I don't remember how old I was when I read Mary Norton's "The Borrowers". I suppose I was probably eight or nine, but I do remember being absolutely entranced by it at the time - it's one of those children's books that have stayed a part of my psyche. To think of it now, it's hard to imagine a story better suited for the creative geniuses at Studio Ghibli, and for a shift to a Japanese setting. The tone of adventure and environmentalism fits the Ghibli sweet spot, and Japan - with it's millennia-old Shinto culture of countless Kami, large and small, suits the material perfectly.
I think Ghibli loses some credibility among "serious" anime fans for a number of reasons, possibly the most prominent of which is that it has the temerity to have "crossed over" to the general public. Is there a feeling that anything regular people can appreciate can't possibly be real anime? Maybe, among some fans. But I think a serious look at the Ghibli catalog reveals a remarkably consistent train of quality films. The studio turns out beautifully made, lovingly hand-drawn movies year after year. The ones made by the master Miyazaki himself are usually, the best, of course, but some of the others are pretty good too. And this one, by longtime Ghibli animator Yonebashi Hiromasa in his directorial debut, ranks as a solid success.
Karigurashi no Arrietty is certainly an updating of the classic series by Norton. Instead of the English countryside we're in a leafy suburb somewhere just outside a modern Japanese city. This is a world of cars, cell phones and Ishi Doro (stone lanterns). The house and garden that serve as setting, though, look surprisingly European - even British - apart from the lanterns and the half-moon bridges.
If you're not familiar, "The Borrowers" is the story of Little People - a variant on the faeries of English folklore. These Borrowers live in the houses of "Human Beans", borrowing and scavenging what they need to stay alive. Being seen by humans is taboo - though occasionally unavoidable, as we will discover. Arrietty (Mirai Shida) is almost 14 and beautiful, and shares her home beneath the floorboards with serious father Pod and highly-strung mother Homily.
Into the house of his Great Aunt moves 12 year-old Sho (Ryunosuke Kamiki). Sho is a gentle, kind little boy but seriously ill with a heart condition. He's moved in with his Great Aunt and her housekeeper Haru to rest up for a life-threatening operation because his parents are too busy with work to be with him at his hour of need. Not surprisingly Sho is rather lonely, but an odd encounter in the garden recalls to his memory the stories his mother told him of strange creatures living in her Aunt's house. Borrowers have been seen at the place for four generations, in fact. Sho's Great-Grandfather even build an exquisite and functional little house for them, hoping to lure them out into the open so that he could see them once again with his own eyes. But they never came, knowing all too well that contact with Human Beans carries deadly risks for Borrowers.
As stories go, this one falls solidly in the "timeless children's classic" vein of Ghibli, but that's hardly surprising as that's just what the books are. Content-wise, the essence of this adaptation is surprisingly faithful considering how different things look superficially. In terms of visuals, "Arrietty" can probably hold its own with most any of the films of Miyazaki himself. Much of the film is shot from Arrietty's 10 CM-high perspective, and as a result the mundane artifacts of daily human existence are grand and imposing. Insects are imbued with personality and detail in that whimsical Ghibli way, and every element of Arrietty's home is lovingly detailed. It's a world of tiny human castoffs given new life and purpose by the resourceful Borrowers.
The heart of the story is the developing friendship between the lonely, melancholy Sho and the cautious Arrietty. His awkward attempts to persuade Arrietty to let him see her are at first rebuffed, and even disastrous (as when he almost wrecks their home trying to give them the functioning kitchen from the doll house). Arrietty is strong, independent and curious (in other words, a typical Ghibli heroine) and it's this curiosity and youthful carelessness that allows Sho to see her in a pair of encounters that lead to the dramatic events later in the film. The tragedy of their relationship is that merely by their mutual curiosity and desire to learn more about each other, they set a chain of events in motion that show the inherent fragility of the Borrowers existence and cause their eventual parting.
While there's some modern assessment of the Borrowers plight from Sho, most of that is left to the imagination of the viewer, and it's obvious enough. Indeed, while there is some drama - mostly at the instigation of the rather histrionic housekeeper Haru, and the weakest part of the film - Yonebashi shows a fairly light and deft storytelling hand here. The dangers Arrietty and her family face and the seriousness of Sho's situation are generally underplayed in favor of small moments of wonder as their worlds slowly begin to intersect. This is mostly a quiet, reflective film, filled with a sense of awe about what seems strange to us, sadness about what may be taken from us and hope that somehow we might survive our trials.
Any Ghibli film is naturally going to subject to the discussion of where it ranks in the catalogue. I'll leave that to others for the most part, but it's probably fair to say it ranks as among the best of the studio's works not directed by Miyazaki or co-founder Isao Takahata. The movie was a huge box-office and DVD/BD success in Japan, and won the Japanese Academy Award for animation. It will be released in US theatres for a limited run in dubbed form in February of 2012, but as ever, see it subbed if you can. As a fan of the book, I can honestly say this is an adaptation that faithfully captures the spirit and the magic that captivated me as a child.