By Anna Arnman.
Arrietty is Studio Ghibli’s latest film, based on Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers from 1952. Arrietty belongs to the four-inch tall Clock family who lives anonymously in another, ‘big’, family’s residence and their home is a collection of things they have borrowed from the big world. Arrietty is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi who worked as an animator on Ghibli classics like Spirited Away, Howl´s Moving Castle and Ponyo. The screenplay is written by Studio Ghibli’s leading man, Hayao Miyazaki, who also stands as executive producer for the film. The Japanese title translates as ‘Arrietty and the Borrowers’. Mary Norton’s classic children’s books have been made into several TV-series of which John Henderson’s The Borrowers from 1992-93 is the most successful, but there has only been one film, Peter Hewitt’s The Borrowers from 1997.
Arrietty is set in a Tokyo suburb, even though the people, as almost always in the Japanese animated film, doesn´t look very Japanese. The narrative is elegant and floats freely, even if the style is almost too polished and impersonal. Mary Norton´s novel is a very British product and even though the film from 1997 is set in America, the borrowers remain British. It is, then, a bit strange, but also refreshing to see this setting, even though it is a rather westernized version of Japan.
One of the most fascinating things with these books and films is the way the borrowers take things from the ordinary world to make use of in their tiny little miniature home. It is also exiting to see our own world from the little people’s perspective. It makes you see your own world with new eyes and how you can make creative use of everything from needles, to corks, old wrapping paper or fragments of glass. This is actually rather disappointing in this version because most of the stuff in the Clock family’s home are already miniature things. It is as if it were made especially for them, or borrowed from someone´s dollhouse. Outside there are so many things that could emphasize the size difference in various fantastic ways, such as larger animals, but we see mostly grass and bushes, which is not that fascinating. I miss the creative use of material things and the imaginative world of the borrowers and wonder if it has something to do with the fact that it´s an animated film. Everything here is ‘constructed’ and the difference between the real and the miniature world seems minimized. This is surprising since Studio Ghibli is known for their very imaginative, fantastic and exiting settings in films like Howl´s Moving Castle and Spirited Away.
Arrietty is a brave girl who follows her father on his expeditions borrowing things. The father is a very resolute, uncommunicative and dominant man in this film. The mother is, as in the books and earlier film, very anxious and uneasy. The father has played a big part in the story in previous adaptations, portrayed by actors like Ian Holm and John Goodman, but he is here reduced to a sullen and rather boring character, while the mother is annoyingly hysterical, worried that they will be discovered and forced to move. Her fear is justified, though, as the lonely sick boy in the host family, Sho, detects Arrietty and they are then trapped thanks to an evil-minded housekeeper. The mother eventually has to be rescued from a jam can in the pantry.
In the book and earlier films the relationship between Arrietty and the boy of the house is one based on friendship, but Yonebayashi is here rather showing a more passionate affection than that. This gets rather disturbing at times. When she stands in his hand and they look deeply into each other’s eyes, while the music score is playing a love song, it gets almost kinky. I can´t help thinking of King Kong in this scene and it gets even stranger when you think of the fact that she´s only fourteen years old. Arrietty used to be a very strong and independent young girl, but she is here dominated by her father and literally in the hands of the boy.
There is also an almost ecological concern in the film, that we have to preserve disappearing species, as well as a lesson to us not to fear the different, regardless if it´s big or small. These underlying issues could have been more developed as they are here overshadowed by the love story between Arrietty and Sho. The film is otherwise a very well made film that is a pleasure to watch, even though it could have been a bit more creative, fantastic and imaginative.
Anna Arnman is a former editor-in-chief of Film International. She wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.