~ by Rebecca Fisher
It seems fitting that we began Miyazaki May (now Miyazaki July) with the dark and epic Princess Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and now finish with the light and poignant The Secret World of Arrietty. They make for good bookends in regards to their distinct tones, and yet are unified by their protagonists: two inquisitive, daring, friendly and compassionate heroines. And as an added coincidence, they’re both red-heads!
Granted, Hayao Miyazaki did not direct Arrietty, passing the torch instead to Yonebayashi Hiromasa, but his influence on the film and screenplay is obvious. As ever, it captures his interest in detailed world-building, in depictions of warm family life and in the wonder of the everyday world. The story that isn’t afraid to unfold at a mild pace, taking its time as it establishes the mood, characters and setting, and which foregoes a complex plot for a very simple tale of transition and friendship, is also characteristic Miyazaki.
As they did with Diana Wynne Jones, Studio Ghibli once again turns to a prolific British author for inspiration, this time in adapting one of the most quintessentially English stories of all time: Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, first published in 1952.
But unlike Howl’s Moving Castle, which at least keeps the book’s British setting (albeit in an alternative steampunk-hedged universe), The Secret World of Arrietty is transposed into modern-day Japan. Gone is the book’s framing device that calls into question whether or not the narrator’s story of the Borrowers is actually true, for instead the film introduces Sho, a young boy brought to his great-aunt’s house to prepare for a heart operation – one that he isn’t expected to survive.
During his stay, he almost immediately becomes aware of others living in the house: tiny people who survive by “borrowing” bits and pieces from the inhabitants. Arrietty is one such Borrower, a teenage girl about four inches tall who lives with her mother and father in the secret spaces under the floorboards and behind the walls.
The Clock family, comprised of Pod, Homily and Arrietty live a quiet life behind the walls of the house, taking only what they need from its inhabitants. As the breadwinner, it falls to Pod to make nightly excursions to the outside world to provide for his family, but it’s becoming more apparent that he must soon pass on his skills to his only child. As far as the Clocks know, they are the only three Borrowers left in the world, and Arrietty needs to become self-sufficient if she’s to survive.
But a chance meeting with Sho threatens to expose their secretive little world, especially when the meddling housekeeper Haru begins to realize that her young house-guest is hiding something. If there’s one thing a Borrower must never do, it is be seen by a “human bean” and soon the Clock family are making plans to flee the house entirely. Could it be that there are more Borrowers out there?
The film takes several departures from Mary Norton’s book, and sadly many of the charming details of her story have been exorcised, such as Arrietty’s defence of how the Borrowers don’t steal, but simply borrow, and her astonishment in learning about the Earth’s massive population (having been led to believe all her life that humans exist solely to provide for Borrowers).
Yet Studio Ghibli adds plenty of its own magic to compensate, revelling in the challenge it sets for itself in exploring how tiny people might navigate and negotiate a giant house.
The first time Arrietty sets foot in the kitchen, the film conveys its intense vastness to a girl her size: the soft echoes, the frightening heights, the loud ticking of a clock, and the immensity of space that lies between the bench, the floor and the tabletop. The attention to detail given to perspective and spatial relationships leads to some of the film’s most innovative scenes, such as the perspective shift between Sho and Arrietty as the latter hitches a ride on the former’s shoulder. For Sho it’s a casual walk across the room, for Arrietty it’s a hurtling journey that makes her hair lift from her shoulders.
In many ways Arrietty is a quintessential tomboy, one who scampers about the house, wields a tiny pin for a sword, and relishes any adventure that comes her way, but at the same time she’s decidedly feminine – always garbed in a pretty skirt or dress, and scrupulously checking her hair every time she scoops it up out of her face with a tiny butterfly clip.
Far from the portly and fastidious figure in Norton’s book, Arrietty’s father Pod is portrayed as strong and manly, though her mother Homily remains more faithful to Norton’s worrisome and rather excitable woman.
The human characters (or “human beans”) are not as well-realized as the Borrowers, mainly serving as an audience stand-in when it comes to interacting with the little people. (Who would you be – a Sho who respects their autonomy, or a Haru, who immediately seeks to exploit them?)
There are a number of options when it comes to the voice actors; not only the original Japanese cast, but also an English and an American dub. Unsurprisingly, I prefer the British cast. They’re far more in keeping with the original book, and include such talents as Mark Strong, Olivia Coleman, Saoirse Ronan and Geraldine McEwan.
It’s always hard to know how a child will react to a film such as this, especially since children’s films these days are so relentlessly hyperactive. There’s no telling how an average five-to-ten year old will respond to the slow pace and non-eventful storyline here, especially sense the film foregoes the usual beginning/middle/end format of traditional Western films in order to tell a story that plays out more like a slice of life; a transitional phase that concludes on a very open-ended note – you may even be surprised when the credits start rolling.
And so ends our Miyazaki Film Appreciation Month(s). It’s been a lot of fun revisiting these films and enjoying the characters, storylines and artistry all over again, but my biggest hope is that readers have discovered something that they might otherwise never have come across.
What do you get if you cross Bruce Wayne’s millions, with Robin Hood’s bow prowess, with Robinson Crusoe’s stint on a deserted island? If you don’t know the answer, you’ll just have to tune in next time.
About The Reviewer:
To read Rebecca’s detailed introduction of both herself and the series, as well as preceding reviews, click on: