Studio Ghibli is essentially a flawless company that has only gained a larger global acclaim with the help of Disney and the douchy shirt wearing John Lasseter. While the handful of anime films released by this Disney subsidiary certainly have their father company to thank it is clear that most of the credit for their success should be directed to Hayao Miyazaki, the now aging director of anime classics such as Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away. While Miyazaki has stepped down from the directors seat he was present as a writer, and, undoubtedly, as an advisor on Studio Ghibli's most recent offering, The Secret World of Arrietty which is based off the British novel The Borrowers written by Mary Norton some sixty years earlier. While The Secret World of Arrietty is nowhere close to Miyazaki's masterpiece Howl's Moving Castle it is a clear work of art and a solid example of the cinematic possibilities of animation, a fact that many film critics still seem hesitant to embrace. Like many of Studio Ghibli's other offerings, The Secret World of Arrietty is both accessible, yet quite broad in its commentary and philosophical pondering, and with the exception of the work of Satoshi Kon, I have trouble thinking of another anime director who is as concerned with the simplest of details in their work. A key animator, under the tutelage of Miyazaki, it is clear that the films director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is prepared to take the reigns for the now well-respected Studio Ghibli and I know for one that I am excited at the future prospects.
As is the case with many works tied to Miyazaki, the film concerns itself with the experiences of particularly young individuals, however, these youth are rarely offered world situations that are remotely possible in the physical realm and often rely on worlds of magic and make believe for their existence. The Secret World of Arrietty one such film as it focuses on the life of the title character Arrietty who is, along with her mother Homily and father Pod, a Borrower. Borrowers are miniature versions of human beings that borrow small items from humans that they can live without missing, such as thread, needles, sugar and tissue. It is their belief that they must remain out of the sight of humans because to be spotted by humans would assure their destruction, because as Pod make clear, their curiosity would lead them to ruin the Borrower lifestyle. Arrietty seems set to abide by these rules and looks forward to her time as Borrower, until she is spotted accidentally by a human named Shawn. Shawn despite being very calm in his approaches, given an life-threatening heart disease, is dismissed by Arrietty who assures him that no good can come of their interactions. Arrietty's reservations are assured when Shawn's aunt becomes obsessed with catching the Borrowers, because she has been living in seclusion for years after public mocking for her previous claims of spotting such creatures. As such, she hires exterminators to catch the Borrowers, much to the dismay of Shawn. Realizing the impossibilities of unity, Shawn sets out to help Arrietty and her family move from the house to a new location and luckily, the task is made considerably easier by Arrietty's father running into another borrower, who provides guidance to a new location in a more urban area of Japan. Both Arrietty and Shawn part with sorrow in their heart, yet they realize that their summer will represent a lasting memory in their lives of something magical and sentimental. It is heartbreaking, but in a way that reminds viewers of the possibility of good in humanity.
When I reviewed Paprika awhile back I made note of the problems technology presented to women's relationship in society. I argued that through objectification and disconnect women were oppressed on at least a theoretical level. When referencing this, it is interesting to discover that the worlds of not only this film, but most other Studio Ghibli films place women in a rather progressive place. Arrietty is an independent girl who desperately desires to carve her own path in the world and clearly dismisses the notions of domesticity pushed forcefully by her mother. This is a theme that manifests itself in other Ghibli works, most notably in Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Even the males within these works diverge from gender norms, Pod is a masculine in his demeanor, but is clearly an affectionate and loving father, while Shawn is in tune with his emotional side and promotes unity over the possibility of oppressive power. In fact, it is clear that this film, as well as others from the studio, suggest that such traditions of gender are problematic and often only reside in the minds of an older generation. With this in mind, a character like the aunt within the film are more understandable as villains, not only does she represent someone out to destroy the Borrowers, but she also wishes to maintain traditional gender norms as well. It is interesting as well to compare this character to say the work of Ozu, in which gender mores were propagated by an aging male figure, in many Miyazaki films the paternal oppressor is not only not present, but rarely acknowledged. All is not perfect in these films though, as they often end with the suggestion that the characters have found some sort of heteronormative relationship to engage in, this is certainly the case in The Secret World of Arrietty, as Arrietty is shown in the closing credits accepting a gift from Spiller, a male Borrower who has shown interest in her. Problematic for sure these images must be criticized, however, as a whole the film does question gender roles and their apparent concreteness. It suggests a possibility for fluidity and the evolution from an older ignorant tradition.
While The Secret World of Arrietty has been out in Japan for nearly two years, it is only now completing its U.S. theatrical run and it is certainly worth checking out in theaters. It was my first anime theatrical viewing and the fully realized world of Arriety pours off the screen beautifully. Also, I have to agree with my girlfriend on how awesome Arriety's room is in the film.