Second movie in, and I already cheat. The Secret World of Arietty is the most recent Studio Ghibli feature, but it was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Worry not, it still qualifies for Miyazaki March (you can find all Miyazaki related posts HERE in the directory) since Hayao Miyazaki wrote the Arietty script. Phew! Crisis averted!
Highest grossing movie in Japan in 2010, The Secret World of Arietty also marks the directorial debut of one of Studio Ghibli’s youngest directors to date, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Since this is Miyazaki March you may rightfully ask, why I did not include Arietty in my “oh look, other feature films by Ghibli” post which will be on this blog later this month. There are two reasons for this: No. 1 is Miyazaki’s involvement in the film as a writer and producer. No. 2 is its current relevance: Just this past February The Secret World of Arietty was released to US-American theaters (while it hit other international screens already in 2011).
The Secret World of Arietty, also known as The Borrower Arietty, is based on a series of juvenile fantasy novels written by the British authoress Mary Norton, entitled The Borrowers, the first of which appeared in 1952. Apparently, Miyazaki and studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata had thought about adapting the stories for the last 40 years. Talk about perseverance, y’all. So, what do we think of it?
I have mixed feelings about Arrietty. They are admittedly only mixed, because the involvement of Miyazaki makes me hope for another superb movie and this is really just a good one. Good is obviously not bad, but it is also not mind-boggling great. With Miyazaki I feel that there are major league pictures like Mononoke and Spirited Away, and then there are those that are really good, but nowhere near the awesomeness of the aforementioned. The Castle in the Sky is such a movie, or Kiki’s Delivery Service, heck, even My Neighbor Totoro (I can see the mob riling up to throw rocks at me). They are far better than most other Anime, most other animation work in general and honestly most other films overall. They are enjoyable and nice and well made, but they just don’t blow me away by their ambition, their art, their score or their passion. Sadly, Arrietty also does not blow me away on any of these, and if I had to rank it, I would say that it is even inferior to the likes of Totoro, Laputa and Kiki.
The art is beautiful and efficient. The characters, most of all Arrietty and her parents and Haru the old housemaid, are enjoyable and endearing. But my major issue lies with the plot. It doesn’t have much of a plot, is what I’d say. That does not have to be a bad thing per se, it worked very well for Totoro, where there really is only a minor sort of real plot occurring towards the end, but the stakes in Totoro’s mini-plot feel real. In Arrietty, they do not really. Haru is not threatening enough, and the Borrower’s rule to have to leave when seen makes only limited sense. I get it, they are much weaker than full grown humans, but in their particular circumstances they live in a house of people friendly towards them. Even Haru only does what she does because of all the secrecy. This displayed tragedy doesn’t really feel like one, there are no stakes, since there is no real reason to leave other than they themselves decide they should. And that in itself is not only not very exciting, it also seems a little stupid.
Their departure comes in classical Miyazaki style though, in terms of melancholic feelings, with Shō and Arrietty realizing that they have become friends, yet probably won’t see each other ever again and wish each other the best of luck for their very unsure and somewhat scary futures. Open heart surgery and moving to somewhere you do not know? Not so much fun, I guess. That all being said, the whole thing leaves me feel cheated, because I was kinda hoping Arrietty’s parents and Haru would come around and they’d stay and would get along just fine. That doesn’t happen, but the way that it is build up suggested otherwise (at least to me) and thus their sudden departure makes me scratch my head an go “huh?”. And Spiller, the “wild” Borrower we encounter, suffers as a character from it. His inclusion and the solution he represents feel too rushed and forced and not like a solution anyone involved really would like and approve of. And since he is not much more than a representation of this said solution (despite bringing some tribal fantasy to life, it seems) his character falls kinda flat.
The whole thing does not benefit from him being introduced as what we’re supposed to think of as a potential new love interest. Of course it is an intriguing idea to have Arrietty come to terms with the contrast he and his existence represent in contrast to hers and her family’s. But since his character is too flat too arouse my interest, it is a pity that Arrietty’s relationship to Shō does get less time to evolve and be explored on screen. I felt we were missing a few more scenes of them getting to know each other better, understanding each other or ultimately just meet each other eye to eye and not just as Giver and Borrower.
Shō is an interesting character, and an interesting character-choice. Although the film is named after Arrietty, the two of them actually share the virtue of being the lead character, thus making Arriety one of the few Miyazaki/Ghibli movies to have a male lead (which is, admittedly, only half-true since there are quite some of them). And as such he fits into a mold that Miyazaki films in general have created: strong, active female characters who display agency and drive, while the male counterparts are often more passive, held back by diseases or curses, reacting instead of acting. It fits in with the feminist conceptions that Miyazaki brings to his movies and I should not leave it unmentioned that those two sentences I just wrote can of course not convey all the complexity of the issue. Because Shō displays basically all of these characteristics, having a heart condition that leaves him weak, resting a lot, talking in a low voice and generally trying to be pleasant. But herein lies his agency: he does not let himself be defeated by the condition, he seeks contact to Arrietty and her family and he believes that it needs action and conversation to have them peacefully co-exist. Which to him seems like a total no-brainer, and my, do I love him for that.
I feel like my review sounds like I hate on the movie twennyfoseven. I do not. Chillax. All these points are flaws that I perceived when I saw the movie, but I still enjoyed it and thought it was overall really well made. I am delighted by how they play with the difference in scale and have Arrietty and her family repurpose all sorts of tiny things that to them are rather big – or just the right size, depending how you look at it. I was smitten with the character of Homily, Arrietty’s mother, ‘cause girl is hilarious and voices exactly what I thought the whole time: Can’t they just stay there?
Arrietty is actually the kind of movie that makes me confident that Studio Ghibli without Hayao Miyazaki, which will at some point be inevitable, will keep bringing us charming and beautiful features in the future. The direction was good and it gave (most of) the character’s enough depth to make me care for them. And who knows, every once in a while, one of the other directors will hit us with a marvellous gem like Spirited Away.