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I just saw The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti), the latest Studio Ghibli film released in the States through Disney.  And it was absolutely wonderful!  I had tried not to get my hopes up too high, but thankfully this film was charming and delightful – one of the best Studio Ghibli films, I’d say.

Small Wonder: Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is an inches-tall Borrower whose family lives within the walls of a human household.

Arrietty is an inquisitive, stylish (seriously, she has the cutest clothes ever) and lively 14-year old Borrower – a Borrower being a little person who borrows only what she needs from human beans.  Her first borrowing mission coincides with the arrival of a new bean – a sickly 12-year-old boy named Shō who has come to a family house in the Tokyo suburbs to rest before an operation.  Even though he is not supposed to get too excited, how can he not when he spies Arrietty leaping through the shrubbery, and later in his bedroom, hidden behind a tissue?  Arrietty knows that Borrowers and beans are not supposed to mix, since borrowers usually end up “missing” after the encounters.  So what happens when Arrietty and Shō take the first tentative steps towards friendship?

From the reviews I had read I would never have realized that this movie was at heart a romance and a young girl’s coming-of-age story, albeit one with a few fanciful elements.  From the moment she sees Shō her world changes, and not just because he is the first bean she comes into contact with – her whole worldview starts to expand and gets larger (sometimes literally).  I thought of “The Little Mermaid” in that they both come from different worlds, but were still strongly drawn to one another even though they could never be together.  At least this story has a happier ending than the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (no bubbles here).  Leaving each other notes or messages in the form of sugar cubes (I have a weakness for sugar cubes), having deep conversations on the lavishly drawn grassy fields, a tearful farewell at dawn – sigh.  And there was even a second guy in the form of another wild Borrower, Spiller – so funny.  I only wished they hadn’t made him quite so…uncivilized.  Though it was super cool that he could fly.  And Arrietty was so likable throughout – especially when she carefully selected her outfit for her first borrowing.

There were a lot of serious elements to this film, and not just Shō’s weird, rambling discourse on fate and death (maybe it sounds better in Japanese).  The Borrowers are facing serious problems, such as perhaps being the last of their kind and not knowing where to go if the beans discover them.  I felt that Hayao Miyazaki used this film to critique certain aspects of modern Japan – such as divorce and working mothers – and I’m not really sure how I feel about that.  He does this in all Ghibli films, so I wasn’t too surprised to see it here.  But, downer!  And I got shivers when Arrietty’s taciturn father told her that Borrowers wouldn’t live in a dollhouse because they aren’t toys – I always welcome discussions of freedom and the choice not to live as kept playthings.  Even in an animated children’s film.

This still being a Ghibli film, there was also cuteness abounding in this film, especially in all of the details of Arrietty’s home, from her mugs with card suit designs to the absolutely adorable matryoshka dolls that the Borrowers and beans both had (a cute and fitting motif for the story).  The magnificent dollhouse Shō’s mother had helped build was so wonderful in that European, faintly gaudy way.  All of the borrowing techniques were so cute and clever – like double-sided tape or a pin used as a sword.  I didn’t even mind the bugs so much since they provided a reference for scale – no, they were still pretty gross.  But in general everything was lusciously and lovingly drawn, and there were no really ugly things (some reviews said this like it was a bad thing), except for maybe the crazy housekeeper, Haru.  But she was the villain, so it naturally followed that she had to look kind of gross.

I don’t want to get into my criticism of the dub, since that’s not really the point, is it?  So I’ll try not to say anything about how lame it was that Disney decided to change the name of Shō (to Shawn) and his great-aunt Sadako Maki (to Aunt Jessica), even though the story is set in Japan – maybe they were confused by the foreign car Aunt Jessica drove (a Mercedes – beans live well, don’t they?).  Let’s just say that I hope Shō is not so creepy in the original version – and that he says Arrietty’s name in a way that doesn’t make my skin crawl.  But it’s also already the highest grossing Studio Ghibli release in the States – so maybe size and dubs don’t matter at all.  It got a pretty wide release – Disney opened it on the most screens for a Ghibli film, and Viz Media has also released a comic version of the movie.  Everyone loves Arrietty!

This film was actually just written by Hayao Miyazaki (well, adapted from the Mary Norton novels, really) and directed by a relative newcomer, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who had mostly done key animation prior to Arrietty.  You can’t tell he’s new or young since the movie really flowed well, and maybe even had more of a traditional plot than other Ghibli films.  I really liked the soundtrack, even though it wasn’t done by the usual Joe Hisaishi, but by a French (Bretonne) artist, Cécile Corbel.  It was really evocative and fit the mood and animation perfectly.  I was on the lookout for inside Ghibli jokes, but the closest I could find was the cat – he reminded me strongly of Muta from The Cat Returns.  When he was attacked by a crow, was that also a reference to the movie?  And any time a see a cat like that I think of My Neighbor Totoro and the Catbus.

"The Secret World of Arrietty"

I should just keep basking in the Arrietty glow, but being the greedy person that I am, I’m eagerly waiting for the next Ghibli film, From Up on Poppy Hill.  Maybe I wouldn’t be so impatient if I didn’t know that it was already released elsewhere in the world.  Come on globalization!  But for now, I guess I can’t do more than keep a close lookout at home, and keep track of my sugar cubes.

Related Posts:

The Cat Returns

Kiki’s Delivery Service

From Up on Poppy Hill

Bedknobs and Broomsticks