There are numerous ways in which The Borrower Arrietty is a departure for Ghibli, and all of them in a positive way. This is the first time since Yoshifumi Kondou’s Mimi-o Sumaseba that a film from one of the studio’s junior directors (ie not Miyazaki or Takahata) has looked as carefully, expensively or lovingly-realised as the flagship titles. It would be odd for someone who knows Ghibli well to mistake The Cat Returns or Tales from Earthsea for a film directed by Miyazaki – the backgrounds are nowhere near so well-realised, the colouring is much simpler and the tone tends to be less stately and artful. But, after years working as key animator on Miyazaki’s films (from Sen to Chihiro to Ponyo), as well as on notable non-Ghibli projects like Jin-Roh and Monster, Yonebayashi Hiromasu, better-known as Maro, is the latest Ghibli director. He may not yet have found his own unique voice, but as a starting place, the house style of Studio Ghibli is hard to better.
Arrietty sticks more closely to the plot of the original 50s Borrowers books than other recent adaptations, for example the slapstick 1997 film starring John Goodman and Jim Broadbent. Equally, there have been changes made to bring the story in line with more typical Ghibli aesthetics, the most obvious being the transition of the story from England to Japan, as well as a modernisation of sorts – to a very old-fashioned lifestyle in the present day. The boy is given the name Sho, and rather than being sent back home to the Colonies, he is to have an operation, giving a more melancholy sense of uncertainty to what will happen after the end of the film. Indeed, melancholy is the prevailing mood, and it works well.
The story is otherwise familiar: the little family unit of Borrowers live out of sight in a large household. Young Arrietty is an adventurous little girl, daughter of a skilled Borrower father and a loving, skittish mother. The Hollywood scriptwriters knew what they were doing when they rewrote Peagreen as a sibling for Arrietty: having a sibling in such an isolated family makes everything lighter and cheerier. While she has her loving parents, Arrietty is still far more lonesome as an only child, and that allows for a much more interesting dynamic with Sho, who is also isolated and bored because of his illness. Upon moving to the house to rehabilitate for a short time, he sees Arrietty, both in the garden and during the night, and so begins the central, small-scale crisis of the film: can he befriend the little Borrowers, or will they now have to move away?
When I heard Ghibli’s next film would be based on The Borrowers, I really wasn’t sure about the decision. The localisation made everything seem to chime better with the prevailing Ghibli mood, but I still had too much of the 1997 adaptation in mind, I suppose. I expected eccentricity and very English bumbling. But that not to be, and it soon becomes apparent why this was an excellent property to adapt.
Firstly, it has obvious appeal as a showcase of the animated craft. It’s a chance for the filmmakers to have some fun, from making little Sho appear huge from Arrietty’s point of view, to the wonderful detail of the background art when some location we normally imagine as tiny becomes cavernous to a borrower. It is the little sound effects made to seem on a far greater scale, and the little touches like water behaving totally differently when droplets are in relative terms the size of footballs, or postage stamps used as paintings on Borrower walls.
And secondly, it has a timeless, universal quality that fits with earlier Ghibli works like Omohide Poroporo and Totoro. Not much happens, but it is all gripping and emotionally charged. It is not about escaping exterminators or rallying miniature troopers, but about fundamentally different types of people trying to understand one another, and their being forced apart. I said before that the prevailing mood is melancholy, and this is right – there is sadness in Sho’s life, in the Borrowers’ situation, in the impossibility of a happy ending. There are moments of happiness, a great deal of sweetness, and even a moment or two of slapstick (the most obvious being a silly moment with a crow), but overall, this is a more mature, stately and elegant film than I expected, and its soft sadness really touched me. Exciting moments with homes invaded and little people put into jars are really only momentary changes of pace from a central discourse on a strange, personal relationship.
The only part I found misjudged was when Sho and Arrietty talk about how many of their respective species there are in the world. It comes from the original book, slightly altered because Spiller has been introduced (from the second book), but presumably in an effort to continue the bittersweet mood, Sho tells Arrietty her species is dying out, based really on nothing more than the fact he’s never seen any other Borrowers – whose culture largely revolves around staying hidden. It just seems presumptuous and downright rude, which clearly isn’t how it’s intended.
This is in every way a Ghibli film. It doesn’t have Miyazaki hallmarks like pigs or collapsing architecture or thrilling flight scenes (though Spiller at one point glides like a ninja), but I didn’t say it was a Miyazaki film: it has Ghibli’s aesthetic, whimsy, mood and likeability. And Miyazaki-style character design. Spiller even looks like a stocky grown-up Mei.
The upcoming television adaptation with Christopher Eccleston and Stephen Fry may prove to be the most faithful version yet, but I have an inkling that this will endure as my preferred interpretation. Ghibli’s next film is From Kokuriko Hill, Gorou’s second stab at being a worthy successor to o-tou-san, hopefully this time without the whiny blogging. Then come Takahata’s nursery tale and Miyazaki’s very first sequel. On the back of how much I enjoyed Arrietty, I shall probably start watching them as soon as possible again, rather than a year after release.