Studio Ghibli,which for decades has been dominated by the “old crowd” – Suzuki, Miyazaki, and Takahata – has made occasional attempts at cultivating younger talent in the past. Ocean Waves was initially envisioned as an exercise for younger staff, and occasional films such as The Cat Returns or Tales from Earthsea have all been attempts to bring new directors into the forefront. However, the studio has never really managed to find a proper spiritual successor to Miyazaki, who is the man most associated with the company worldwide. Many Ghibli fans might even say that Miyazaki himself has been unable to recapture the magic of the early films (Nausicaa, Totoro). With the old crowd quickly reaching retirement age, it is now plain that without proper successors, the company may be in trouble very soon, and thus the company has dedicated three out of five years to new talent. Karigurashi no Arrietty is the first result.
While Miyazaki had a presence in the background work (and is credited as such), the director is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who has worked as a key animator at the company since the days of Princess Mononoke. Whereas Tales of Earthsea felt irregular among the Ghibli canon, Arrietty has a familiar tone, feel, and look. The story has shades of Kiki’s Delivery Service: a young girl who happens to be a “little person” (as in, small enough to fit in your hand) is reaching an age where she must learn how to “borrow” items from the larger house in which they live. Without this skill, she will not survive for long, as her parents are two of the only “little people” she knows in the world, and without them, she would be helpless. Unfortunately, they must also avoid being spotted by humans, which has become more difficult due to the presence of Sho, a young boy awaiting surgery who has been brought alone to live in the house they occupy. His father has passed away, and his mother, a workaholic, has no time for him.
I must admit that Sho and Arriety are not exactly the most distinctive of the Ghibli characters. Arrietty is a somewhat milder version of Kiki, less rebellious but with a similar amount of energy and curiosity, while Sho himself is subdued and gentle, owing to a fragile childhood of sickness. Despite his seemingly harmless exterior, which threatens to become a cliche at times, his upbringing appears to have given him a sense of cynicism about the world, which manifests in one scene where he informs Arrietty solemnly that her kind, few that they are, cannot possibly last long in this world of several billion humans. However, the climax of the story is relatively tame, and Sho does not undergo much in the way of conflict or resulting development and thus remains more of a secondary character. Unlike several other works in the “little people” genre, it is the humans and their world which are alien to this film, and the “little people” are who we identify with.
The film is abundant, however, with small moments that are individually a joy to observe. A scene of rainfall, with Arrietty stepping through the grass while splotches of rain drop on the foilage above, is a wonderful sight and sound. In one moment, Arrietty sits, depressed, in the garden, and a small bug wanders by. When she picks it up, it curls into a ball in fear, which she momentarily plays with, smiling, before settling it back down gently. It’s a scene with no real purpose except to give the audience a moment to grin- the kind of small, inconsequential details that give life to many of Ghibli’s other films. After all, Ghibli has achieved its level of fame due to the careful and beautiful execution of the little moments, the scenes of life, which make up the whole. Yonebayashi understands this, and is able to weave these moments convincingly throughout his film.
Where the film falters, unfortunately, is with its music. Ghibli’s films have nearly always had beautiful and primarily orchestral soundtracks. Joe Hisaishi’s captivating melodies for Miyazaki’s films are well known, but secondary composers like Nomi Yuji (Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns) have also provided a fine orchestral character to the films that have given them a timeless feel. With Arrietty, we instead find a soundtrack which, though occasionally remaining within an enjoyable Celtic quality, too frequently begins to resemble pop music, particularly with the sugary female voice which dominates the theme song. Unfortunately, this aspect of the film makes a great effort at robbing it of any of the aforementioned feeling of timelessness and feels far too manufactured in comparison to the organic theme songs of Mononoke, Ponyo and Spirited Away.
On the whole, Arrietty is a relatively light, breezy film – it does not have the weight of the grander fantasies like Laputa or Mononoke nor should you expect it to. What it does have is a trace of the gentle magic of Totoro, that certain Ghibli character which is difficult to express but easy to recognize. Is it of the same caliber? The answer is a resounding no – but this is not unexpected. For a first work, Arrietty is proof enough that Yonebayashi has the talent and the ability to produce Ghibli features in the future which maintain the level of quality, but also that particular Ghibli character, of the company’s past productions, two things which I felt to be utterly lacking in Tales from Earthsea. It is impossible to tell if Yonebayashi will be able to produce classics the way that Miyazaki and Takahata have done – films which will be remembered for decades. Perhaps in the future, we will look back fondly on the Ghibli golden age, which some will even claim as having ended earlier, perhaps after Spirited Away. Nevertheless, with Yonebayashi, the company has a plan for the future.
The next step in the Ghibli road map is the new film by Goro. I have made it clear that I did not like Tales from Earthsea, nor am I a fan of the way Goro has been fasttracked into the director’s chair without any experience presumably because of a marketing tactic by Suzuki. Nonetheless, the story for the new film, which I have written about a few posts ago, seems well-prepared to capture the tone and feel of Whisper of the Heart – my favourite Ghibli film. We will see if he can prove himself the way that Yonebayashi was able to do with Arrietty.
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