Thanks to a twitter tip by the fine folks at Tsunacon, I found out that there was a showing last week of the latest Ghibli movie, The Borrower Arrietty, at the Melkweg theater in Amsterdam. Luck would also have it that I’d come down with a cold during the same period, but I managed to power through and experience my first theatrical anime in the Netherlands, and second time in a Dutch theater overall.
The first time, I had gone to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, and it carried the unique challenge of having the audio in a language I understand (English) with subtitles in a language I don’t know but is fairly close (Dutch). Perhaps due to my experience as an anime fan, I found my eyes gravitating towards the Dutch subtitles, and because written Dutch is so closely related to English it would occasionally interfere with my ability to understand what characters were saying, almost as if the subtitles were in English but accidentally taken from the script of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. For The Borrower Arrietty, the movie was presented with Japanese audio and Dutch subtitles, and I found it a lot easier this time to ignore the Dutch. I think it had to do with both the fact that Japanese and Dutch are quite far apart as languages, and that I had gained the experience of Deathly Hallows. Which is to say, I was able to avoid one potential distraction, and even my cold seemed to play nice. Either that, or the movie drew me in enough that I could comfortably ignore it.
The Borrower Arrietty follows a small family of Borrowers, a race of small people no taller than a ballpoint pen. Living underneath a house inhabited by normal humans, they “borrow” the tiniest amount of materials from the human world in order to fulfill their own needs. The humans meanwhile are oblivious to their existence, and the Borrowers in turn avoid all contact with humans. Arrietty is the family’s only child, a 14-year-old girl who is set to go on her very first “borrowing” with her father, but who is already quite adventurous and often wanders outside to explore. Living above them is a new resident named Sho, a young boy with a heart condition.
The world of the Borrowers is a patch-work world of human products appropriated for use by tiny people, and it is in the portrayal of this world that the movie really shines. Whereas a lesser film would constantly make obvious references to scale, Arrietty does this through a mixture of subtle visual effects and through the characters’ natural interaction with their environment, and it is the first thing that really pulled me into the movie. A hand cloth becomes a blanket, a clothespin becomes a hair clip, staples become the rungs of a ladder. When the family of Borrowers is gathering at the dinner table, they have tea which they pour out of a tiny teapot, but while the teapot is scaled down for their usage, the tea comes out not as a steady flow but as droplets which swell at the tip of the spout due to the small opening and the natural cohesiveness of water. Backpacks are held together by velcro; when viewed from the perspective of a Borrower, the fastening and unfastening feels quite alien. The world is a whimsical and dangerous frontier.
Without giving away too much, The Borrower Arrietty is about physical, social, and conceptual divides. There is the sheer size difference between human and Borrower, the purposeful separation of the two species, and even the way a length of distance for a person can seem mercilessly long to a creature 1/20 our size, or for that matter, for a boy with a weak heart. The film is also about working to bridge those divides, and the degree to which it succeeds actually depends on your own outlook on life. Arietty is as optimistic as you make it out to be.
The Borrower Arrietty is not directed by Takahata or Miyazaki or even Miyazaki’s son Goro, but by Yonebayashi Hiromasa, who has worked on Ghibli films before but is in the director’s chair for the first time. When the movie began, I wondered as to what extent Miyazaki would influence future Ghibli films of which he is no longer apart. Granted, Miyazaki still has a big hand in Arrietty, being responsible for planning and screenplay, but I still had to ask myself how much “Miyazaki-style” and “Ghibli-style” would go hand in hand as time passes. Fortunately (or not), The Borrower Arrietty made me quickly forget my own inquiry with its engrossing visuals and storytelling, and by the time it was finished I felt myself not worrying about it so much.