By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Studio Ghibli, founded in 1985 by anime directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, quickly built a reputation as one of the most outstanding Japanese animation studios. Its latest movie, “The Secret World Of Arrietty,” continues its winning streak, delivering one of the most impressive family-friendly movies in recent years.
“Arrietty” takes its inspiration from a series of children’s books known as “The Borowers,” written by English author Mary Norton between 1952 and 1982. In these books, the “Borrowers” are tiny humans that live secretly inside the houses of regular-sized people. They sneak out at night when the regular humans are asleep to “borrow” things they need to survive.
The film opens in one such house, located in the Japanese countryside. Here, a young boy named Shō — or Shawn as he’s called in the Disney-produced English-language dub — has come to rest before a crucial operation that will either cure him or kill him. His parents are divorced, his mother is away on business, and his only two steady companions are his aunt, Sadako Maki (Aunt Jessica in English dub), and a loud, busybody housekeeper named Haru (Hara in English).
The other family living in the house is a trio of Borrowers: The father, Pod; the mother, Homily; and their teenage daughter Arrietty. Voiced by Mirai Shida in Japanese and in English by singer/actress Bridgit Mendler — who also contributes a song to the English-language soundtrack, Arrietty is full of energy and thirsty for adventure. The risks she takes scare her excitable mother (Shinobu Otake or Amy Poehler) half to death, and even her taciturn but proud father (Tomokazu Miura or Will Arnett) sometimes worries for her safety.
Eventually, the two families will have contact, although this is forbidden under the Borrower’s tradition. “Beans,” as Borrowers call big people (short for “human beans”) are dangerous, and need to be avoided at all costs. But Arrietty and Shawn are both lonely, both looking for friends, and not beholden to old codes.
Arrietty’s director is 39 year-old Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the youngest director to ever helm a Studio Ghibli theatrical release. He keeps action and suspense flowing smoothly and emphasizes the contrast between Arrietty’s physical derring-do and Shawn’s feebleness. Other effective contrasts include Homily’s hysteria versus Pod’s pragmatism, and the reflectiveness of Aunt Jessica versus the suspicion and hostility of Hara.
Hayao Miyazaki himself supervised the film, and the results bear his stamp of meticulousness. Every detail, from a leaf that Arrietty plucks for an umbrella against a rainstorm to the sparkling dollhouse in Shawn’s room, which the Borrowers may visit but must never “borrow” from, holds within it many finer details still.
Some Miyazaki visual traditions also push the film along. Like many of his previous movies, “Arrietty” features a strong, determined female protagonist; a fat, mewling cat; and a rubber-faced, thick-toothed villain, in this case Hara (voiced by Kirin Kiki and Carol Burnett).
“The Secret World Of Arrietty,” like many Studio Ghibli films, demonstrates the joys of childhood wonder and childhood discovery, but does so by keeping its roots in adventure and risk. We don’t know if Shawn will recover his health. We don’t know if Arrietty will return from dueling dangerously with harm in the garden. And the fate of the tiny Borrowers family remains in suspense. The film balances risk and fright with its characters’ striving for friendship and understanding. That’s as true- to-life for kids as for anyone of any age. (end)
“The Secret World Of Arrietty” is currently available for sale or rental at a video store near you.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.