Sometimes smaller is better.
Studio Ghibli, the anime production house of Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, has often gone for the big message, telling stories of worlds dying out, environments at stake, and elemental forces at play. There are attempts to do the same in The Borrower Arrietty (Karigurashi no Arietti 借りぐらしのアリエッティ), but in this case, they thankfully lose out to less momentous, smaller stories closer at hand.
Based on the tales by Mary Norton, the movie is literally about small things: diminutive people who live underneath the houses of humans, surreptitiously borrowing and fashioning things in order to survive. The 14-year-old Arrietty lives with her father, Pod, and mother, Homily, under the floorboards of an old, Western-style house located in a seemingly forgotten, verdant oasis amidst the Tokyo metropolis. She is coming of age and setting out on her first “hunt” for things in the human residence when her existence is acknowledged by Sho, the sickly 12-year-old grand nephew of the house’s elderly matron who is visiting in order to recuperate. This poses a major threat for the little people, who follow a rule that states that if they are discovered by the humans, they must move. That in fact happened to other little ones in the vicinity in the past, which means that Arrietty’s family now lives all alone in the house. Arrietty resists that imperative and increasingly gets closer to Sho, even as the great aunt’s maid (wonderfully voiced by Kiki Kirin) starts working earnestly to root out the little people.
Miyazaki spearheaded the production of this film, but he concretely only contributed the screenplay, leaving the direction up to Yonebayashi Hiromasa, a young animator known for his fine detail, who is making his directorial debut. It has been the producer, Suzuki Toshio, who has served as the main spokesperson for the film. In the press materials, he outlined two main themes behind the movie: the problem of private property in an era of limited resources, and the question of whether not only the little people but also our species can survive. The argument is that for us to survive, we have to rediscover the notion of borrowing (and eventually, of giving back) what the world makes available, and of working on—not just consuming—what is there through our own labor. Such themes, of course, resonate with the communal, environmentally conscious aspects of Miyazaki’s other works, and even recall his socialist youth.
Yet these themes don’t really work in The Borrower Arrietty. As with the big messages in some other Ghibli films, they can be hampered by their own inadequacies and contradictions. Just as Miyazaki’s nature-focused environmentalism is never fully squared with the industrial nature—now augmented by digital technology—of anime production, nor the shared communalism with the dictatorial nature of Ghibli’s production style (which Oshii Mamoru, among others, has criticized), so here one wonders whether Ghibli has suddenly decided to relinquish its property rights over its films and accept others “borrowing” its movies through file sharing.
Anime fandom already exhibits elements of “borrowing” (i.e., fan subs), but this film’s vision of such appropriation is definitely pre-internet. Arrietty’s family enjoy a petit-bourgeois, if not distinctly European life, one of an ambiguous temporality like the world in Kiki's Delivery Service, but clearly one in the already industrial past. The press materials said that Miyazaki asked the animators to focus on depicting labor, but actually little significant labor comes to the screen. The elaborate contraptions constructed beneath the floorboards or inside the walls had all to be products of group labor—as well as, of course, of the industrial capitalism that produced the borrowed things—and depend on Sho’s great aunt being rich enough (she drives a Mercedes) to resist urban transformation (as well as the mundane Japanese life). Now there are no longer the number of little people left to perform such group labor and to sustain such a life. While the film’s charm depends on showing this bourgeois life, logically the family is only left the choice of either returning to the primitive, pre-industrial life of Spiller, the wild “little person” they run into when investigating possible places to move to, or of eking out a more complicated life in the postmodern, postindustrial geography. The film never explicitly explores the more realistic latter option (nor explains, despite Suzuki's statement, exactly why this life is also under threat).
If such big stories (okina mongatari) fall flat, I think the small stories (chiisana monogatari, to borrow Otsuka Eiji’s terminology) of the film, particularly as they are shaped by its play on words, are more compelling. The Japanese word in the title, karigurashi, refers first to living through borrowing (kari 借り=borrow; kurashi=living). But the phonemes “kari” can also refer to hunting (狩り), which is played out in the film through Pod’s hunts for things to borrow, and the figure of Spiller as the primitive huntsman. Borrowing then becomes a more active, if not aggressive endeavor, one that eventually becomes embodied in an Arrietty who refuses just to move away once discovered by Shō, and seeks out a more positive, negotiated existence. Perhaps this makes her more like the Miyazaki shojo heroine, always on the cusp of adulthood, learning to take command. But the “kari” in “karigurashi” can also refer to “temporary” (仮), as if not only their residence, but also the states of being of the little people are provisional. In fact, I think the real emotional center of the film, the beautifully evoked small story of the love between Arrietty and Sho, is that much more powerful because it is transitory from the start. In a worse film, this could really fall into sentimental romanticism, but The Borrower Arrietty manages not to, in part, I think, due to Yonebayashi’s attention to fine, temporary detail—to the impermanent, physical or visual moment.
It is also on this level that the film avoids descending into the nostalgia that repeatedly threatens to flood it (especially when it compares the good old family of Arrietty to the contemporary one of Sho, a comparison too many Japanese films wallow in). This helps The Borrower Arrietty manage to be more contemporary than the “big stories” it tries to flaunt. I could say that it is the life of temporary hunting, of transient borrowing of various things (including, I could add, other Miyazaki movies), that makes Arrietty into the modern bricoleur. But that, in the end, is just probably just another provisional borrowing.
Sometimes it’s better just to keep the analysis small as well.