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Karigurashi no Arrietty Review

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.


6 responses so far

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6 Responses to “Karigurashi no Arrietty Review”

  1. tomphileon Jun 26th 2011

    Hate to rain on your parade or anything, but perhaps you’re idealizing here when you say that Miyazaki films are the golden standard for anime films. Sure they’re great, but there are a boatload of others of the same calibre.

    Ever wonder if it’s that viewpoint that made you so quick to point out flaws in other films? Food for thought.

  2. Theowneon Jun 26th 2011

    What I actually said was that Ghibli’s early period was a golden age for Ghibli as a company, and for Miyazaki himself (in my opinion).

    Please read carefully before making these kind of comments.

  3. Mirabelleon Jul 20th 2011

    First, I apologize for my bad English, because I am French ! Yet I found your blog, which is very interesting and about animated movies or series, which are one of my passion too ! Karigurashi no Arrietty is a very charming movie, dynamic and better than Tales from Earthsea, I agree with you. The sense of details in the movie (like the small bug transforming into a ball in the hands of Arietty) gives its richness. And, like all Ghibli’s movies, it defends values as family, ecology and friendship.
    And you are right, the music is definitely a weakness to the movie ! It was composed by a French singer, Cécile Corbel, but I disliked it.
    I will try to read others articles from your blog, which has a good name, “Omohide”. The film omohide poroporo is indeed excellent.

  4. aquabluesweateron Jul 25th 2011

    Really like your review here. I think you nail on all the points. I just watched the film today and came across your review while trying to find out what others think of it. The film definitely feels more Totoro than Laputa. Lots of really nice, quite moments and the animation is just gorgeous. I just love how Ghibli has a knack of weaving so many tales that essentially have no or very thin plots and make good films out of them. I’m definitely very interested to see what next feature Yonebayashi can come up with.

    Talking about Goro making the next Ghibli film, I don’t like that news either. Hopefully he can prove me wrong. If he can make it anywhere near as good as Whisper of the Heart (also my favourite), then I will be happy. Talking about Whisper, I wish we were able to watch more features made by Kondo. That would surely have helped the successor issue at Ghibli!

  5. agmyon Jul 26th 2011

    Thank you for the review. I’ve been very interested in seeing this film since I had heard Ghibli was making it — I read the original book, “The Borrowers”, when I was a child and was curious to see how the studio would pull it off (and how much would change, as it did, for Howl’s Moving Castle).

    Is tomphile some sort of rival anime blogger? Regardless, your (tomphile’s) comment was rather rude and misinformed. If that was any sort of veiled attempt to get people to visit your site (handily linked through your username here) it’s made me decide *not* to read it simply because of your behavior here.

  6. […] “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. Grade: 3.5/5.” – Omohide […]

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