The first thing that strikes you about Studio Ghibli’s latest animation, Arietty is its attention to detail. Early on the film our titular protagonist is taken on her first ever borrowing, an expedition into the humongous house of the ‘human beans’ intended for gathering supplies; during this trip her father stops and slices off small sections of double-sided tape (scccriick) which he then applies to his four foremost extremities by peeling off the backing tapes in a precise order (schwip, schwip), he then uses the external adhesive on the tape to assist him in climbing the cliff-like leg of a nearby table (gloarp, gloarp) in order to reach the precious sugar cubes above. It’s an immensely entertaining action sequence that resides entirely in the intricacies of a real, everyday house. Never more than here, in the world of The Borrowers, have such small things mattered quite so much.
Whilst Ghibli are known for fascinating us with the strange worlds that they form and the stranger creatures that inhabit them there is something special in what they do here with the world around us. This is not a tale like Ponyo where our world is made magic through the intrusion of another; short of the existence of the borrowers themselves there is nothing at all imagined in this story and that is what makes it so very imaginative. When you can make the real world look this alien, this amazing, who needs fantasy? The animators have simply zoomed right in on reality, honing their focus on those small things that we usually keep out of our sight, imbuing them with a whole new meaning just by making them bigger: a pin becomes a sword, an earring a grappling hook and a cat a towering monstrosity. This film finds adventure in the everyday in the same way that a child does and that’s wonderful to witness.
Of course the other thing that Ghibli have always given us in their films is a certain depth alongside that childishness, a maturity of theme that does not inhibit the necessary immaturity of content, and that us true here too; though the message they deliver is perhaps not the expected one. For the first half of the film one could be forgiven for feeling that The good studio had inverted their ideas entire, because the action alone suggests that nature is evil and people are good. For a while we only see the humanoid borrowers and thus we witness the world through their perspective; for someone that small an animal or a rainstorm is going to be immensely dangerous and so they are feared for a reason. Then we are introduced to the one ‘bean’ on screen who is also able to see the borrowers and he is kind enough to accept them, even going so far as to try and help better their lives; this is where the moral of the story truly starts to take shape.
The message of Arietty is still one of conservation, but instead of targeting our laziness, selfishness of capability for corruption the film hits even deeper, eschewing the error of our omnipotent attitudes. Miyazaki seems to be screaming against the way we play god with the environment, even when our intentions are good; because just as one cannot observe without effecting, one cannot interfere without damaging. One of the most stunning sequences in the film is when out if nowhere the small house belonging to the borrowers is hit by an earthquake of some kind: the ground shakes, the walls crumble and the roof tears off to reveal a hand reaching down into the kitchen. We are only shown the hand from the wrist down, it is anonymous and terrifying and it’s intentions are unclear until eventually it is revealed that this is the young boy come to install a new kitchen, nearly killing the entire family in the process. Good or bad, the film seems to say, we need to learn to live like borrowers, taking only what won’t be noticed; we need to learn to leave smaller footprints wherever we tread.
The more interesting metaphor for me, though I question it’s applicability, is one of religion. The great hand from the sky that can with so slight a movement decide our fate – either squashing us or gifting us with brand-new appliances – is such a unique and yet insightful representation of god. To the borrowers humans are arbiters of fate, omnipotent and fond of acting in mysterious ways; just as to us god is. Perhaps then there Is a chain of bigger and bigger beings, each seemingly minute to the next. The borrowers though are not fatalistic, like much of the Japanese population is, and even in the face of disaster they strive for self-independence and seek to solve their problems on their own; perhaps there is a message in this too, or perhaps I am simply over-reading things.
Though there is much below the surface the story itself is standard at best. We have seen this all before, sometimes better but oftentimes worse; the film is of course based on a classic old book that has been adapted many, many times including this month in British television. Strangely enough though the story suits these times, giving Ghibli an added purpose for re-making it; those caught in the midst of the financial crisis can surely relate to concepts like borrowing, living small and fearing for the loss of your house. As always in Ghibli flicks we are given a strong, independent female protagonist – something that even PIXAR is yet to do, until “Brave” hits later this year of course – and an unusual but touching love story, both of which work well here but never leave much of a mark.
All this deep talk of theme and script should be put aside in this instance though, because it is action that matters more than the words in Arietty. After all animation literally means movement, so how better to tell your story? Simply watching these characters go about their day is a delight, as is the almost wordless way that they communicate. It’s the kind of film that a child could understand before they can speak (or read, as it is at this stage still in Japanese with subs, though a dub will surely come soon and in this case I can support such a production) and one that an adult can enjoy crawling into if they wish too. It won’t astound you or send you into a spin because it is a very small film in scope and impact, but it is without a doubt an enjoyable experience and sometimes that’s enough (especially when there is also the potential there for pretentious analyzation!).