Arrietty, the latest work of Hayao Miyazaki’s legendary Studio Ghibli, is both instantly recognisable and a departure from previous classics like Howl’s Moving Castle. A tale of tiny people living in the bowls of a country house, and the friendship that its flighty teenage daughter Arrietty makes with a sickly, full sized human boy that comes to stay, is full of the themes of the need for youth to explore magical worlds and build friendships away from the watchful eyes of their parents that were such a huge part of the Studio’s earlier films. Based on the famous English children’s novels The Borrowers by Mary Norton, it is also a lighter, more bucolic tale from a Studio famous for creating dark, cannibalistic monsters made out of shadows, and turning naïve parents into hogs.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Arrietty marks the first big Studio Ghibli release not directly overseen by the Studio’s famous founder, a fact about which Arrietty’s director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, seems to be acutely aware. “Mr. Miyazaki wrote the screenplay and drew several image boards but he was not involved in the actual animation production at all” he says, before dismissing the idea that the master could be anything other than a constant influence for the film. “Mr. Hayao Miyazaki is the mastermind behind this project,” he says. “He had wanted to adapt The Borrowers himself some 40 years ago”.
Yonebayashi, one of Studio Ghibli’s chief animators and a key presence behind the success of almost all of their recently successful films, displays the sort of mannered deference that comes with being the keys to the family car for the first time, and as a response is a testament to the fact that Miyazaki has trusted Yonebayashi with a prized project. It is not, one suspects, an honour that is bestowed on many, but this suggestion is met another deferential, diplomatic reply. “I am sorry to say that before Mr. Miyazaki asked me to direct this film, I have never read the original novels.”
Not that you would notice: The Borrowers, in its simplicity, is a story ripe for adaptation. Based on the idea of tiny people who live hidden in the bowels of human houses, ‘borrowing’ items from their human counterparts, it offers the opportunity to create a world in which normal household object become huge obstacles to be scaled, and the tiniest crumb of food is enough to live on for a week. Arrietty’s strong suit is the creative way it plays with this idea, making doorways out of plug sockets, using dollhouse furniture as the real thing, and rendering the outdoors as something wild and terrifying. It was an incredible amount of work for what remains a small core team of animators. “How the water droplets were animated, the sound effects and photography, much effort was put in by our staff to create the world of the Borrowers,” says Yonebayashi.
However guarded the conversation may be, one can’t escape the suspicion that the Studio Ghibli team have had a great deal of fun creating this endlessly inventive world which they have made entirely their own. It is, Yonebayashi says, a film that looks at things we take for granted in a new way. “From the eyes of the Borrowers, they can by all means notice the smallest details”, he says. “Small prickles around the leaves, bumps on a brick’s surface… I believed that if we also pay attention and care to include such details, then a world that no ordinary person has ever seen can be visualized.” No amount of passion, though, can make Yonebayashi reveal his next project. “At this time there is nothing planned.” Considering the charming world that he is just helped create, let us hope not.