The Secret World of Arrietty

(Check out my previous Studio Ghibli essay here: From Up on Poppy Hill)

In 2010, when Studio Ghibli began a heavy production schedule that would carry on into the next four years, the first film they commissioned was a film by a newcomer to the director’s chair: Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Like Yoshifumi Kondo fifteen years previous, Yonebayashi was a longtime Ghibli collaborator with an impressive resume of work with the company, beginning with work as an in-between animator and clean-up artist on Princess Mononoke under Kondo’s tutelage. Mononoke was Kondo’s final film work before his death in 1998, and in a sense, can be interpreted retroactively as a passing of the torch to a younger animator.

The year following Mononoke, Yonebayashi worked as a key animator on the acclaimed cult anime series Serial Experiments Lain (which I am currently reviewing and can be found HERE). From the late nineties on, Yonebayashi worked in multiple capacities on another ten Ghibli productions, first as an in-between animator on My Neighbors The Yamadas. Later, he worked as a key animator on the short films Ghiblies #1Ghiblies #2Mizugumo Monmon, and House-Hunting, and on the features Spirited AwayHowl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo. He also worked as animation director on the highly acclaimed and beloved short-film Mei and the Kittenbus in 2003, which eventually landed him a job as assistant animation director on Goro Miyazaki’s first feature Tales From Earthsea in 2006, and eventually as a prospect for the director’s chair for his own feature.

The film is an adaptation of a classic novel of children’s literature, The Borrowers (1952), written by Mary Norton, a British writer. It follows the life of a diminutive young girl named Arrietty who is a ‘borrower,’ one amongst a race of miniature humanoids who typically live within the walls, floorboards, and crawl spaces of their much larger homo sapien counterparts. She and her father and mother have lived within the same country home for all of Arrietty’s life and she has now grown close to full maturation as a young woman. As such, she moves from mere domestic chores and learning to the knowledge of exploration and ‘borrowing’, or stealing, of innocuous items needed for survival, which they take surreptitiously from the home’s ‘beans’ (the borrowers name for homo sapiens). She and her father travel through a dense network of nails and wall studs in the walls of the home toward the kitchen of the home to find sugar and other items helpful for survival like scraps of cloth and twine.

The home is typically occupied by the owner, an old woman of sensitive temperament and strong imagination who believes in the existence of the ‘little people’, just as did her father. The two of them built a doll house fully furnished with miniature, but functional appliances like real cloth couches and bedding, as well as a stove and kitchen full of pots and pans that could be used by the little people. She did this in the hopes that the little people would make themselves apparent to her, so that she could have friends within the home, and so that the lives of the little people could be made easier. However, the borrowers, or little people, are too careful to enter the house and live there. Thinking it a trap, they have lived in a nice makeshift home beneath the bean’s home and made it a point never to take anything from the doll house for fear that it could be poisoned.

Other than the old woman, an old maid also resides within the home. She is a trickster type who will cause problems for the borrowers later once she realizes that they actually do exist in the home. She tracks down their home and even confines Arrietty’s mother to the space of a jar (with air holes) in the hopes of calling the papers and becoming a sensation for her discovery of these little people living within the home.

As the film begins, a young boy is dropped off at the house by his parents (incidentally, during this sequence a cat resembling Muta from Whisper of the Heart, Yoshifumi Kondo’s film for the studio, fights a crow in the front yard of the home. This crow resembles Toto in Whisper of the Heart‘s spin-off The Cat Returns). He is sickly and has come to visit his grandmother’s country home for the week before he has a life or death operation on his heart. He has no real friends as he is always separated from other children and cannot play on account of his heart condition. Over the course of the film, he will come to realize the existence of the little people, befriend Arrietty, unwittingly lead the maid to uncovering their existence, and end up saving the ‘borrowers’ from her eccentric machinations. The bond that he and Arrietty develop will give him the strength to later overcome his operation, while his friendship with Arrietty will teach her parents that not all beans are bad, and will help Arrietty grow as a person as well. But they have still been found out by the maid, and by the film’s end, find it necessary to make a pilgrimage into the wilderness to find a new domicile they can call home, where they can remain unmolested by the old maid and hopefully avoid detection for a long time to come.

The film was a huge success for Studio Ghibli both commercially and critically. It is a beloved classic within their oeuvre, but also made nearly $150 million USD at the box office on the strength of a mere $23 million USD budget. This was the best return on a Ghibli film not directed by Miyazaki (it surpassed all receipts for even Takahata’s films), the fifth highest grossing film ever for the company (behind Miyazaki’s four previous films), and the highest grossing Japanese film for the year of 2010. Complete with an enigmatic score of Celtic themes from the French-Briton singer-songwriter Cecile Corbel, the film is a powerful vision of how individuals from two completely different worldviews and perspectives with different concerns and existential threats can come together in a meaningful manner emotionally through the larger context of human spirit and will. This is borne home thematically through the use of a British source novel by a Japanese Studio using traditional American animation techniques (Ghibli’s animation is not the traditional mode of production and corner-cutting associated with anime, but closer to the production modes and ethos of Disney or the Fleischer brothers) and a Celtic score written by a French woman to tell a universal story that can, and did, effectively reach children and young adults in an impactful manner worldwide. Hopefully it will continue to do so in the future.

After this film, Studio Ghibli really ramped up their production schedule with a Goro film set for release the following year, and Miyazaki and Takahata working on films simultaneously for releases in 2013. This was followed by a second chance at directing for Hiromasa Yonebayashi in 2014 (but more on that in my next installment of this Studio Ghibli blog series) as well as the studio’s first try at monetizing an animated television series in Goro’s 2014 series Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter. Six large, costly projects in a four year period, but they would somehow manage to pull it off.


[My Ghibli series concluded here: When Marnie Was There]

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2 responses to “The Secret World of Arrietty”

  1. Dec Lloyd says :

    Great review! Loved the British film version of this as a kid! I was reading Murakami’s 1Q84 and there are ‘little people’ in that too, though I think they were based off some kind of mythological figures a friend of mine said. Also is it a typo when you say they live in the bowels of the humans? That sounds horrible lol

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