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Secret World of Arrietty Notes

I finally got to the theater last weekend to see Arrietty. Planning on reviewing it properly after I see it a second time, but figured I’d jot down a few notes in the meanwhile.

I remember liking The Borrowers as a kid, and having re-read it a little while ago I can see why—it’s thoroughly entertaining even as an adult, with just enough mix of whimsy and practicality to tickle my fancy, and a good sense of pacing and small-scale (ha!) adventure. Being written a long time ago, and set around the turn of the prior century, it’s also got some great old-fashioned flavor, both in the mechanics and dialogue.

Arrietty the movie isn’t really a direct adaptation. The basic framework is the same—strong-willed teenaged tiny person named Arrietty and her parents live under a rich old lady’s house, and when a sickly boy comes to convalesce, she gets spotted by him and develops something of a relationship. Past that, very little—the setting is modern Japan, the boy is older and sicker, the particulars and large-scale stuff in the plot is different, as is most of the endgame. Even the relationship is quite a bit different; in the book, Arrietty is a few years older than the 9-year-old boy, and somewhat more confident.

The movie versions are the same age, which adds a very subtle undercurrent of potential romance, and it’s the thinking-too-much-about-death boy with the existential crisis, rather than Arrietty, who in the book is afraid that the Borrowers are a dying race and both awed and terrified of the incredible scale of the world outside her basement world. (That last part I really, really liked in the book—it acts as an incisive metaphor for a human who’s been living in the here-and-now having their eyes opened by science to the incredible scale of the universe; there’s a chance this was intentional given that the book was being written right around the period when science was broadening the horizons of what was known rapidly. I missed that in the movie, but it’s not a real complaint, since I can see how it didn’t fit with the differing narrative)

So the movie isn’t the book, but unlike some things I can say that about, that’s not really a bad thing. It has its own story to tell, an even more narrow focus on that story, and it does a wonderfully entertaining job of it. One of the reasons I want to see it again is that I want to watch it without unconsciously looking for where it lined up—or didn’t—with the novel. It’s easy to think “watch it as its own thing,” but it’s pretty much impossible to make yourself actually do that in the space of 90 minutes in the theater. (Give me a few episodes of a TV show, then I can get past comparisons.)

The film isn’t directed by Miyazaki, but he did do the screenplay. Which has to me become something close to a liability; as a director and visual storyteller, Miyazaki is a genius of the medium, but both Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo worked so hard to dump an epic framework on top of a small-scale adventure that it was sort of painful to watch. And, while I love happy endings, both of those made that forced epic-ness seem cheap and shallow with ridiculously simplified conclusions.

Arrietty does not do any of those things. It is a tiny adventure made grand simply by how tiny it is, not any sort of artificial inflation, and the ending is bittersweet and in no way overly tidy—if anything, a little too much so. Finally Miyazaki is back to his Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service form, doing no more and no less than the story requires, with admirable focus and an abundance of heart and spirit.

As for the actual director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi has been an animator for Ghibli for years, but this is his first time at the helm, and he does a great job with the reins. Because of what the story is about—the adventure everyday objects become from the perspective of tiny people—his intense focus on the visuals, and the sense of motion and scale, works perfectly here.

Now, let’s face it—if it’s a Ghibli film, you pretty much know it’s going to be gorgeous. And when the list of assistant animation studios includes BONES, GAINAX, Gonzo, and Madhouse… yikes. Interestingly, unlike Ponyo, Arrietty is not a particularly “lively” movie—there’s a deliberateness to the action, and much of the incredible beauty of the movie comes from the texture of microscopic objects, the perspective on them, as well as light and color. None of which is a bad thing—it works perfectly, and is perfectly beautiful in its own unusual way. I’d expect no less, really—if anybody can turn the crawlspace under a house into art, it’s Ghibli.

What I liked most about the art, though, was the realism in the scale. Most notably, when the Borrowers pour liquids, the surface tension behaves properly, so the tea comes out in giant drops, not a stream—the only thing I can ever remember getting that right was A Bug’s Life. Which seems appropriate, since Pixar is about as close as the US has to Ghibli. It also occasionally does good things with switching perspective between tiny person and large one, with the previously-normal motions suddenly becoming huge, slow, and ponderous from the perspective of a Borrower—great stuff. The only realistic thing it didn’t do—which the book, shockingly, got exactly right from a physics standpoint—was show Arrietty’s voice as being very high-pitched when heard from a distance by the boy. Which I can forgive, since it’d have been hard to pull off.

Speaking of voices, Disney’s dub is good; Arrietty and her parents are both cast and acted perfectly, and the boy’s casting is also spot-on, with a subdued, deflated delivery that fits his illness and onscreen manner. My only complaint is that he’s so flat that he occasionally comes across as a little stiff, but that’s minor. Well, that, and they seem to go out of their way to pronounce the T in Arrietty, which sounds a bit artificial for no particular reason.

My one other complaint—not shared by Akemi, I might add—was a minor one about the story when viewed as pure narrative structure. This is something of a spoiler, so you know. From an abstracted standpoint, we had in the past Borrowers who were seen by the humans of the house; the humans tried to help by building a perfect dollhouse for them to use, but the Borrowers fled, never to be seen again, and the humans were terribly disappointed. A generation later, the son of the human comes to the house and spots the remaining Borrowers, and again tries to befriend them. Unlike before, the headstrong Arrietty does not flee, but instead tries to befriend him.

The issue is that, as it plays out, they still leave (and were planning on it before things went south with the help, the movie’s villain), without ever taking any advantage of the boy’s kindness. So instead of closing the narrative loop, so to speak—with the boy following through on what his parent failed to—things turn out more or less exactly as they did before, with a bit more understanding. Now, a happy, “we live in the fancy dollhouse now” ending wouldn’t have gone well with the general feel of the movie, so that’s fine. It’s just that they set up a narrative closure to happen, then didn’t close it. Made a bit worse by the fact that, as the plot ended up, there really wasn’t any reason other than misunderstanding for them not to do that—at least until the old lady died some day, there was absolutely nobody in the house who was going to do them harm now, the people there already knew they existed, and there wasn’t any sort of connection established with the Borrowers elsewhere (or even Arrietty’s parents wanting her to meet other people) to make them want to leave.

This is an interesting contrast with the book. The book never set up that narrative callback to begin with. And even if it had, in the book, things do go well for a while, as the Borrowers accept the boy’s kindness, and enjoy it. Then when things go bad, there is a very good reason for them to leave, permanently. There’s even a stronger connection established with the Borrowers they’re going to—they’re family, and have exchanged some (very) brief letters previously.

That said, this is a pretty minor nitpick, and others probably won’t notice or will feel that it did what it should have. It just struck me, personally, since I was analyzing it.

Last thought: The movie is very adventurous, but it’s interesting that it has a definite sense of melancholy throughout. From relatively early on, Arrietty’s parents are planning on abandoning their home, and it’s obvious to everybody involved that Arrietty and Sean/Shou (the boy) won’t ever have the opportunity for a long-term relationship, friendly or otherwise. The finale, as advertised, involves them escaping their happy home to somewhere far away and unknown; I won’t exactly call it sad, but it’s certainly melancholy and feels rather heavy. None of which are a bad thing, but for a movie of such whimsy it’s interesting that it feels heavier than most Ghibli films, particularly at the end. Or maybe I’m just sappy.

In any case, it’s nice after a couple of “Yes it’s beautiful and all, but…” Ghibli films, where the artistry was covering up for the plot, to have one I can say almost entirely good things about. I can’t quite call it a Kiki’s Delivery Service or Whisper of the Heart-scale triumph, and it’s not a Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke masterpiece, but I’m pretty confident in years to come it’ll be counted among Ghibli’s greats, and deservedly so.

Hey, you know what I want to see? A Borrowers anime TV series. Put even a half-decent writer on it, have, say, BONES or Brain’s Base animate it, and you’d have something worth a dozen or two episodes.

Please Teacher Notes

Please Teacher is one of those series that I remember being popular (or at least well-known) years back, but sounded so uninteresting that I completely ignored it. Recently, a friend added it to our playlist because it was on sale and he was wondering if the hubbub was justified. Answer: I can see why it was popular and/or why it stood out from the crowd, but boy is this a mess of a fanboy romance.

The sad part is that a lot of the characters and concepts are appealing to me. The concept is an unlikely but genuine romance between a high school student with a weird disorder (Kei) who accidentally ends up married to his teacher (Mizuho, though he never calls her anything but “Sensei”). Kei’s group of friends includes a quiet girl with legitimate problems, a straightforward friend in understated romantic competition, and an awkward but substantive romance between two other friends. Even the main guy’s random problem is passably interesting—his mind and body freeze up in the face of emotional stress.

It really seems like I should like the series—unlikely romance is my favorite type. It’s even a good emotional hook to have the main character being “out of synch” on account of essentially having been in a coma for 3 years, which he hides in order to live normally as the age he appears and thinks, but technically isn’t. Interesting in part because he’s decided instead of whining (the usual anime solution) he’s going to face it head-on and vows to keep moving forward in life, no matter what. Heck, even the backstory, which it doesn’t bother to even hint at until a weird info-dump in the next-to-last episode, has some good dramatic punch—certainly reason enough for Kei to be seriously messed up. (Frankly, more messed-up than he is, which you never get to credit him for as a character, since you don’t know about it.)

I can see why people would take note of the show—it deviates widely from the norm in the anime romance department, to be sure.

Most notably, it actually goes somewhere with the romance—both the main couple and the secondary one spend time together as couples, gradually deepen their relationships, and even have actual (offscreen) sex, which you pretty much never see in these high school romantic comedies. Heck, the final montage even has Kei admiring his wife’s backside in the bath, with neither blushing nor violence—I can’t think of that ever happening in anime.

The problem is that the execution is a disaster if you care even slightly about logic and character development. The most obvious botches are that the character logic stops making any sense when it tries to up the drama in the last few episodes—it’s like the writers had a list of things that were supposed to happen, but absolutely no idea how to get them to occur. So, they just made the characters do and say things that make no internal sense, even by the already low standards of the genre.

Yes, they’re 15/16-year-olds, and teenagers are stupid, but they’re not that stupid, and even that excuse isn’t available after hammering away for almost the entire series about how Kei is mature enough to pull off a genuine marriage to an adult. Honestly, all three of us in the room when I watched it were smacking our foreheads in dismay and trying to come up with excuses to do anything but laugh at the embarrassing writing.

And then there’s the big next-to-last episode plot twist. It’s bad enough that the show didn’t bother to bring out Kei’s actual emotional hook until then—backstory dramatic enough that you might have been willing to forgive his being a simpering loser who develops some cheesy spine. And then it pulls a ridiculous, large-scale targeted amnesia twist in the last episode. I don’t know which is worse—the pathetically contrived attempt to set up a final re-committment, or that they only did anything with it for three quarters of an episode, and even then didn’t ham it up enough for it to feel like Kei was hurting inside.

Incidentally, Kei is also a terrible son—big spoiler here, but if you think about his backstory, his parents lost their daughter and their son was in a coma for 3 years, and as soon as he wakes up he abandons them to go live with an uncle and aunt because going back to school near home would be awkward. Yeah, real sensitive. We don’t even get an offhanded mention of them. Nor did he invite them to the wedding, or, so far as I can remember, even call them to tell them he got married.

The main couple in general are the series’ biggest liability.

I admit, the secondary romance is actually pretty appealing—it caught me entirely off guard for both how forthright it was and that the characters involved—the loudmouthed class clown and the meek friend—aren’t the sort who usually get any romantic drama. Even the friend who’s competing for Kei’s attention makes sense internally and acts in a relatively realistic, emotionally effective way—remarkably reserved for both the genre and this show.

The main couple, however, are paint-by-numbers fanboy fodder. Kei has interesting backstory but only slightly more personality than a simpering plushie—he’s so obviously a stand-in for the male viewer it’s pathetic. And the titular Teacher is even worse—she has absolutely no backstory or personality whatsoever, other than “alien half-breed” and “pleasant.” They do have a little chemistry, but only because they’re both paper thin and generically cute and shy. The whole “she’s an alien” thing is particularly pointless—apparently “wears glasses” and “mature” didn’t meet the quota of random fanboy fetish categories.

It’s pretty annoying when several secondary characters are far more interesting than the leads, even more so when at least one—the short, without-affect friend—gets some interesting backstory but almost no real follow-through. That added insult to injury after the incoherent stuff the screenplay forces her to do.

Don’t even get me started on the alien sub-plot: “well, she doesn’t actually have any personality, and we need a mascot, so let’s maker her an alien and give her a stupid little ship AI to make cloying noises or something.” Or that she uses the series’ catchphrase—”this is priority one” or some similar nonsense—incessantly. Or that the main couple have lived together for moths and are sleeping together, in the Biblical sense, but he still calls her “Sensei” and she addresses him like he’s a student, with -kun. Even Kyousuke in KOR wasn’t that bad. It’s obviously just to fulfill the teacher fetish, which is the point of the whole thing, but it sounds particularly absurd in some of the big romantic bits when he’s shouting “Sensei! Sensei! Sensei!”

I also liked that they show us that the aliens have the technology to precision mind-wipe an entire school to remove a single person from their memory while leaving everything else intact, yet in the first episode, when their observer is accidentally spotted while landing, the only solution she can think of is to ask him not to mention it, and then marry him when that doesn’t work. Admittedly, based on our sample, they’re all idiots and their technology is, as advertised, completely incompetent, but that’s a plot hole the show almost literally flies a spaceship through.

So far as I can tell, the whole show basically runs on Kikuko Inoue being the voice of the teacher. Combined with the attractive, cute-but-mature character design, her honey-sweet voice is so incredibly pleasant and likable that you’re almost willing to forgive the fact that the character she’s working with is essentially a tarted-up brick, and the script sounds like a badly-written dating sim.

That helped a lot, but the only thing I ended up caring about wer the secondary characters. The humor also would have been a total wash if it wasn’t for Kei’s uncle and aunt, who are offhandedly hilarious when they’re onscreen. Which isn’t nearly often enough. Heck, they’re funny enough to make you buy some of the preposterous situation comedy (or the whole marriage of convenience premise).

I did note two interesting parallels:

One is with Toradora. It’s also a series about a group of friends who develop substantive romantic relationships and have more personality than they seem to on the surface. Except everywhere Please Teacher goes bobbing for fanservice Toradora does something emotionally substantive, and where the former does ridiculously out-of-character things to force the plot along the later gets you to believe that caricatures are real people inside. The only functional similarity ends up being actual long-term romantic commitment.

The other is Strawberry Panic, which is a surprisingly similar series given how different the story is. Both have concepts and characters that sound interesting in theory, both have actual romantic plot progression and physical relationships, both save the backstory until it’s too late to make you care about the characters, both bungle the overall narrative arc, and both do completely incoherent things with the characters to get them where the writers want them. Heck, both even have the same preposterous plot twist at the same inappropriate point—they both do a random, laser-targeted amnesia drama-bomb in the last few episodes that is quickly reversed to supply a cheap-thrill romantic finale.

Bottom line is that I’ll give Please Teacher ample credit for doing unusual things with high-school romantic comedy, and having some likable and/or funny characters, but the execution is otherwise embarrassingly bad, and it feels like what it is—twelve-plus-one episodes of Hot for Teacher fanboy-fodder. (There, I finally worked in my Van Halen reference.)

Gravion Zwei Impressions

Three episodes in, Gravion Zwei is a huge improvement over the original Gravion. The question I’m left asking is why, and can it keep it up.

Just as Gravion was either a parody so badly-executed it wasn’t obvious it was a parody, or an action-comedy so over-the-top-awful it was entertaining, Zwei has me choosing between two similar options:  Either they hugely upped their game in the parody area, making Zwei actually amusing, or somebody decided that the original was so irredeemably awful they could salvage it by converting it to an over-the-top parody of itself in the sequel.

Either way, it’s a heck of a lot funnier so far, and is no longer pretending to be even remotely serious—the humor went from merely silly to so over-the-top that it’s barely coherent. The fairly mean-spirited sense of humor is working much better for me, and some of the goofy things they’re doing with the main characters are far enough overboard to make some tired mecha-parody gags funny. The best is a throwaway joke with the all-business prettyboy pilot doing a completely pointless mecha transformation scene in picnic dress with the mascot ferret on his head—the ferret is doing the dramatic pose along with him. The upskirt shot on a maid at the start that turns out to be the main character in drag was appealingly backhanded, and even the hotsprings episode focused more on ridiculous slapstick than fanservice. Oh, and it also features the supporting cast ordered to sing the mecha’s theme song as karaoke to back up the battle—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the in-character-singing thing played quite like that before, and it had me laughing pretty hard.

Speaking of fanservice, that’s also been ratcheted up about three notches. Before there was lots of maid-service, and a modest amount of panty shots, but it was actually unexpectedly clean given the costume pandering that the entire hero organization is based on—if nothing else, no “naughty bits” made it to the screen. The sequel does not seem to have any of that restraint—not voluminous, but there are nipples to be found, and the already ridiculously-busty pilot has had her bra size increased to “oh, that’s just silly” and some kind of spring mechanism installed that causes her chest to oscillate violently (sometimes with sound effects) every time she changes position. The hardbodied male leads also ended up even nakeder than the women, and there were some exposed backsides there as well, so it’s even spreading the skin between genders. Some of it is so overkill that it’s actually funny, to its credit, and in my opinion if you’re going to do shameless fanservice you might as well not hold anything back, so even if I was taking it “seriously” I’d call it an upgrade. It’s still got nothing on Godannar, though—yikes that show had the bounce factor.

Sadly, the pedo-maid trio have been explicitly labeled as kids, so the possibility of them being just uncomfortably young-looking rather than wildly inappropriate went out the window. Anime, would you please stop doing things that should be horrifying to any sane adult? I promise I won’t make fun of natto, and I’ll even let tentacle porn slide if you’ll just draw a line somewhere on the right side of puberty.

Final thought: The one regular military pilot that didn’t die after two seconds onscreen in Gravion actually survives (despite indications to the contrary in the final episode) as part of their own new not-entirely-incompetent mecha team, which I was happy to see. The female member of said team in the hotsprings episode has one of the most over-the-top-detailed costumes I can think of outside Oh My Goddess, and her work uniform is only slightly less detailed (and even skimpier).  I go for that kind of design, even if it makes no functional sense most of the time.  The regular army still has no maids, though—no wonder they keep getting blown up ignominiously.