The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

The Secret World of Arrietty

Title: The Secret World of Arrietty aka The Borrower Arrietty aka Arrietty aka Karigurashi no Arrietty
Genre: Drama
Company: Ghibli
Format: Movie; 94 minutes.
Dates: 17 Jul 2010

Synopsis: Sho is on his way to visit his grandmother’s house in the outskirts of Tokyo so that he can rest before undergoing a heart operation. Since the time of his great-grandfather, Sho’s family has spoken of the “little people” who live in the house. Though they have not been seen for many years, they are still there, building their home using things they “borrow” that Sho’s family won’t notice are missing. One night on such a borrowing expedition, Sho sees the young borrower, Arrietty, whose explorations end up putting her family in danger.

The Highlights
Tiny world: Immensely captivating.
Music: Absolutely gorgeous harp pieces.
Emotional connection: Not as deep as it could have been.

This is a movie that Ghibli giants Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao wanted to make for 40 years. It’s somewhat ironic that neither of them actually made it. Rather, the movie marks the directorial debut of long time Ghibli animator Yonebayashi Hiromasa, though Miyazaki did help write the screenplay. The film, based on a young adult novel from the 1950s, brings the tale into the modern day with a strong sense of history.

The first thing this film does well is create atmosphere. The story begins with the busy streets of Tokyo, gradually moving down a quiet street and then a dirt road to a large European-style house tucked away among the trees. The house is exquisitely furnished in Victorian style, with heavy furniture, dark wood and elaborate decorations. This is a quiet and peaceful place, perfect for Sho to relax while awaiting his operation. But even more fascinating is the world that the borrowers have created for themselves. Hiding under the house, they have recreated our world on a miniature level, substituting nails for steps and thread for yarn. The detail of their world is astounding: When they pour tea, the water doesn’t flow steadily, but collects in a large drop which falls into the cup. Two or three such drops is enough. The little people have to be always wary of bugs and birds eager to make them into a meal, and the threat of these creatures seems very real from our tiny vantage point within the movie. Even the fickle housecat is scary when up against the 10cm tall Arrietty.

Arrietty herself is determined and resourceful, as has come to be expected of a Ghibli heroine. Yet as much as she cares about her family and feels a great responsibility toward them, she feels lonely and wants to know more about the world. She is eager to learn and fascinated by what she discovers. Sho, in contrast, has become complacent. Due to his illness, he cannot do most of the things a child his age does. He has accepted this and lost the desire to expand his world. It is Arrietty who inspires him to push himself and appreciate the things around him. The relationship between the two leaves a definite impact on each. They may not know each other well, but they have seen in each other something that has provided them with a new perspective.

The two leads are supported by a diverse cast of supporting characters. Arrietty’s father doesn’t say much, but he is thoughtful, intelligent and practical. Arrietty’s mother provides some comic relief as she laments the possible loss of her comfortable home. I was a little disappointed that Arrietty’s parents felt restricted to such outdated gender roles as was seen here. The fact that the source material was written in the 1950s probably plays a large part, but I really wanted to see Arrietty’s mother get out of the kitchen and talk about something other than her kitchen implements or tea. She never once leaves their hidden house by her own choice. Sho’s grandmother seems more well-rounded, though she appears in only a few scenes. Haru, the housemaid, serves as the closest thing to a villain, as she strives to prove once and for all that the little people really do exist. Her plot for catching them seems more villainous seen from Arrietty’s perspective, since she and her family don’t understand the housemaid’s motives. This aspect of the story feels weak and isn’t built up sufficiently in the first half of the film. The fear Haru’s actions imparts on the Borrowers seems natural, but Sho makes no effort to explain it from his, and therefore Haru’s, perspective. Sho’s involvement with the Borrowers is at a minimalist level, and while I respect his general non-interference, I couldn’t help but feel that in the same situation I would have been compelled to offer more help to the little people. Arrietty’s family does get help from another Borrower, Spiller. He lives in the forest rather than inside a house and is depicted as wild and uncivilized, providing an interesting contrast. His presence adds a sense of a bigger world to this tiny story, as well as a sense of hope that there are more Borrowers still out there.

The final element of this great film is of course its gorgeous art and music. The fluid motion of the characters along with the detailed backgrounds promises a treat for the eyes and upholds the high standards of a Studio Ghibli production. For the music, however, they decided to take a slightly different turn. Instead of the usual orchestrated soundtrack, Arrietty features beautiful harp music composed by the French artist C├ęcile Corbel. It also includes several songs with vocals, most of which are in English. The Breton style of music compliments the somewhat European feel of the movie perfectly, and the ending song is especially good.

As the closing credits play, some might think the ending of the story is left a little too open. What would happen to the little people? The way I see it, it’s a fitting close not to a story, but to a chapter of these character’s lives. I only wish a few scenes could have been more exciting, and that I was able to make a deeper emotional connection to the characters. Overall, this is a wonderful adventure that really explores its elaborate setting. I will eagerly be looking forward to Yonebayashi’s next film.

The Rating: 8

Reviewed by: Kaikyaku

Top of page