The Borrower Arrietty – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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Beneath our floorboards and inside our walls live a tiny race of people known as the Borrowers. They scuffle along at night to capture items within our households, taking small items to use for their survival. One such family consists of Pod, Homily, and their adventurous daughter Arrietty and they make up one of the few Borrower families that still exist in our world. One day, a young boy named Sho moves into the house they live in to rest up for a medical operation and notices Arriety briefly. Despite Pod and Homily’s warnings about the danger human beings pose to their kind, Arrietty forms a friendship with Sho. Fascinated by the Borrowers, Sho begins to commit acts of kindness for Arrietty’s family, only to raise the attention of housekeeper Haru, who wants to capture the Borrowers for personal gain and fortune.

When I first read the announcement that Studio Ghibli would be adapting Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers into an animated feature film, one could say I was certainly pleased as well as surprised. As a fan of the original novel since my years in elementary school, it has remained one of my favorite novels mainly because the entire premise was quite fascinating to me—and it still is to this very day. The notion of “little people” frolicking around one’s house, moving and “borrowing” one’s goods for the sake of their livelihood was just so creative and adventurous for a young person such as myself at the time to read. I’m certainly not alone in this—most people I’ve known who’ve read the original novel have stated that it was one of their favorite novels when they were younger as well. With multiple live-action adaptations having been created already, it would seem quite fitting to see a prestigious animation company such as Studio Ghibli handle the artistic interpretation of The Borrowers, providing a vivid portrait of the world created by Mary Norton through the lens of animation—a feat undone until now.

With the The Borrower Arrietty being the directorial debut of Hiromasa Yonebayashi—who has officially become the youngest director of a Studio Ghibli film—there had been much speculation and worry over how the film’s material would be handled. Without Hayao Miyazaki at the helm and the rather negative reception of his son Goro Miyazaki’s handling of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), people were certainly up in the air as to how a “new” director would handle such an audacious and honorary position within one of Japan’s most famous animation studios. But besides the omission of Hayao Miyazaki at the directing helm, he did provide the script (with the help of Keiko Niwa) from which Yonebayashi could work and build upon, so the collaboration effort has remained a prominent addition towards the film process—and the results certainly show. Like other Ghibli creations—most notably Howl’s moving Castle (2004) and Tales From Earthsea (2006)—the premise of The Borrower Arrietty stems from a literary source that primarily exists within the realm of fantasy, which is certainly one of Ghibli’s most significant strengths.

Given the tremendous nature of the environments in which the Borrowers find themselves in, the fantasy element viewed within the film is translated exceptionally well through the use of animation. This is certainly going out on a limb here to say this, but the film is perhaps one of Ghibli’s finest animated creations in terms of sheer artistic magnitude since Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)—the world it creates is simply stunning to behold. It would be sufficient to say that The Borrower Arrietty is a visual marvel, not only from an aesthetic standpoint but also from its grandiose scope. From the articulate interior of the Arrietty’s home, where small buttons and exotic flowers are used as decorative wall ornaments, to Arrietty and Pod’s excursion to retrieve items in a human room where a mere five feet (human measurement by the way) can turn into a nightlong journey—the massive scale of the environments are incredibly breathtaking and are an illustrious treat. This is certainly one of those instances where only through the use of animation can one portray such an intricate and fascinating miniature world so effectively—it seems entirely plausible. This plausible feel of the film is also extended through Miyazaki’s script, which establishes the film within a modern environment and context. While this decision by Miyazaki provides some familiarity to the viewer in terms of time period and setting, it also elevates the original story to a more modern framework while still cherishing and upholding the value of Norton’s novel.

But for all its magnificent artistic aptitude, The Borrower Arrietty is also a very subtle film in its expression of character and plot. At its core the film is about overcoming loneliness and finding friendship in the most unordinary of circumstances and places. With the juxtaposition of the “big” and “little” world constantly showcased throughout, the characters of Arrietty and Sho are shown within the film as two individuals from two very distinct worlds looking for the same, rather simple thing—a person to call a friend. With Sho not allowed to leave his home due to an upcoming medical operation, and Arrietty not allowed to make any contact with humans, the two accidently discover each other’s existence and slowly begin to form a bond of companionship. This is where the film truly works as a very delicate examination of understanding and cooperating with those that we may find different from us. Understanding that they are literally two worlds apart, they attempt to find a common, emotional foundation given their personal situations. The film works magnificently well through this premise, but it also carefully avoids many of the pitfalls that could have easily occurred given the suggested melodramatic nature of the film—the keyword here being suggested. The film’s relationship between Sho and Arrietty could have spiraled into a bizarre love story if handled by another studio or director, but here it is purely platonic and innocent. And with the film slowly working to establish and form their relationship, we see more realized characters because of it. This decision may discourage some viewers expecting some grand storytelling to coincide within the incredible visuals, but the rather subdued narrative of the film is relatively compounded through the use of its visuals. Unlike the fast-paced nature of Princess Mononoke (1997) for example, The Borrower Arrietty is more akin to the atmosphere of My Neighbor Totoro (1998)—slow and deliberately paced, it’s a film that explores the complexities of its characters through the subtlest of expressions, actions and setpieces.

Another significantly elements of The Borrower Arrietty is certainly the music. As the film is providing the directorial debut for Yonebayashi, we equally see the introduction of singer and Celtic-harpist Cecile Corbel providing the film’s exceptional soundtrack. As a fan of Ghibli films, Cecile supposedly sent a letter to Studio Ghibli expressing her fondness towards the films the studio had created in the past. Upon hearing that she also performed music, she was brought on board to conduct the film’s soundtrack. With composer Joe Hisaishi taking a step down from the composition mantle this time around, Corbel does a fantastic job of bringing forth beautiful harp compositions that truly complement the imaginative nature of the film. While a stark contrast from the works of Hisaishi, Corbel is able to effectively establish a very soft and delicate atmosphere to the film—a great combination considering the film’s rather gentle atmosphere.

With all these great elements that culminate into what is The Borrower Arrietty, we have another well-crafted animated feature from the likes of Studio Ghibli. What’s truly surprising is that we see so many elements that have made past Ghibli films such fantastic artistic undertakings strangely omitted here—Hayao Miyazaki has lessened his creative influence, Joe Hisaishi didn’t compose the score—but it still remains an enjoyable and high quality film, which is certainly a testament to the creative talent of the studio itself. With vividly intricate animation on display, an original soundtrack and endearing story, The Borrower Arrietty is great film for all ages, and certainly subscribes to the notion of past Ghibli works. It can also be viewed as a welcome homage to the original novel, which it also does quite well. Perhaps this can be viewed as a new direction for Studio Ghibli—Miyazaki has been heard to say that he would like the younger generation of animators at the company to step up and take creative control—and it certainly is a promising direction at that. While it may not be entirely a Miyazaki production, The Borrower Arrietty is certainly a film that deserves the label of being a Studio Ghibli film—it offers all the magic and awe that accompanied the studio’s previous films, and its great to see the tradition remain strong.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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