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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Jul 26, 2022

Borrowed & Delegated: An In-Depth Look At Arrietty

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Cast/Voices: Mirai Shida, Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Kirin Kiki, Shinobu Ôtake

Related Films: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke

Studio: Ghibli

Year: 2010

Verdict: 4/6


Introducing The Secret World of Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty might be the closest Studio Ghibli ever came to recreating the atmosphere of My Neighbor Totoro. Both films combined wholesome storytelling with stunning visuals and evoked atmospheres reminiscent of timeless fairy tales.

Totoro and Arrietty were equally mesmerizing, but their stories were also equally superficial. The main attractions were the supernatural components at play. Totoro balanced these elements perfectly, whereas Arrietty left something to be desired.

The Secret World of Arrietty never ceased to amaze, but the atmosphere overshadowed the story. The character development, the overarching storyline, and especially the ending never lived up to the imaginative design.

In Arrietty’s defense, the imagery never fails to spellbind me, no matter how many times I revisit the film. Still, when the end credits roll, it always feels like I’ve watched a well-made episode of a series that has yet to unfold.

Arrietty Director Thought Miyazaki Had Lost His Mind

Forty years before The Secret World of Arrietty saw the light of day, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata considered making the film. Their idea spun from a novel called The Borrowers (1952) by Mary Norton.

To finish the job, they put Hiromasa Yonebayashi in the director’s chair. He was the first animator promoted to director at Studio Ghibli and the youngest guy to ever take the reins on one of their theatrical releases.

Yonebayashi joined Studio Ghibli in 1996 and worked his way up to key animator on Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. After that, he was offered to direct The Secret World of Arrietty.

«I still do not understand why I was asked to direct this film.»

– Hiromasa Yonebayashi –

In a Trespass Magazine interview, Yonebayashi said he felt much pressure as the first animator in the director’s chair. According to the producers, he was offered the job because of his work on Ponyo. Miyazaki merely told him that he had a hunch.

Producer Toshio Suzuki admitted that Yonebayashi was selected on a whim but not entirely without reason. According to Suzuki, Yonebayashi was an extremely talented animator and a good person who was well-liked by everyone at the studio.

«At first, I thought Mr. Miyazaki had lost his mind.»

– Hiromasa Yonebayashi –

In the initial production phase, Yonebayashi felt lost. When he accepted the job, he believed that Miyazaki and Takahata would guide him. On the contrary, though, Miyazaki refused to look at his storyboards because it would delay the production.

In the end, Yonebayashi appreciated the freedom to direct as he pleased. At the same time, he felt like a borrower since the screenplay and design were «borrowed» from Miyazaki. When the film was completed, he, like Arrietty, could get out from under the floorboards and go off on his own.

The Story of Arrietty the Borrower and the Human Beans

The Secret World of Arrietty tells the story of Arrietty and Shô, whose faiths interlocked one summer when their lives were about to take new turns. Shô was about to undergo a serious heart operation, while Arrietty was about to become a full-fledged borrower.

The borrowers were tiny people, no more than ten centimeters in size, who led their lives under the noses of the big people. They borrowed what they needed to survive from the «human beans» - as they called them - while trying their best to stay out of sight.

Arrietty was the daughter of an experienced borrower. She was just about to learn the tricks of her father’s trade when Shô detected her. He was visiting his grandma to stay in a calm and soothing place before his operation.

After a few more encounters with Arrietty, Shô discovered her family’s shoebox-sized apartment under the floorboards in a downstairs cupboard. He then tried to welcome the borrowers by installing a dollhouse kitchen in their tiny flat.

Unfortunately, Shô’s actions gave away the borrower’s location to Haru, the housekeeper. From Haru’s point of view, the borrowers had to be eradicated like any other infestation. As such, the stage was set, and the feud was on.

«Sometimes, open endings are just what a story needs, but not in this case.»

– JCA –

The story was held together by the impossible relationship between a thimble-sized girl and a kind-hearted boy. Tension rose slightly when Haru intensified her hunt for the borrowers, but the level of suspense never raised any heart rates.

The most exciting twist in the story was when Arrietty’s father came home with an outside borrower. The prospect of a borrower society somewhere in the Japanese cityscape was indeed exciting, but sadly it was left for our imaginations to envision.

The Secret World of Arrietty stood firm on its own legs, but it could have been much more. It built up to a grand ending that never came. Instead, it ended abruptly and felt more like an elaborate first episode of a long-running drama than a standalone anime film.

The Production of Arrietty | Atmosphere Before Substance

As mentioned, The Secret World of Arrietty parallelled My Neighbor Totoro’s magical mood, and the background design was every bit as brilliant as in Howl’s Moving Castle. Fortunately, it was enough to keep Arrietty interesting from the start till the end.

Character development and creative storytelling tendencies took a backseat to design and atmosphere. Once the plot was established, the tale didn't hold many surprises. The biggest twist in the story came towards the end but was cut short rather than adequately unfolded.

Instead, Arrietty turned into a cozy fairy-tale so rich and full of fantastic imaginings that you want to return as soon as the end credits roll. The main attraction was the borrowers’ exploring of a landscape filled with oversized berries, buttons, rats, and cats.

Virtually every frame enthralled us with fresh perspectives on everyday items. Repurposed nails and staples, for instance, made up the borrowers’ bridges and ladders, while earrings served as carabiners and a teapot boat waited at the creek.

French Music and European Design in Post-War Japan

The music by French artist Cécile Corbel – who sent the songs to Studio Ghibli out of the blue – was a serendipitous addition that lifted the movie magic above and beyond. As such, Corbel thoroughly enforced the mesmerizing allure of The Secret World of Arrietty.

The understated yet hypnotic tunes brought the everyday fantasy to life, much like the interior design, which was far from what you’ll find in present-day Japan. The décor and antique-like furniture were a hodgepodge of Japanese and European postwar styles.

In the book, the story took place in a 1950s English country house. However, Miyazaki decided to change the setting to better target the Japanese audience and prevent Yonebayashi from misrepresenting England.

Therefore, the film was set in Tokyo’s Koganai-neighborhood in the 2010s, which happened to be the location of Studio Ghibli. As it turned out, Miyazaki’s cynical decision resulted in an eclectic mix of design and styles, arguably shaping the exceptional atmosphere.

The story engaged just enough to keep it all together. At the same time, the pace was perfectly balanced to maintain that particular kind of movie magic that Studio Ghibli coined towards the end of the 20th century.

Beneath the Floorboards | The Secret World of Arrietty Analysis

Like many Ghibli films before it, The Secret World of Arrietty leaned on universally familiar topic matters. On the surface, it got pseudo-philosophical when Shô reflected on the inevitability of change and death and realized:

«Sometimes, you just have to accept the hand of fate.»

– Sho –

Shô’s existential musings added much-needed depth to the storytelling. However, the messages hidden beneath the floorboards were what really added nuance to The Secret World of Arrietty.

The character journeys were never properly dived into anyway. Neither Shô’s illness nor Arrietty’s relationship with her parents were thoroughly elaborated. If the film had plunged into these issues, it might have connected with the audience on a more personal level.

Instead, the toned-down personal tragedies made the underlying story of the ignored «little people» resonate even more. The focus never strayed from the borrowers’ feeding on the scraps and the excess of the big people’s throwaway society.

Shô and Arrietty’s conversations taught us that the borrowers were on the brink of extinction. The human beans, on the other hand, were spreading like a virus and had become more than 6,7 billion in numbers.

«By contrasting modern-day mass consumerism with the frugal lifestyle of the borrowers … we hope the audience would think about their own way of life.»

– Hiromasa Yonebayashi –

Considering the main villain – Haru, the housekeeper – ignorance appeared to be the issue at hand. She didn’t care about the borrowers, and she certainly had no interest in trying to see things from the little people's perspective.

All Haru saw was an infestation in her house, and she was not about to share the wealth, no matter how insignificant a share it was. She had no qualms about eradicating Arrietty and her family. Even though they were cutesy versions of her own kind, she showed no sympathy.

Haru was the image of those willing to elbow their way around society at the expense of others. She was the power-hungry leader ready to destroy his neighbors; she was the supermarket chain that drove mom-and-pop stores out of business.

The Borrowers lived in synch with nature and their surroundings. They borrowed to survive but never took anything that would be missed. They fed on the excess of giants unwilling to acknowledge their existence.

Like many Ghibli films before it, Arrietty brought up environmental issues. It never stated these messages as explicitly as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. Still, the changes brought by our modern lifestyle were painted with grim colors.

When the colors of our modern lifestyle were mixed with Shô’s reflection on the inevitability of change and death, the idea of seizing the moment came to mind. As such, every frame in Arrietty served as a reminder, telling us to appreciate life’s fleeting moments of beauty.

Shô found meaning in the fleeting friendship with Arrietty. She found joy in the human beans’ discarded items. And we, the audience, got to admire a 94-minute-stream of jaw-dropping anime atmosphere.

It might have lacked depth, but The Secret World of Arrietty made us stop and smell the proverbial flowers.

Arrietty Parallels | Fleeting Beauty and Disney Moments

The Secret World of Arrietty applied some of the same building blocks as traditional Japanese art. Like the style of Japanese scroll paintings or the woodblock prints of old, Arrietty focused on natural beauty to underline the transience of life.

Like the paintings that influenced Ozu to make scenes void of reference, the musing moments in Arrietty invited to contemplation. Just like Japanese gardens, it sanctified the beauty of nature and creation, contrasting it with the ugliness of human pollution.

The beautiful images were far from minimalist, though, which might be why Arrietty made me think of Disney films. I am not saying that Ghibli copied Disney, but the premise of tiny beings in an oversized world has been done before. Cinderella and the mice came to mind.

The stories of Mrs. Pepperpot, by Norwegian writer Alf Prøysen, also shared quite a few storytelling antics with The Secret World of Arrietty. However, it is conceivable that Prøysen also took inspiration from Mary Norton’s original book.

«Then again, they might all have borrowed their concepts from Gulliver’s Travels.»

– JCA –

Apropos Disney, Studio Ghibli has been called the Japanese version of Disney on more than one occasion, and The Secret World of Arrietty fits the profile well. Before its release, Disney was in a slight rut, which might have made the moment opportune for Arrietty’s success.

Final Verdict for The Secret World of Arrietty

Design trumps storytelling in The Secret World of Arrietty, but it works, much like it did in Totoro. Admittedly, the latter was blessed with a more substantial story arch, while Arrietty primarily relied on the spectacle of tiny persons handling oversized household items.

It might not have been the deepest of family films, but on the surface, The Secret World of Arrietty was mesmerizing. And for those who took the time to look beneath the floorboards, it also delivered thought-provoking undertones.

All things considered, parents probably enjoyed Arrietty as much as their kids. In hindsight, it was probably the best children’s film of 2010, and it stands the test of time surprisingly well. It’s not flawless, but the atmosphere makes it a delight to sit through every time.


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