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The first three movies I’ve talked about in Ghibli Bits ranged in quality, but even the best of them felt a little off. Whisper of the Heart was a solid movie that felt like it took from both of Studio Ghibli‘s creative founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata; The Cat Returns was cute enough but definitely didn’t look like a typical Ghibli movie; and Tales from Earthsea proved a movie could retain the iconic look of a Ghibli movie without any of the narrative oomph or emotional resonance. But finally, in 2010, a new director offered a movie that perhaps best matches both the look and the feel of a Hayao Miyazaki movie: Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty.

The Secret World of Arrietty (or just Arrietty in Japan) is, like both Whisper and Earthsea, a project Miyazaki and Takahata had been talking about adapting for 40 years. Based on the novel The Borrowers by English writer Mary Norton, Arrietty changed just enough from the source material so as to keep it from being overly complex, maintaining almost all of the central themes and sense of wonderment.

Longtime Ghibli in-between artist and animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi was given the opportunity to direct, a responsibility he did not take lightly. Having worked on six previous Ghibli movies (Princess Mononoke, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales from Earthsea, and Ponyo), as well as several of the company’s shorts, he definitely understood the house style and mentality. At 36, he was by far the youngest person to direct a Studio Ghibli film, and reportedly would seek guidance from his mentor Miyazaki–who co-wrote the screenplay and was also a production planner on the film–but he soon realized he should take this journey on his own, something Miyazaki congratulated.


Arrietty tells the story of a small family of Borrowers, a race of thumb-sized people who make their homes underneath the houses of “beans,” or regular-sized people. True to their name, they go “borrow” things from the beans for them to use that won’t necessarily be missed. If they’re spotted by any beans, they have to move immediately; they cannot let themselves be seen. Our family unit in the film consists of patriarch Pod, a stoic, serious type, matriarch Homily, an easily excited worrier, and the titular Arrietty, a young Borrower just coming of age to go borrow.


We find Arrietty on the day before her first borrow. Her mother is particularly concerned because a brand new bean has come to the house, a younger one. Young beans are notoriously dangerous. Still, though, Pod takes Arrietty on her borrow, where she picks up a hairpin, which she uses as a sword. However, steadily, we see that the young bean–a boy named Sho who is staying in the large country house of his aunt to await a life-saving operation–is wise to the ways of Borrowers and longs to befriend Arrietty, though she is at first very reticent. She drops a sugar cube on that first borrow, and Sho witnesses it, and leaves it by the Borrowers’ home. Pod stresses that she not touch it but she eventually returns it and tells Sho to leave them alone.


But, of course, Sho and Arrietty do become friends. Danger amounts as the housekeeper thinks she can catch the Borrowers, and Sho moving the Borrowers’ house into his closet (actually, pretty dick move, bro) only makes it easier for her to find them. It’s up to Arrietty’s bravery and trust in Sho that ultimately makes everything okay again.


So what makes Yonebayashi’s movie so Miyazaki-like? The strong, young female protagonist is a huge indicator. Again, Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay, so it’s not that hard to fathom, but a young, capable girl was the main character or second main character of nine of his 11 feature films. This actually represents the largest break from the source material; in the novel, Arrietty has a younger brother named Peagreen, but he was removed for this in order to strengthen Arrietty’s journey into adulthood. There’s also an air of, for lack of a better word, “niceness” to the plot and story. The peril isn’t too perilous, despite a harrowing scene with a crow, and it makes you feel good to watch it. Miyazaki’s movies always elicit calm joy in me, and this movie achieved the same result. (Not a scientific measurement, mind you, but one that I’m hoping people can relate to.)


The movie is also visually incredibly detailed and magical. All of the Borrowers’ belongings are things we use, but to them they’re giant and used as different things. A spool of thread as a table; Tinker Toys as climbing gear; a clothespin as a hair clip. The world is incredibly rich and vibrant, with a complex color palate. The attention to detail in a Ghibli movie is always impressive, but certain moments of the beans’ faces seen from the POV of the Borrowers are perhaps the most defined, the most “real” of anything they’d ever done.


The Secret World of Arrietty is a truly enjoyable movie and ranks up there with some of Ghibli’s best adapted work. It was justifiably a big hit, making over $145 million worldwide, and is the fourth highest grossing anime film in North America–the highest if you don’t count movies based on games. In Japan, it easily took the spot for highest grossing film of 2010 and attracted nearly four million viewers. So what I’m saying is…the movie’s great and you should check it out.

Yonebayashi would go on to direct another Ghibli movie, which we’ll talk about in two weeks’ time, and it would represent an interesting shift in style. But before we get to that, there’s one more film to talk about. If Arrietty is Yonebayashi doing his version of a Hayao Miyazaki movie, then From Up On Poppy is Gorō Miyazaki doing a Isao Takahata movie, a slice-of-life of Japanese public school kids movie. Is it better than Tales from Earthsea? Oh, god yes. Is it good otherwise? We’ll see!

Images: Studio Ghibli

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He’s the writer of Studio Ghibli retrospectives Miyazaki Masterclass, Takahata Textbook, and Ghibli Bits. Follow him on Twitter!


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