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Archive for July, 2011

Produced by Studio Ghibli, the animation studio co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty the Borrower (2010) is a beguiling, gentle, and finally moving film which has much the same flavor as the master’s work. Indeed, Miyazaki wrote the screenplay, which based on a 1952 children’s novel by Mary Norton (unread by me). Part of what I like about the film is the way that it locates magic and wonder in an everyday domestic setting. That’s the Ghibli touch. Where it differs from Miyazaki’s own films is its tragic vision.

The film begins with a young boy, Sho, going to stay with his aunt in the home where his mother grew up while he awaits heart surgery. In the backyard, he sees a small girl, about the size of a cricket, running through the grass and into a grating. The girl, Arrietty, and her parents belong to a virtually extinct race that survives by “borrowing” supplies from humans (little things they won’t notice are missing, like sugar cubes and pins), which they use to build their nests. Essentially, they’re very cute squatters. If the borrowers are seen by humans, they’ll have to move somewhere else for their own safety, and the precariousness of this existence has made Arrietty’s mother a nervous wreck.

Like many of Miyazaki’s heroines, Arrietty is just on the cusp of womanhood, and is now old enough to accompany her father when he makes nighttime commando raids on Sho’s house. During one such raid, Arrietty is spotted for the second time by a half-sleeping Sho, who tells her not to be afraid. Nevertheless, Arrietty is so terrified at being seen that she drops the sugar cube she and her father lifted from the kitchen. The next day, Sho leaves a sugar cube by the grating with a tiny note for Arrietty, but when she tells her father about it, he says not to touch it because it could be a trap. A few days later, Sho leaves a second note and a flower, but by now the viewer will have intuited that this is not the sort of movie where a magic spell can turn Arrietty into a real girl.

Although Arrietty and her parents depend on the people that they borrow from, at the same time human beings are the biggest threat to their survival. When it becomes apparent that their cover’s been blown, Arrietty’s father decides that it’s time to start looking for a new place to live. But before he can find one, Haru, an old domestic servant who works for Sho’s family, captures Arrietty’s mother and puts her in a glass jar. For the borrowers to survive, they have to keep themselves hidden from humans, which means that Sho and Arrietty can never be together. Having been conditioned by family films to expect unambiguous happy endings, I was surprised by the poignancy of the film’s ending, which suggests that the gulf between human beings and borrowers is ultimately too great for the characters to bridge.

I don’t need to tell you that the animation is beautiful, so let’s instead consider some of the narrative functions of Yonebayashi’s mise en scène (which consists of setting, light, costumes, props, and figure movement). The first time we see Arrietty, she’s carrying some shrubs that she’s taken from the backyard to decorate her bedroom with, and like the borrowers themselves, the family’s living space is neither completely wild nor completely domesticated. Arrietty’s room feels particularly untamed (in part due to the foreground clutter which you can see in the picture above), while the communal living spaces that are the domain of her homebody mother are relatively well ordered. Yonebayashi contrasts the borrowers’ nest not only with Sho’s house (which is uncluttered and dreary) but also the woods that lay beyond the backyard.

Curiously, during the day, the borrowers’ nest seems to be illuminated by sunlight coming in through the windows, which doesn’t make any logical sense as their home is located under a closet in Sho’s house. Conversely, Sho’s house doesn’t seem to get much light even in the middle of the day, and the sombre decor (brown being the dominant colour, in contrast with the pale greens and pinks of the borrowers’ nest) adds to the home’s gloomy vibe, creating a sense that there’s no real joy in the house. As Sho himself puts it, while Arrietty has a family but no home, Sho has a home and no family. (The perpetual absence of Sho’s parents, whom we’re told are divorced and work all the time, didn’t seem believable to me given that the boy has a chronic heart condition and may not survive his next operation.)

The film’s other major setting is an elegant, minutely detailed dollhouse that Sho at one point attempts to combine with the borrowers’ nest in an attempt to reconcile the domesticated with the natural. However, it’s precisely this utopian gesture that leads Haru to discover the borrowers’ hiding place. (Her first indication that something is amiss is when she finds a tiny gold pot from the dollhouse that Sho dropped on the staircase, and which stands out vividly against the dark red carpet.) Haru’s job is to maintain order, and Sho, by introducing an alien element into the household (i.e., Arrietty and her parents), upsets the normal balance of things.

In keeping with the film’s opposition of the domestic and the natural, Sho’s romantic rival, Spiller, is a feral borrower that Arrietty’s father encounters while searching the woods for a new home. Unlike Sho, who wears collared shirts and is associated with objects connoting gentleness (such as the flower that he leaves for Arrietty), Spiller is a nomadic hunter-gatherer who wears face paint and animal furs, carries a bow and arrow, and is as robust as Sho is delicate. In addition to his appearance and monosyllabic speech, Spiller’s lack of refinement is also signaled through his gestures, such as the way that the counts on his fingers when Arrietty’s mother asks him if he’s seen any other borrowers.

One significant prop associated with Arrietty is the plastic clip that she uses to keep her hair up when she enters Sho’s house. (Conversely, when she’s at home, she tends to wear her hair down.) In the final sequence, when her family moves into the woods with Spiller, she gives the clip to Sho as a memento, as if acknowledging the impossibility of reconciling her family with the domesticated world represented by the house. During their goodbye, Sho tells Arrietty that she’s given him the strength to live (in contrast with his earlier pessimism, when he said that his upcoming surgery was probably hopeless). And after she leaves, Sho turns to look at the sunrise, which is plainly a symbol of hope for the future–not just for Sho, but for the borrowers as well, who are not as close to extinction as they initially appeared to be. However, we can infer that Arrietty will likely marry Spiller, if only to keep the species going (and then, perhaps only for another generation or two). And what could her future life be other than one of brute survivalism? Similarly, even if Sho survives his next procedure, he seems doomed to a short, lonely, sterile existence. As in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), the film’s conclusion inspires so many conflicting emotions that it’s impossible to say definitively whether it’s a happy ending or a sad one.

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