Review of The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

Moving picture, 94 minutes

Yonebayashi Hiromasa (director), Suzuki Toshio (producer), Miyazaki Hayao (writer), Niwa Keiko (writer).

A species of miniature people, identical in shape, vocal range and cognitive capacity to those of normal size, may be threatened by extinction. They don’t know, because the central family of them hasn’t ventured outside the garden of their human house for decades. Considering this, their only child is shockingly sane. She’s about to learn her species’ main trade, which is taking stuff from their human hosts without being seen. She will also learn that there are 6.7 billion of the bigger people.

Modern fantasy, based on a 1952 children’s novel by Mary Norton. Beyond an intelligent treatment of surface tension, the physics of the situation don’t work. Compare Truckers (1989) which makes more sense because the creatures in it live on a different timescale as a result of their biophysics. Here, the resemblance between Borrowers and normal humans is total, yet apart from a couple of shots where timescales seem ambiguously inconsistent, the resulting issues are ignored as if by powerful and omnipresent magic. There is a telling scene where even little isopods are shown moving at the same, apparently universal human pace, which is nonsensical and damages the portrayal of nature. In a sense it’s also bad animation, more reminiscent of false-perspective live action than of Ōtsuka Yasuo’s lectures on the importance of inertia in this craft. I consider it a failure with respect to Miyazaki’s own vision of animation from the viewpoint of a bug, in the essay “Nostalgia for a Lost World” (1979), or more generally in “The Type of Film I’d Like to Create” (1992). Aside from issues of scale, the animation is otherwise excellent, and the music OK.

The Borrower family’s extreme inclination to decorate their cozy home and ignore the outside world meets a fitting end. Helen McCarthy claimed in a 2012 interview on ANNCast that Norton’s story is about the fall of British class society, the Borrowers representing the lower classes. This would be the reason why love is forbidden. I don’t think that interpretation works for the film, because Arrietty’s family strongly resembles a parody of paranoid middle-class nuclear families who don’t give a damn about society as long as their tea is on time. They also steal for a living, instead of keeping an upper class up.

The villain is Miyazaki’s darkest and most Disneyesque, after Muska: there is not even a hint of regret. As far as I can tell, the Japanese script contains none of the cutesy Borrower malapropisms from the book, which is a good thing. It is another good thing that the main evidence of the story being set in the present day is the global human head count, which is, after all, far more significant than household electronics, as rare here as in My Neighbor Totoro (1988).

References here: Ghibli movie titles, “Kanini & Kanino” (2018).

moving picture Ghibli animation Japanese production fiction