Arrietty, The Borrowers and the Ghibli tradition

Kathleen Mary Norton was born in 1903. She was forty when she made her debut as a novelist with the first book of a trilogy, later filmed by Disney as Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Although her next series, The Borrowers, was even more successful than its precursors in print, its film versions have met with less acclaim. Now Studio Ghibli has given her work a lovingly faithful reading. The Borrower Arrietty brings Norton’s lost world to life in a warm and humane movie that overcomes its longing for what has been lost, and its fears of what may come, through a statement of faith in simple human kindness. In reading Norton’s mythos through the values they share, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s directorial debut brings Ghibli back to its own roots in solid storytelling, delicate characterisation and breathtakingly beautiful art.

The Ghibli version ranges across the Borrowers universe. Its main outline comes from the first book, in which Pod and Homily Clock’s headstrong teenage daughter Arrietty strikes up a friendship with a human boy, against all Borrower tradition. In the second book, the Clock family loses its home under the floors of a old house, and Arrietty and her parents are forced to move out into the surrounding fields and woods. The third book sees them making a temporary camp in a kettle and being swept away in a flood through drains, ditches and streams before finally reaching a new sanctuary in the fascinating but dangerously big world.

The changing fabric of Britain after the First World War informs the stories. Norton, a doctor’s daughter whose comfortably middle-class childhood ended with that war, had an acute awareness of social convention. The cataclysmic upheaval of wartime over, social mobility was regarded with suspicion. Enduring friendship across social classes was rare, and marrying outside one’s class was viewed as potentially catastrophic.

Arrietty is a member of a underclass as small in numbers as stature, isolated and living in fear of discovery and persecution. Her family’s fears about her relationship with the son of the Big House resonate through generations of popular fiction. Innocent country girls or humble maidservants are ruined by association with careless young scions of the gentry, while those same scions bring down scorn and ostracism on their ancient names if their wives, however virtuous and beautiful, don’t know how to address an Archbishop or what cutlery to use.

The Borrowers’ difference in scale, and the consequent terrors and hardships of their world, show the struggles of the rural poor and urban working class through the accepting, resilient gaze of childhood. Scraping around to find a few more grains of sugar or using old magazine pictures to cover bare walls are joyous experiments in living for children. Those who love them seek to protect them from too much reality too soon, all the while wondering where the next meal can be scavenged and how to deal with a breadwinner’s injury, a powerful persecutor and the other hovering threats that could bring their fragile world crashing down.

In the same way,  the changing fabric of 21st-century Japan informs Ghibli’s movie. Sho’s parents are divorced and his career-centred mother is too busy to take time to care for her son, even before a life-threatening operation. His ancestral home and a spinster great-aunt offer refuge, but Sho’s world is in constant danger of ending, and he seizes on any distraction from the shadow looming over him. A pretty, exotic girl from another world, a secret friendship only he can know, is a powerful lure. But while he views her as an exotic toy or a fascinating puzzle, like a Victorian butterfly hunter after a rare specimen or a roue chasing a pretty servant, he can’t catch more than a fleeting, tantalising glimpse of her.

Only when he and Arrietty acknowledge each other as real people can they make contact. And although their hearts and minds can touch, their lives are separated by an enormous gulf. We know from the beginning that Sho and Arrietty will not have the sublimely happy ending given to Ashikata and San in Princess Mononoke, who agree to live in their own very different worlds and create a lovers’ meeting-place in between. They will not even have the heartbreakingly tender once-a-year meeting in different realities that Philip Pullman gave to his young lovers Lyra and Will at the end of His Dark Materials. Their worlds are so far apart, and the vision of the adults around them so distorted, that Sho will always be a dangerous and impossibly powerful demigod to Arrietty’s people, while she will be nothing more than a pretty toy or a sideshow freak to his.

Many of the concerns addressed both in Norton’s book and Yonebayashi’s movie are also highlighted in earlier works from Ghibli’s two founding directors, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The secret worlds of childhood and the importance of relationships with the fantastic are a constant theme running from Miyazaki senior’s Panda Kopanda in 1972 to Ponyo in 2008.  Sho is isolated by circumstance from his parents, like the heroines of Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds and Laputa, while Arrietty is detaching from childhood and re-forging her family bonds as an adult, a process we see beginning in Kiki’s Delivery Service and coming to fruition in Only Yesterday.

The ability to perceive and interact with magic, and the longing for a lost way of life that embraced it, suffuses My Neighbour Totoro and Pom Poko, and is delicately referenced in Arrietty‘s glorious doll’s house. Ironically, it was built by Sho’s ancestor for Borrowers to inhabit, a cage to entice them to reveal themselves and live like exotic pets. It is regarded by them with the same mix of caution, amazement and longing as all the other desirable objects of the big world. It echoes centuries of paternalism, handfuls of glass beads and mirrors dangled as exchange for priceless traditions.

The political impulses buried in Ghibli’s earlier childhood fables and Norton’s narrative are also woven into Yonebayashi’s. One can read the Borrowers’ thrifty, humble existence as a tribute to the traditional working-class virtues in a world of social climbing and conspicuous consumption, or as a commentary on the sustainable lifestyles of simpler peoples and the risks inherent in their exposure to the over-mechanised, over-controlled, over-exploitative industrial world.

The importance of the female at the heart of the family, and the need for her to exchange girlish fantasy for solid feminine duty, is also reinforced here. Stoic, solid Pod is the traditional provider, but nervous yet competent Homily is the home-maker, the one who creates comfort and warmth from the raw materials he provides. Their daughter may well yearn for the glamorous, expansive world that Sho represents, but she finally accepts that she will live her own much smaller life with the uncommunicative but good-hearted Spiller. For the little people, the salt of the earth and the security of family is both more important and more accessible than the champagne of fantasy.

The notion of the family, present or absent, and how it shapes and then surrenders its children, is important in most Ghibli movies. Sho’s absent parents and Arrietty’s close and loving family have influenced their characters, just as Sophie’s flighty mother in Howl’s Moving Castle, and Pazu and Sheeta’s dead but lovingly remembered parents in Castle In The Sky, have shaped theirs.

The Ghibli canon also includes a number of interesting reflections on what happens if children don’t grow away from their parents and re-forge the relationship into a  more adult mode. The Dola Boys in Castle In The Sky, utterly in thrall to their formidable mother and pathetically if sweetly fixated on the first pretty girl they meet who can cook and wash clothes, are classic examples of arrested development. The same relationship plays out between the Mama Aiuto pirates in Porco Rosso and feisty, pretty Fio. In Spirited Away both Chihiro and Yubaba’s beloved baby Boh have to become their own people in order to make a true and mutually supportive relationship with their parents.

In Arrietty, Sho’s complete lack of importance in his parents’ lives has left him doubting the value of his own. Despite all the expensive toys lavished on him, it isn’t until he finds an honest and respectful relationship that he can know his own worth.

Aside from social concerns, political theories and ideas about relationships, the sheer craft of Arrietty signals its origins and earns it a place of honour in Studio Ghibli’s record. Yonebayashi came to direction after a long apprenticeship in Ghibli’s animation department, starting as an inbetweener and cleanup artist on the production marathon that was Princess Mononoke, then joining in the voyage of discovery and invention that created the technical miracles of My Neighbours the Yamadas, working his way up to key animation on short films and Ponyo, then making the leap to the director’s chair before moving back to key animation on From Kokuriko Hill.

He knows his craft, and he knows the studio that taught him. He uses both to exquisite effect, making a film with a delicately dazzling surface wrapped round a robust and rewarding core of solid, enduring value. He hasn’t yet found his own voice as a director, but on the evidence of Arrietty, I’m hopeful that will come.

Ghibli is the Stradivari or the Guarneri of the animation world, a perfect instrument whose music is never less than beautiful, but that can make unrivalled magic in the hands of a master. All that craft and skill is on the screen in every shot of Arrietty, and the music it makes is indeed never less than beautiful. The fact that it can’t escape the imprint of the studio’s two great founders is no discredit to it, or to Yonebayashi. He has made a lovely Studio Ghibli film that honours both the studio and its original inspiration in Mary Norton’s work. In time, and given the opportunity, an equally lovely Hiromasa Yonebayashi film will follow.

2 thoughts on “Arrietty, The Borrowers and the Ghibli tradition

  1. Pingback: Review: Studio Ghibli film Arrietty is beautiful at every level

  2. Pingback: USA release: Studio Ghibli film Arrietty is beautiful at every level

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