to the end - though it was more than enough for me to feel the emotion of it. I loved the moment when Arrietty held onto Shawn's finger. I do agree that the voiceover was not necessary though it didn't bother me as much. I think the credit sequence on the river was enough to return me to the gentle undercurrent of the film if the voiceover jarred at all.

    The antagonistic force - yes, that didn't work as well for me either, but I rather liked the separation between Shawn and Arrietty in the beginning because it reflected to me more of the separation that would always have to undergird their relationship, linking us to those underpinnings of sadness.

    This isn't my favorite Ghibli (that love still goes to Totoro :) ), but it's still for me a wonderful entry into the filmography. And like you, I'm eager to see it again.

  3. Yes, Shawn and Arrietty's relationship is one of those contentious things that many people will discuss after watching the film. On one camp, there are the people who want them to have developed a longer, more substantial relationship. On the other hand, their brief acquaintance sort of works towards the films themes of everything having a quality of impermanence and how important the most fleeting of relationships can still be in an impermanent world.

    This is actually quite a downbeat film--maybe the most downbeat Ghibli film since Pom Poko. Of course, Ghibli's winning artwork and sunny visual exterior masks this aspect of the film, but when you think about where every major character ended up at the end, it's like they all lost something important to them; from Hara's continued lifelong frustration with the Borrowers, to Shawn losing the most meaningful connection to a person he's probably had in a long time, to Arrietty losing her home AND a budding friendship with a friendly "bean".

    I think people brushing this off a "minor" Ghibli is doing it a disservice, because it stands out in very specific ways from the rest of the Ghibli catalogue.

  4. I promise I'll come back and read the full review, but I haven't posted mine yet and don't want to get any ideas messed up. I've had the opportunity to see Arrietty twice (Once in JP and once in ENG) and while I still prefer the Japanese, it was nice seeing the film on 35mm.

    If your interested in more Studio Ghibli films (not sure of your history with them) I did a top 10 best list recently.

  5. BT – Excellent points! Yes, Shawn and Arrietty’s relationship is quite different from what we might expect or want, from an emotional standpoint, but as you say, it illuminates the themes of the film so beautifully that it is, ultimately, I believe, much more satisfying. It is more complex and interesting – and true – than it might otherwise be. And yes, the downbeat nature of the film, as you describe it so well, will not, perhaps, sit so well with some viewers, but it sounds, like me, that you appreciate what it achieves as much as I do. I do hope that it is not relegated to a “minor Ghibli”; the gentleness of it and pathos of it might tempt some to put it there, but with you, I believe it is as great and unique an entry into catalogue as any of the others.

    Max – I’ll be interested to read your review – please come back and post a link here in the comments when you finish! I’ll check out your top 10 list, too; I’ve seen most (I believe) of the Ghibli films and have loved all of them – wonderful stories, each of them, in different ways.