Arrietty, the most recent release from Studio Ghibli, is released in cinemas nation-wide on the 12th of Jan, 2012.
Recently, Studio Ghibli seems to have turned to more non-Japanese inspiration for their particular and delightful brand of animated features – Howl’s Moving Castle was based on books by British author Diana Wynne Jones and Tales from Earthsea was of course drawn from the series by American author Ursula Le Guin. In both cases, Ghibli saw in these stories something that was still close to its heart, and Arrietty the Borrower (Karigurashi no Arrietty), based on the popular children’s series The Borrowers by British author Mary Norton, is arguably the most ‘Ghibli’ of these.
In the austere and traditional home of Sho, a young boy who has come for a restful stay with his grandmother before a serious operation, there lives another family – of little people. These little people live under the floor boards and creep around in the wall spaces and ‘borrow’ things in order to subsist. Since they’re little they don’t need much, and as long as the “human beans” don’t discover they’re there, they continue to live as well as they can.
Of course, this quiet balance can’t last. The little people seem to be dying out – is it because human beans have long since become too logical, too cynical, to allow room for anything even remotely fantastical to exist anymore? Are the Borrowers merely becoming slowly extinct as so many other species on our planet due to an inability to adapt to the changes forced upon them?
It’s no accident that Hayao Miyazaki insisted on moving the setting of the story from the 1950s to 2010. In a way, he reportedly saw The Borrowers as representing our possible future – mass consumption as a way of life is coming to a close; more people are becoming more self sufficient by growing their own food and raising chickens in their suburban back yards; more people are concerned about their carbon footprint and recycling and finite natural resources. When considered in this way, there’s a slightly dark undertone to Arrietty the Borrower. In a lot of ways, Sho and his family are the 1% and Arrietty and her parents are the other 99, living if not in poverty then at the very least on the sufferance of the ‘richer’ human beans that dominate and shape their reality.
But I don’t mean to turn this into an Occupy Wall Street issue, because there’s another reading here too – one that’s much more about ecological systems and vital co-dependence than rich versus poor. The Borrowers are also parasites, albeit harmless ones, living off the existence of humans more simply, more honestly, than perhaps the occupants of Sho’s grand, empty house with its fine, useless things. And in turn, Sho (and the human beans with open and accepting minds) gets something in return. For Sho, whose self image borders on that of a victim of an unfair and cruel world despite his apparent acceptance of his fate, he discovers in Arrietty herself a courage that inspires him – learning of her existence somehow makes him value his own. It’s hard not to notice the message here. The Borrowers aren’t the ones who are dying out after all. Sho’s rediscovery of more meaningful things – the traditional values that are a fundamental part of the Borrower’s lives and the joy in giving to others for reasons other than self-interest – is meant to be understood as something that could save us from whatever terminal illness we’ve been developing and calling ‘progress’ all these years.
In the end however even this is labouring a point that maybe doesn’t need to be laboured, because Arrietty the Borrower, like most of Ghibli’s films, is also a container for magic. In Ponyo, this magic was playful, like making up nonsensical tales and having imaginary friends. It made adults laugh like children, in delight at a new discovery that required no understanding or analysis but just was. Arrietty the Borrower is a little more like looking in on that dollhouse in Sho’s bedroom – it reveals a whimsical, curious and perhaps forgotten world where dragonfly wings become quills and sewing pins become swords and leaves become umbrellas and fairy tales are true. It’s a magic of a different quality, perhaps a little more grown up but no less precious. It’s a treasured item – a shiny rock or a bird’s feather or a sea shell – that holds a world of meaning for no-one but the possessor. It’s something we’ve forgotten how to do, to look at the world like that, but Ghibli makes it possible again, which is exactly where the true magic of this great animation studio and their latest cinematic offering lies.