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Arts and Culture

'The Secret World of Arrietty'

Again, a film that feels like real childhood memories. How does Miyazaki do it?

Dorothy Woodend 24 Feb

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other Friday for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

There is a moment in the new film The Secret World of Arrietty when you hear a faint echo of the signature melody from Hayao Miyazaki's classic film, My Neighbour Totoro. The orchestral swell brought tears to my eyes and propelled me instantly back in time when childhood meant summertime, warmth, endless dappled days stretching into the blue black of night. This sweet faint echo is almost enough to make Arrietty seem better than it is, but mostly it just makes you yearn for Totoro. In the same way that any copy only highlights the mastery of the original, so it is here as well.

The Secret World of Arrietty, based on Mary Norton's classic book, The Borrowers, will be instantly recognizable to any Studio Ghibli fan. It is in full possession of the curious combination of European and Japanese culture, mashed together to form the wonderful hybrid flavour that infuses the studio's most famous films, including Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, Howl's Moving Castle and of course, Spirited Away.

To all outward appearances, this is classic Miyazaki stuff, and it hits all of the right notes -- a tough, fiercely independent girl, a sly villain, puffy yowling cats, heroes, sacrifice, and big cottony clouds scudding across the deep blue of a summer sky. Although conceived and written by Miyazaki, the film was actually directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and the inimitable magic of the earlier films isn't quite there. Only a trace of their mysterious spirit lingers like a fading melody.

The story is simple enough. Arrietty Clock (Bridget Mendler) is a member of a tiny race of beings (borrowers) that live under the floorboards of old houses. She, along with her mother, Homily (voiced by Amy Poehler), and her father, Pod (Will Arnett), eke out an existence by taking things that humans will never miss, everything from tissue paper to sugar cubes. The arrival of a sickly little boy changes everything. In the original novel, "the Boy," as he was known, was suffering from rheumatic fever and was sent home from India to recover and regain his strength. In the film adaptation, the story begins with a boy named Shawn (David Henrie) being sent to the house in the country to rest before he undergoes heart surgery. Even before he has stepped foot in the house, Shawn espies Arietty, who is under attack from the house cat and a crow.

Typical tiny teen

Although little more than four inches tall, Arrietty is a typical teenager, with little inclination to listen to her parents and a ferocious need for independence. Headstrong, feisty and curious, she instigates a relationship with Shawn, despite her parents' worry. The fate of other borrowers, who disappeared after having any type of truck with humankind, hangs ominously over the tiny little family. Humans, being humans, wreck everything, and so it is here as well. The blossoming friendship of Arrietty and Shawn soon enough attracts the attention of the nasty housekeeper Hara (voiced by Carol Burnett), who is obsessed with catching the "little thieves," as she calls Arrietty and her kin.

In a nutshell, that is the plot, but as is ever the case in children's stories and films, that's really only the beginning of things. Issues of power, class, control and rebellion are only just below the surface, a tangled web of feelings that never quite erupts in the same way that it does in previous Miyazaki films. As a hero, Arrietty makes an admirable central figure. Her courage and resourcefulness set her apart from the 'princess sickness' that seems to pervade girlhood lately. As she trots, swings, and races through the giant human house, rappelling down drapes, and clambering up walls, her pin/sword tucked firmly through her skirt, it is hard not to fall in love with this tiny tough girl. Which is exactly what happens to poor broken-hearted Shawn.

The tween love story is something of a departure from the original Norton books, but the film adaptation devotes a similar level of attention the inversion of big to small and vise versa. Sugar cubes are the size of watermelons, bay leaves as big as umbrellas, and postage stamps hang like paintings in the Clock Family's cozy home. The deep and abiding charm of this conceit endures, even as the puppy love story between Arietty and Shawn takes a background role. The film is certainly beautiful to look at, and a welcome respite from the endless parade of atrocities masquerading as children's entertainment; I simply wish it had been more, but perhaps this is greed, pure and simple ,on my part.

Remembering youth

As a Studio Ghibli production, Arrietty is a more minor work, a chamber piece as opposed to the towering Wagnerian heights of Spirited Away. There are still a great many pleasures to be had from this film, but the fact that even a minor nod to the films that preceded it has the greatest emotional impact is telling. What is it telling you exactly, though?

Just this.

Miyazaki's films live in your mind in the same way, and on the same level, that your real childhood memories do. As a child, I remember very distinctly the feeling of being deep in the woods, wandering, "exploring," as we called it, finding mossy little glades, so deeply green that they seemed unreal, and thinking that if you were still enough and patient enough, the fairies and elves that surely inhabited such a place would reveal themselves. You simply had to wait long enough, and you would catch a slip of movement out of the corner of your eye, announcing their arrival.

I was thinking about this on the way to the movie theatre, watching the deep bruised blue of the North Shore mountains seeming to march towards the sun, gathering darkness behind them. The drama of sun against cloud against mountainside, the scene changing from light to darkness and back again had more inherent drama in it than 100 Tom Cruise movies back-to-back. It was instantly and all there, all of these forces in opposition, the daily drama of day into night, so ordinary, yet so ridiculously beautiful. It's funny how it catches you sometimes, when you look up from your iPhone and see world-turning summersaults in front of your eyes.

There are very few films that manage to somehow capture the feeling of natural world, and somehow Miyazaki's work, through some mysterious alchemy of art, line and colour, adds up to something that is more than the sum of its parts. These films are filled with the genuine atmosphere of how it actually feels to be a child, messing about out in nature. I don't know how it works, or why it works so profoundly, but I suppose that's why they call it mystery. If you could pin it down, kill to dissect, you would pluck out the most precious part. Best to let it go, deep into the forest, on a warm summer night, when the clouds and the moon beckon.

Giant water bugs and we smaller insects

Watching My Neighbour Totoro is like coming home again, back to the time when you could spend an entire afternoon crouched beside a pond, watching the multi-layered drama of water striders, tadpoles, and giant water bugs unfold. (If ever there was a perfect villain waiting for a starring role the giant water bug is it.)

Maybe childhood stays pungently inside your brain as a means of survival, like grain stored for the winter, some form of sustenance to keep you going when life is largely cold and grim. And life certainly has more than its fair share of grimness lately. The other day my sister asked, "Is evil winning?" Sometimes it feels that way. When the world seems rife with events that stretch the boundaries of atrocity, it's understandable that a retreat to the simplicity of childhood is so compelling and attractive. To return to a time when the grand indifference of the sun, the clouds and the trees paid no attention to the squeaking of these mosquitoes-like creatures that buzz madly around for an instant and then disappear, only to be replaced by new clouds of the same, all madly buzzing on about similar things until they too vanish. And on and on it goes. Perhaps it is about slipping loose from the endless myopia and self-regard that humans are prone to, instead taking one's place in the greater drama, as a bit player.  [Tyee]

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