If you have even a passing interest in anime there’s a very high chance you know that Studio Ghibli’s latest offering, The Secret World of Arrietty, opens in U.S. theaters this Friday. What’s perhaps more surprising is that us fans here in the UK had the unusual pleasure of first seeing the movie back in July of 2011 — and, in fact, the Blu-ray/DVD was released here last month. It’s unusual because us poor limeys usually have to play second fiddle when it comes to anime releases; economies of scale and the niche nature of anime fandom mean that we often miss out on some releases altogether, and can find ourselves waiting for up to 6 months after U.S. releases for the ones we do. So what makes Arrietty so different?
The main reason is probably the source material. Based on Mary Norton’s series of Borrowers books, The Secret Life of Arrietty (named simply Arrietty on this side of the Atlantic) draws on one of the U.K.’s best known and loved children’s franchises. Norton’s books have been a firm children’s favorite since their first publication in the 1950s, spawning sequels, stage productions, movies and TV shows — the most recent of which aired just this Christmas on the BBC starring Christopher Eccleston and Stephen Fry. Faced with such a recognizable brand it’s unsurprising that UK distributer Studio Canal decided to push ahead with releasing the movie here — usually they would wait until Disney (who have to rights to Ghibli movies in the US) completed their dub before putting the movie out, but this time have taken the plunge and recorded their own. The result is not just an early release, but also a Ghibli movie with two distinct voice casts and treatments.
For those of you not familiar with Norton’s books (and a quick straw poll on Twitter suggests they are not quite as well known in the US as they are in the UK) they deal with a race of tiny little people who live under the floorboards in humans’ houses, and “borrow” items from the “human beans” in order to survive, while keeping their existence hidden from them. The movie — like the books — centers around the eponymous Arrietty, who lives with her mother and father, and as the action begins is about to embark on her first borrowing — a night time expedition in to the human world to scavenge for useful items.
The major difference is that Arrietty transfers the action from 1950s England to modern day Japan — a slightly unusual move from Ghibli, who have in the past relished in fantasy-European settings for productions like Porco Rosso and Kiki’s Delivery Service. When questioned about this in an interview on the Blu-ray, anime legend and Arrietty screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki claims — with palpable regret — that contemporary Japanese audiences have become insular and uninterested in the world outside their country, and it would be hard to get them to care about a movie set in England.
This leads us to an important point about Arrietty — as mentioned above, Miyazaki is the movie’s writer. He is not its director. That responsibility falls to Hiromasa Yonebayashi — and judging by the aforementioned interviews on the BD it was a hell of a responsibility to take on. For a start Miyazaki has been wanting to make a Borrowers animated movie for some time — decades in fact — but the lengthy processes involved in making his masterpieces means that he’s not been able to make every project he’s had planned. Another notable example of this was Tales from Earthsea — based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books — another series close to Miyazaki’s heart, and that for scheduling reasons ended up being handed to his son Goro. The result was not only Ghibli’s weakest movie to date, but also a falling out between father and son that reportedly led to them not speaking to each other for over a year.
And if that level of potential disapproval isn’t enough, Yonebayashi had even more responsibility to shoulder. The great Miyazaki is getting old — he just turned 71 last month — and his retirement from directing could be imminent. Every movie he announces he’ll make is rumored to be his last, and as the clock ticks on his bowing out becomes inevitable. But as the creative driving force behind the studio — and in many ways its personification — for the best part of three decades, Japan’s cinema going public, animation fans worldwide and the studio’s staff themselves are looking to see if there will be anyone capable of picking up the baton. At 38 years old and with a formidable animator’s resume, Yonebayashi may not seem that inexperienced, but he’s the youngest person Ghibli have let helm a feature yet — and he represents a new generation of directors the studio must nurture if it is too survive into the 21st century.
So, an unenviable task for Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The important question is: how did he do?
It’s clear from the very first frame of animation that at the very least Arrietty is technically the equal of any of the Ghibli releases of the last decade or so. In fact, as the story progresses it becomes beautifully apparent as to why Miyazaki had for so long wanted to tackle this story; the world of The Borrowers — or more accurately their unique perspective on our world — fits Ghibli’s unique, ultra-detailed style of animation perfectly. The movie is a joy to watch based simply on how it depicts the four-inch high characters interacting with the world, and how they take human sized objects and repurpose them to fit their needs. Never before has a Borrowers adaptation conveyed the sense of scale — and thus frequent peril and excitement — so convincingly, and combined with glorious background art from famed Ghibli artist Kazuo Oga and his team it’s hard to deny that this is visually the best depiction of the source material to date. Quite simply it becomes apparent that Arrietty is a shining example of a story that works far better as an animated work; no amount of expensive digital effects or elaborate sets would ever make a live action adaptation as enthralling or convincing as the work Yonebayashi has done here.
And it’s not just the visuals either — one of the standout features of Arrietty is the sound design, something anime (perhaps even including previous Ghibli works) arguably doesn’t devote enough time and energy to. The ticks of clocks boom and echo and the fall of human footsteps reverberate, all enhancing the palpable sense of scale and tension and convincing the viewer that they have been shrunk down to this new, unfamiliar size.
Connected to this is also the dub — and as I mentioned at the top of this review this is where I can only comment on Studio Canal’s adaptation. Dubs themselves are a frequent bone of contention and debate amongst anime fans, but with Ghibli films being aimed at primarily a younger audience subtitles are not really an option for theatrical releases. Luckily with Disney usually at the helm the studio’s releases have been treated to voice casts made up of well-known and talented actors — the US dub for Arrietty includes Bridgit Mendler, Carol Burnett, and Will Arnett. The UK dub isn’t anywhere near as star studded — it’s most recognizable name being Mark Strong, probably best known for his roles in Kick-Ass, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Sherlock Holmes, but it’s still an effective and highly professional collection of performances, with its English accents reminding viewers of the book’s original setting despite the often Japanese touches of the visuals.
If there is one area where perhaps The Secret World of Arrietty falters it is in it’s story and pacing. As beautiful and engaging as the world is visually, there’s a creeping suspicion at times that not enough is happening. Yonebayashi has created an amazing playground, but you can’t help wishing at times that Miyazaki’s script would let his characters play in it a little more often. Ghibli movies are famed for their often slow and gentle pace — but it’s easy to forget how they balance this with exhilarating action — Porco Rosso’s dogfights and Princess Mononoke’s battles spring to mind, or even My Neighbor Totoro’s flying sequences. Arrietty has hints of these, but nothing really boils over in to the full on adventure that the elaborate and compelling setting seems to demand. Not that the film lacks emotional cues — there are convincing moments of peril as Arrietty and her family risk being spotted by the gigantic humans, and the sickly human boy she befriends risks his health to save them — but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the story needs one or two more high points.
So what of Yonebayashi, and thus Ghibli’s future? If anything is clear it’s that the studio has another talented director in its ranks — The Secret World of Arrietty is an impressive and accomplished debut by anybody’s standards. Indeed in many ways the film feels like the best work the studio has produced since Spirited Away in 2001, which is not just a bold statement but a truly exciting development. It will be exciting to watch Yonebayashi what does next, and if the Studio Ghibli has any sense it’ll loosen his reigns some more and allow him and his colleagues to venture out of the great Miyazaki’s shadows and take some risks of their own.
When he’s not writing for Tor.com, Tim Maughan writes science fiction — his critically acclaimed book Paintwork is out now, and has been picking up support from the likes of Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod. So you should probably go buy it already.