2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
- Princess Mononoke
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Tales from Earthsea
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
The Borrower Arrietty is the first film by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who became the youngest Studio Ghibli director. The film is based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and the script was written by the great Hayao Miyazaki, which becomes evident, I think, through the narrative movement of the film.
Shō is a sick young boy who moves to his great aunt’s house for the summer where he discovers these tiny little people known as Borrowers. Almost immediately upon arriving, he sees Arrietty, the young borrower, returning to her home through an underground air vent.
Then we move to Arrietty and we get some of the films best sequences from her perspective. Yonebayashi manages to turn the familiar into the alien. The human home is much like any other old home, but it feels grand and epic in scale through Arrietty’s eyes. The normal objects of human life take on so much magic and power during the film. A simple room becomes the host of danger and excitement.
Also worth knowing is that Borrowers are terrified of humans. It can be assumed that humans treat them as pests and kill them.
Arrietty accompanies her father for her first borrowing mission, which is a sort of right of passage for Borrowers. Essentially, they take little things from the human home.
On this mission they take a cube of sugar because Arrietty’s mother, Homily, needs it for their tea and cooking and whathaveyou. They come across a dollhouse full of beautiful furniture just the right size for Borrowers but Pod tells her that the humans will notice if something goes missing. The mission is a success until they get to Shō’s room. He lies awake and watches them, even speaking to them, telling them not to be afraid.
Disturbed and afraid, Arrietty drops the sugar cube and she and Pod escape back home, but don’t tell Homily that they were discovered.
The next day Shō leaves the sugar cube at the underground vent where he first saw Arrietty. Further, he leaves a note. Pod warns Arrietty not to take it because humans are not to be trusted. Their existence must remain secret if they’re to remain safe.
Despite the warnings, and typical of a Miyazaki heroine, Arrietty sneaks out and goes to Shō. She drops the half eaten sugar cube in his room to alert him of her presence. She tells him to leave them alone, telling him they don’t need help, only to immediately discover she needs a great deal of help as a crow swoops in and tries to eat her. She and Shō struggle with it until Haru arrives and the problem is solved. Shō hides Arrietty the entire time Haru’s in the room, but she becomes suspicious, which leads to the over conflict of the film.
While returning home, Arrietty runs into Pod who decides they must leave, due to detection. This is a big moment for the family. They’ve spent years in this home and now they must move. There’s a great worry that they may be the last of the Borrowers, since they haven’t seen any or had any communication with other Borrowers in a long time.
Meanwhile, Shō’s aunt tells him that her ancestors noticed the existence of Borrowers and had the dollhouse custom built for them. This shows that some Borrowers have been there for generations. Whether it was Arrietty’s family or not isn’t really important.
Pod returns from a borrowing mission injured and helped by another Borrower named Spiller. This means there are other places for Borrowers to live and that the move need not be into the purely unknown. It gives them hope even as it fills them with dread, as they now know that they can leave and that they will leave.
Shō, trying to help, rips open their home and gives them the kitchen from the dollhouse. This is a great scene, as it gives both humor and terror. It’s unclear who’s ripping up their home. Just huge hands swooping in and out of the scene, terrifying the family of Borrowers.
But this illustrates the vast differences in a very concrete way. This is why they fear. If humans choose to do them harm, they have little recourse beyond hiding. If their hiding place is discovered, they have no option. They are hopelessly outmatched physically.
As soon as Pod recovers, he goes searching for a new place to live. Arrietty goes to Shō and admonishes him fiercely for the terror he instilled in her parents. During this discussion, Shō reveals that he is possibly terminally ill. He has a heart defect and his surgery is a few days away. He also suggests that Borrowers may be on the brink of extinction.
Arrietty worries for Shō but is determined to survive without humanity’s interference.
With Shō’s help, Arrietty rescues her mother and they destroy all evidence that Borrowers lived there.
Prepared now to leave, Arrietty says goodbye to Shō, who discovers them during the night, once again unable to sleep.
Shō tells Arrietty that her courage has inspired him to live. He’s now prepared to face his operation with courage and determination.
With that, Arrietty gives him her hairpin and then leaves in a tea kettle down the stream.
This is an interesting film because it really never feels like much is at stake. Even when Homily is in real danger, we never feel like death is a possibility. Even facing possible extinction, we never feel like Arrietty’s cause is hopeless.
Which is an interesting effect. Much is hinted at. There were once many more Borrowers but are now very few. This is probably because of human interference. Human’s behaving like Haru. Calling exterminators, killing them one by one. There is, of course, the natural predation of animals. Birds, cats, rats–all of these present existential threats to the Borrowers. And though these are very real threats, the film remains optimistic.
I think this is, perhaps, the most childish film Studio Ghibli’s made since The Cat Returns. Because childish is more a tone than it is about the events. Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro appear childish but hold a great deal of weight and darkness in them. But this and The Cat Returns feel very much like they’re meant for children and almost purely for them. Which isn’t a bad thing, mind, but it is different than much of what the studio is known for.
This is mostly the story of a boy and a girl facing the enormity of life. Arrietty’s a girl discovering the world is bigger than she thought and also full of danger. Everything is dangerous to a Borrower and their life demands that they face danger. She must sneak through an obstacle course of humanity just to scavenge for supplies and a way to live. Every other sentient being poses a danger.
Shō is a boy whose body is trying to kill him. I mean, not really. But he was born with a heart condition and it very well could be the death of him in just a few days. It makes the world both magical and beautiful in interesting ways. Because there’s so little time for him, he sees the world with naked eyes.
Much like Arrietty sees the human world as both epic and monstrously odd.
And I think that’s what this film is really about. Perception and perspective. They come from different worlds but inhabit the same space. They see each other as very different aspects of reality.
To Shō, Arrietty is the magic of the world, representing all that he may choose to live for. To Arrietty, Shō is an existential threat that becomes a friend, showing her that there is hope and that she’s right to fight for life.
It’s a film about being young but also about growing up and discovering what this place called life is made of.
It’s a simple and beautiful film.
And it does have some of my favorite sequences. I love the attention to detail. The way the familiar becomes epic and strange and ominous. How Yonebayashi is willing to just sit and relax into the space. We take in the world and he Yonebayashi gives us time to appreciate the world built here.
I think, perhaps, he was very much helped along by Miyazaki’s graceful mentorship. Something that his own son could have used in his first film.
But, yes, this is a pretty little film, largely meant for children. I enjoy it but it also kind of rolls off me. Probably because I’m old and jaded.
Next week we discuss From Up on Poppy Hill, Gorō Miyazaki’s second film, and something he seems much more comfortable with.