‘The Secret World of Arrietty’ thematically instructive and totally alluring
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Japan 2010 imdb
The most astonishing thing about The Secret World of Arrietty is that it took so long for someone to try an animated adaptation of Mary Norton’s beloved award-winning book. Granted, there is a long-standing tradition of shooting films where humans see the world from the perspective of an insect: on film in The Incredible Shrinking Man, the Lily Tomlin remake The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and the Honey I Shrunk the Kids franchise, on TV in Land of the Giants and in the documentary Microcosmos. (Not to mention the various live adaptations of The Borrowers.) But there is something so right about the material as an animated film, especially as executed by Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli.
While Miyazaki did not direct Arrietty, his fingerprints are all over the film. He is credited as screen-writer and “planner” and the film is filled with Miyazaki’s trademark obsessions: a cute and feisty female protagonist, a concern for the environment, pacifism, giant insects, morally ambiguous villains and an almost reckless love of heights and flying. The film also winks to previous Miyazaki films, most noticeably My Neighbour Totoro which, like Arrietty, featured house spirits, family illness and a giant cat.
It is not just that the Ghibli animation allows us to see the world from the perspective of a Borrower like Arrietty, it is how expertly they capture those key tiny details that make up the Borrowers’ world: protruding nails become a precarious staircase; a fish hook becomes a grappling hook; double-sided tape becomes a clever way to climb-up walls a la Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; when they pour tea it comes out like individual tea drops; a sheet of tissue paper is like a starched bed-sheet.
The plot of both the film and the original novel is deceptively simple: a sick boy (Sho or Shawn) comes to the countryside to convalescence where everyone treats him like he is made of china about to shatter. Since all he can do is observe, the boy sees thing that others miss – including the family of little people who “borrow” what they need to survive from the larger “Human Beans”. The youngest Borrower, Arrietty, is seen by Shawn. The Borrowers’ rules of survival say that once seen by Beans, the Borrowers must move. Arrietty struggles against this rule, believing Shawn to be good, but she comes to realize that even good Beans can be dangerous without meaning to be.
Where Josh objects to this simplicity, I marvel at the fact that even in some of the smallest scenes, the larger themes of the film can be seen, drawn in miniature. Consider a quiet moment when Shawn lies in the yard patting the cat. Arrietty observes from the windowsill that leads to the basement where her family lives. A beetle crawls up her arm. Arrietty absently picks up the beetle like a human would a kitten. The beetle freaks out, wriggles away from Arrietty and scurries to another beetle so that it can touch antenna and gossip about the crazy Borrower. The point is that the Borrowers do not keep pets. They are of nature and from nature. They do not attempt to domesticate insects to work for them. Crickets are for hunting and eating, not for training.
Or later in the film, when Arrietty’s family are moving, walking through the woods with their entire lives on their backs, heading for the river and the wild Borrower Spiller who will guide them to their new home. They hear something moving in the woods and freeze. Eventually, a raccoon walks past them, stares at them and walks by.
As I mentioned on the podcast, this is an obvious nod to a 1977 TV series that Miyazaki did the key animation for before founding Studio Ghibli: Araiguma Rasukaru based on the novel Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by Sterling North (which was also adapted into a live action Disney movie starring Bill Mumy). The 52 episode cartoon TV series was so popular that it led to many Japanese importing raccoons to Japan as pets with predictably disastrous results. It seems obvious that Miyazaki is acknowledging the ecological damage that the cartoon he drew inadvertently caused and how easily these catastrophes can occur. (The chief irony here is that the the original novel actually warned about exactly the problem that the Japanese encountered. As he grows to adulthood, the damage that Rascal causes everywhere around him grows, until he must be returned to the wild.)
The Borrowers are the ultimate recyclers, surviving on what we throw aside, taking only what they need to survive. They walk lightly on the earth. By comparison, Shawn, despite being full of good intentions, partially destroys the Borrowers’ home when he tries to give them a gift and makes their home much easier for the housekeeper Hara to find.
Nothing in Arrietty is painted in absolutes, however. Hara may be the vilain of the piece, but she is definitely a vilain who views herself as the hero. She does not want to hurt the Borrowers, merely to capture them. She simply lacks the empathy and imagination to understand that being captured and caged is a fate worse than death to a natural creature like a Borrower.
The ambiguity of the Borrowers’ place within nature is illustrated by the moment when the raccoon stares at them and then moves on by. The Borrowers live in a dangerous world where death could come from any direction at any time. The price of being part of nature is living with that danger all the time.
Of course, living in a world where the raw edges of nature have been smoothed and civilized away is no guarantee of safety. Arrietty’s life may be more dangerous than Shawn’s, but she knows how to live while the sickly Shawn is so obsessed by his own mortality that he is blind to everything else around him.
Embracing nature has its costs, but then so does trying to enslave it. Mastering nature brings protection and control at the cost of truly living. Becoming one with nature means surrendering safety and control, but brings with it the gift of truly being (like Arrietty) part of Gaia.