The Secret Is Out: Arrietty

Many things are much more than meets the eye,

especially little girls.

I’ve been itching to see the latest offering from Studio Ghibli ever since I first saw the advertisements for its North American debut last year. Finally, at long last, I made it to the cinema to take in The Secret World of Arrietty (or Karigurashi no Arrietty) and all I can say is, wow. I was definitely not disappointed.

I'm not the only one who thinks that Borrowers resemble mice...

The story is based on Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers, which I’ve never read, so I can’t say how close the adaptation is. However, I do remember watching the Saturday morning cartoon The Littles, so I kind of understood the gist from the get-go: Arrietty and her parents are miniature people, roughly the size of mice, and they live in the floorboards of a house located in a particularly lush and green area of Tokyo. They survive by “borrowing” things such as cubes of sugar and tissue paper, tiny things that no one would notice if they went missing or not, hence they adopted the moniker of “Borrowers.” It’s very important that none of the “beans” (human beings) ever sees them, because, well, humans are humans. You never know which one might try to catch a Borrower and keep it prisoner, or show it off for money, or dissect it, or do any of the zillions of crappy things that humans in literature and movies are known to do.

One for shoulder, first class, coming right up!

One summer a sick boy named Shō (Shawn in the US version) visits the house his mother grew up in, which is also where Arrietty lives, in order to recuperate. Shortly after his arrival he spies Arrietty, much to her dismay. He tries to befriend her, but her parents warn her that beans bring nothing but trouble. Shō doesn’t give up, however, and though he has the best of intentions, his actions unintentionally draw attention to Arrietty and her family. After a couple of dramatic events take place, Shō teams up with Arrietty in order to make things right.

Imagine a gentle harp playing in the background and you're halfway there.

Oh, Arrietty, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. First of all, the music is stunning. The entire soundtrack is by Celtic musician Cecile Corbel, and while a Japanese film with a Celtic soundtrack doesn’t seem like it would necessarily be a good fit, it’s actually incredible. The vocals are lovely and lilting, and the harp makes the natural setting come alive, especially in the rain scenes where every pluck of the strings mimics a drop of water on the leaves. As a longtime lover of Celtic music, I know that the genre can get a little heavy at times, hearkening back to those 90s Pure Moods compilation CDs. However, the soundtrack to Arrietty is as far from the Celtic clichés as night and day. It would be a gorgeous album on its own, but paired with the film it perfectly enhances this Western tale in an Eastern setting.

"Arrietty, can you handle being the center of attention for 94 minutes?"

Besides the soundtrack, the rest of the movie is equally awesome. The animation is even more excellent than previous Ghibli offerings, displaying beautiful scenery, well-animated characters, and an astonishing attention to detail. (My favourite was the dragonfly wing quill in Arrietty’s study.) As for characters, Arrietty is kind and courageous, and even though her parents slip into the stereotypes of worrisome mother and stoic father, Arrietty is always relatable, as well as enjoyable enough to carry the film on her own merit. In fact, all of the other side characters are more of a framework set up in order for Arrietty to shine, and this she does with gusto. Shō, the other lead, is also easy to relate to, with a gentleness that anyone watching might hope they would display if they ever discovered something as magical as Borrowers in their bedrooms. He makes well-intentioned mistakes, but who doesn’t do that? Besides that, his actions make sense and never jar you out of the story with an eye rolling “Oh no, don’t do that!” moment found in so many movies trying to establish conflict. In fact, the smoothness of everything, story and otherwise, is really quite commendable.

Arrietty perfectly illustrates the face I made as I watched this entire movie: delight and joy.

By this point in my life I’ve seen many, if not most, of Studio Ghibli’s animated films, and I must say that The Secret World of Arrietty is firmly ensconced in my mind as one of the best of them all. Interestingly, this is the first Ghibli movie I’ve watched that was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Hiromasa Yonebayashi directed, though Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay with Keiko Niwa) and I wondered if it would be missing something as a result. I was pleased to discover that Arrietty contains just as much magic and fantastical wonder as any Studio Ghibli film that came before, as well as another positive portrayal of young girls on par with the ones that Miyazaki movies are known for. In some ways this film might be more accessible to a Western audience thanks to its traditional story structure, but that doesn’t lessen its power in the slightest. Studio Ghibli is still creating some of the finest animated movies in the world, and the big secret of The Secret of Arrietty is actually that this unassuming movie about a very little girl will most definitely stand the test of time beside its Ghibli brethren as a wonderful film for all ages.

Rating: ★★★★★ Love this, love her, want the DVD for certain.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. LLJ
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 17:17:47

    Glad you enjoyed it. Many anime fans have been reacting to it in a ho-hum way, but I think they’re just covering their asses until enough people “legitimize” it. (Spirited Away wasn’t considered a Ghibli great by anime fans until it won an Oscar. Pfft!) I think this is as good as any Ghibli out there, and could easily slide up the rankings in time.

    As for other good non-Miyazaki Ghiblis, there are quite a few notable ones. Only Yesterday, directed by Isao Takahata, is a film that’s of highly personal importance to me, which is ironic because when I first saw it, I had a rather tepid reaction to it. But something about it kept pulling me back, and it continued to gain in stature in my eyes as I got older…partly because I began to see what it was trying to do, and partly because it’s a film that doesn’t fully hit you emotionally unless you’re the protagonist’s age or older (it is suggested she is in her late 20s). Unfortunately, Disney has never released this on DVD in North America and it seems like they never will. However, there have been some Ghibli retrospectives running in arthouse theatres across North America recently. Check your city to see if they are showing them.

    Whisper of the Heart is another beautiful film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo (who sadly passed away in the late 90s having only directed 1 film), and is thankfully out on DVD in North America.

    Reply

  2. moritheil
    Mar 08, 2012 @ 00:57:48

    I’m not sure I agree with the scorn LLJ heaps on Spirited Away fence-sitters. Spirited Away was very Japanese, what with its unsubtle environmental themes, use of bridges as world transitions, and pantheon of spirits. Parts of it were so unfamiliar to Western audiences that they may perhaps be forgiven for waiting for experts to confirm that it wasn’t being merely weird, but rather culturally resonant with a culture that happened to be alien to the average Western viewer.

    In short: they didn’t get the references. Since on average, moviegoers can’t necessarily navigate their own culture, it might be setting the bar a bit high to fault them for not being able to properly evaluate something steeped in Japanese culture.

    Reply

  3. LLJ
    Mar 08, 2012 @ 10:51:00

    Actually, I don’t have scorn for *current* Spirited Away fence sitters–I have some personal problems with the film myself, though I do acknowledge that it is a still a great film when all is said and done. My problem is with the flip floppers back in 2001/2002–those people who were afraid to express how they really felt about something for fear of “going against the grain.” After it won the Oscar, those same people who were lukewarm on it were like, “Oh yeah, it’s great, it’s great. A masterpiece.”

    Also, keep in mind, I was criticizing anime fans, not “Western audiences.” Anime fans who are just a little bit more savvy with Japanese culture, or at least accepting of its idiosyncracies, shouldn’t need to be swayed by “experts.” And who’s to say critics or people in the Academy are any more “knowledgeable” than we are? I think there’s been enough evidence that this is not always the case.

    I don’t think this behaviour is limited to Spirited Away either. Most people always need outside “backup” in order to wholeheartedly love ANY kind of film or work of entertainment. And I think it’s sad that so many people have no confidence in their own ability to think for themselves, or even express a wholly personal opinion without the spectre of outside influence.

    I bet if Arrietty won the Oscar next year–and I don’t think it will, if BRAVE gets even a smidgen more critical support than Cars 2–but supposing it DID win, all the people who were saying “Well, Arrietty is far from Ghibli’s best” will then say “Oh yeah, Arrietty’s a masterpiece, a masterpiece.”

    Reply

  4. Miss Pink
    Mar 10, 2012 @ 16:53:17

    @ LLJ: Thank you for the recommendations, especially Only Yesterday. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I’m eager to find anime aimed at an older audience (i.e. folks like me). So I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for that one! And yes, I really did enjoy Arrietty a great deal. Something about it just completely enchanted me, and considering that there was a restless youngster sitting in the row behind me, the fact that I could still be absorbed in the film on the screen is really saying something! Furthermore, I agree with you that people should make their own decisions about whether they like something or not. I don’t even bother reading reviews of films that I know I want to see, and indeed will only browse them if I’m not sure whether I can be bothered to trudge out to the cinema for it. 😉

    @ moritheil: It’s so funny that you bring that up. I remember that I hadn’t even heard of Miyazaki when Spirited Away won the Oscar, and actually I was pissed off because I love Lilo & Stitch so much and I had wanted that one to win! But then I moved in with a roommate who rented Spirited Away, so I decided to watch it. I thought that it was so strange and kept wondering what the heck was going on all the way up until the very end, when everything clicked for me. Suddenly I got it, and actually loved it! I remember telling my roommate, “Oh, okay. I see why it won now.” Then we went out and rented several of his other films. So I’m glad that it received the critical praise of winning an Oscar, as that pretty much introduced me to all the awesomeness of Miyazaki. But I did think that it was super weird at first. 🙂

    Reply

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