Beneath the floorboards of an enormous mansion, set in a overgrown garden in the suburbs of Tokyo, tiny 14-year-old Arrietty lives with her equally tiny parents. The house is occupied by two elderly ladies, unaware of the existence of their miniature tenants. Arrietty’s parents have always warned her: “Never let humans see you, as once seen, little people always have to move on”. However, when 12-year old Sho moves in to the mansion, the adventurous Arrietty cannot help but be discovered. The two begin to confide in each other and, before long, a forbidden friendship begins to blossom.
ARIETTY is the latest Studio Ghibli animation to reach our shores. It is based on Mary Norton’s classic children’s tale THE BORROWERS. So the original source material will be familiar to many. The joy of this film is the same as that found in the original story; the idea of the secretive lives of tiny people living only inches away from us. As children, we find this notion irresistible because it mirrors are own experience with the adult world. What we know, who we are and where we go is to some extent a secret we keep from the grown-ups.
Arietty is an adventurous girl similar in temperament to her taciturn father, and nothing at all like her nervous mother. The three Borrowers are the only family of little people living in the mansion. They have no idea how many Borrowers are left in the world. Arietty is a self-sufficient child, but being 14 she has a drive to be more social, to see the world outside her family. She is utterly fascinated with the “human beans”.
This story unfolds in a measured fashion. The set pieces of the movie reveal the clever details of the Borrowers existence. We see their version of our lives. The great delight is in seeing how they borrow our things for their use. A postage stamp becomes art hung on their walls. A cotton reel becomes part of an elevator that lifts them up to the higher parts of the mansion.
My one quibble about the film is Arrietty’s friendship with Sho. Given its prominence in the plot this storyline is slightly mishandled. I found their connection a little vague and unconvincing, but it didn’t mar the film for me.
One of the great strengths of ARIETTY is the choice of French-Breton musician Cécile Corbel as the composer of the score. She creates a fusion of Celtic and Japanese sounds and vocals that provides an other-wordly texture to the film. I didn’t always find the visuals evocative, but the soundtrack was always emotive and sometimes very beautiful.
Adults and children who are familiar with Studio Ghibli fare such as SPIRITED AWAY (2001), HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004) and PONYO (2008) will likely find much to enjoy here. The story isn’t as literally “fantastic” as some of Ghibli’s other films, but director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has created some fine work for his first feature.
ARRIETTY is in Japanese with English subtitles. It runs for 94 minutes and is in Australian cinemas currently. I rated it 4/5.