Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “Arrietty / Karu-gurashi no Arrietti” (2010)
A charming offering from Studio Ghibli, based loosely on Mary Norton’s novel “The Borrowers”, this film is beautiful yet melancholy with themes of children on the verge of adolescence and a promise of love dashed, and a reconciliation between humans and nature, with all that that might promise, thwarted by ties of family and tradition. Sho is a young boy sent to live in the countryside with his grandmother to rest before major heart surgery, his parents having divorced long ago and with very little time for their son for reasons particular to them. During his stay he learns of a family secret: that the mansion his grandmother inherited from her parents has been host to a family or families of little people no bigger than the proverbial grasshopper’s knee. As it turns out, a tiny family does live below the house: Arrietty and her parents have made a comfortable home and eke out a living taking bits and pieces from the family mansion at night when everyone is asleep. However during her first night foray with her dad Pod, Arrietty is accidentally seen by Sho. Over the next several days, Arrietty and Sho form a friendship but inquisitive housekeeper Haru, spying on Sho, discovers the little people’s home and devises her own scheme to flush them out. Fearful of the human “beans” and their possible intentions towards them, Pod and Arrietty’s mother Homily make arrangements to leave their home and migrate to a new territory where they hope to meet others of their kind.
Let’s get the best and the worst bits out first: The film’s main joys are to be found in the detailed visual backgrounds of lush green nature and an ambient soundtrack of chirping crickets suggesting a late summer atmosphere in which days are hot, humid and often rainy. On the other hand, the musical soundtrack by Breton singer / harpist Cecile Corbel, whose style initially seems appropriate to the film’s whimsical subject and lightly serious scope, is instead loud, intrusive and saccharine. The animation hasn’t significantly advanced since the early days of “Nausicaa and the Valley of Winds” – Arrietty’s dress even flips up a bit to show off her pants – and a brief appearance is made by sinister rats, drawn to evoke the malevolence of the black monsters encountered in the likes of “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”, which turn out to be the film’s red(-eyed) herring. Apart from these self-references, Studio Ghibli thankfully makes no other attempts to butcher motifs from previous works to insert into “Arrietty”.
That said, we can go on with the plot and narrative which skilfully combine beneficent and sinister aspects of both human and Borrower nature: both Sho and the housekeeper Haru are curious about the Borrowers and wish them no harm but whereas Sho desires to help them in their precarious existence on the margins of human activity, Haru wants to keep them as pets and curiosities, perhaps to show off to friends or to treat as a little circus. Sho’s grandmother exemplifies a different attitude: she has long had a doll’s house ready for the Borrowers to accept and we must accept her generosity at face value; but it is possible that she also views the Borrowers as a secret family curiosity, something to pass down to younger people as a weird heirloom. The Borrowers for their part shun contact with humans to the extent that when an opportunity for reconciliation and a better, more mutual understanding is offered to them, they reject it and force Arrietty to bow to family ties and the need to be with others of their kind.
Character development is weak and one-dimensional and the friendship between Arrietty and Sho appears not so deep that Arrietty will necessarily remember the boy. He may well remember her as giving him hope and courage for the future. Arrietty is a typical plucky Miyazaki heroine but the film doesn’t give her much to play on her strengths and parents Pod and Homily play family man and woman stereotypes: the patriarch as physically strong, stoic and whose decision is final, the mother as kitchen-bound, fearful and hysterical. Sho is a quiet, sensitive boy who meekly accepts what Fate dishes out to him and Arrietty, and the elderly, child-like Haru is played for slapstick laughs.
I can’t see much really to recommend “Arrietty” to a family audience: the social conservatism is disheartening and it seems Studio Ghibli has all but given up on hope for young people to question and change their society, be it human or Borrower, in a way that accepts other cultures and points of view as equal and valid as their own. The message seems to be that the Borrowers as a metaphor for First Nations are doomed to die out anyway due to the sheer size of human populations compared to the number of Borrowers left: what a despairing message to leave with young viewers. The future for Arrietty herself looks dismal: settlement in an unknown territory might sound good in the short term but there’s the possibility that her family will find it necessary to uproot itself again and any new friends the girl makes will have to be abandoned and forgotten like Sho. Rootlessness will always be this family’s lot. Marriage to Spiller, a Borrower befriended by Pod, beckons and Arrietty will be expected to settle down to Homily’s level. The treatment of adult women like Homily, Haru, the grandmother and Sho’s unseen mother, however much played for laughs, is cruel to them and to Arrietty’s prospects.