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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,├é┬áHiromasa 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.