The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

A Japanese take on the Borrowers

with 22 comments

Spirited Away was the first full length anime movie I watched and it blew me away.

Until that point my only experience of Japanese animated film was the TV series Sailor Moon. My daughter was a fan, so I couldn’t escape watching some glimpses of it, even though I never quite figured what the big deal was. To me it looked cheap and clunky with too few images per second to trick the brain into seeing one flowing motion. It was a bunch of still images presented one after each other, reminding me the second class children programs when I grew up in the 70s.

But Spirited Away won me over. It wasn’t just that the quality of the animations was on a different level to Sailor Moon, technically on par with anything else I had watched. What attracted me most of all was that it felt completely alien to me, sprung from a different tradition of storytelling. It had a completely different logic. Side stories that would be have been cleaned out in a movie from the western hemisphere were allowed to spring up and flourish, even if they lead into nowhere.  You never knew quite where the story was going. There was also an abundance of strange creatures, which it turned out that my daughter was familiar with since she’d been on a manga diet for years. She became our guide into what felt like a new, unexplored territory.

I had never heard of the name “Studio Ghibli”, but I learned later on that this was the Japanese studio behind not only Spirited Away, but a number of animated films that are highly regarded in film fan circles.

The Secret World of Arrietty is the most recent film from this studio, but unlike Spirited Away it’s got its root in the European tradition, being an adaptation of Mary Norton’s fantasy novel The Borrowers. This was one of my favorite books as I grew up, so it’s an understatement to say that I’m familiar with it. I know every inch of the story about the world of the secret miniature people.

Speaking as a fan of the book I have nothing to complain about in this version. The drawings are just beautiful, in a classical, nuanced style that feels refreshing in a time where 3D seems to grow into a standard for animated movies. The music is enchanting and puts you into a dreamy state of mind. Not even the dangers that present themselves feel truly scary and threatening.

A film watching friend of mine called it a “leisurely stroll down the river” and I agree on that description, even though we disagreed on the conclusion. He thought it was a bit boring. I would rather call it enjoyable and relaxing, an opinion which I seemed to share with the kids in the audience as I watched it. They were dead silent throughout the film, seemingly absorbed, and when it ended their only complaint was that they wished it had been longer. They didn’t want to leave that world quite yet and neither did I.

I would give the critic right though that it lacks a bit in the terms of wonder and imagination compared to a movie such as Spirited Away. It really didn’t bring much new to the table. Just moving it to a Japanese setting doesn’t make any huge difference, especially not since the adaptation follows the original story so closely.

But you have to keep in mind that the main market for Arrietty is the domestic one, and apparently it’s been a box office hit and you can only speculate for the reasons. Perhaps the story about the borrowers feels as new and fresh and exotic to them as Spirited Away felt to someone from here?

Spirited Away opened my eyes to the Japanese anime treasure and remains and outstanding film experience in my memory.  I’m afraid The Secret World of Arrietty doesn’t reach that level. It’s a little bit too European. This doesn’t take away from it that it’s a good and enjoyable animated movie, well worth spending a Saturday afternoon on.

The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Gary Rydstrom, JP, 2010) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

February 9, 2012 at 1:00 am

22 Responses

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  1. Yay! I’m excited about this one.

    I like that my Jessica is watching animated movies. There is so much rich material in the world of animation.

    Corey Atad

    February 9, 2012 at 3:06 am

    • I like animated movies, I just don’t come around to watch them often enough anymore now that my kids have grown. But I’ll try to shape up a bit.


      February 9, 2012 at 6:58 pm

  2. I really enjoyed The Burrowers. Actually, I love pretty much all of Studio Ghibli’s films.

    I recommend My Neighbour Totoro for you, Jessica. It has that “slightly different quality” that you might like.


    February 9, 2012 at 5:33 am

    • I’ve had Totoro reccomended to me before and I definitely want to see it. I just checked in the on-line directory of my library and apparently they have it! So I’ll try to get hold of it soonish.


      February 9, 2012 at 7:00 pm

  3. Honestly, this is certainly an area I can sit more comfortably with (movies I know yay!) Even with Studio Ghibli’s history of good movies, Spirited Away is certainly one of their their best, it’s the Lion King or Aladdin of disney. Land before time for Don Bluth, or many myriad of examples that it scares me I could come up with.

    Their movies are certainly all good, but I have to say the one you should look at next, if you do, is Grave of the Fireflies. Be warned though, it is beautiful, and sad. Here’s the….like first line of the wikipedia article (yes you could look but then spoilers!)

    “Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka?) is a 1988 Japanese animated war tragedy film written and directed by Isao Takahata. This is the first film produced by Shinchosha, who hired Studio Ghibli to do the animation production work. It is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka, intended as a personal apology to the author’s own sister.”

    ….yeah. all you need to know, right there. Bring a tissue, or ten…thousand, and do prepare for a very unique experience.

    Animation can be misleading. but at least this one has an appropriate theme cover. Unlike UP which has BALLOONS ON THE FRONT OF IT. …… evil trap movie of evil. So good though.

    No….I don’t think that movie will ever escape making it into one of my comments. I’m sorry.

    • You really sound like an expert! And as you spot I’m just a beginner. I’ve seen Howl’s Moving Castle as well, but that’s about it. I’m not sure if Grave of the Fireflies will come next though since my library aparently has Totoro. But we’ll see. I might get hooked!


      February 9, 2012 at 7:03 pm

  4. Ah Spirited Away is definitely my favourite of the SG films, and coincidentally I just watched Arrietty a few days ago and found it… nice.

    And I would agree with Rohan that you should watch Totoro, it’s so charming and funny. I liked it so much I bought a plushy Totoro:


    February 9, 2012 at 11:18 am

    • Aww, what a sweetie! I definitely want to watch it.
      And yes, “nice” is a good word to describe Arrietty.


      February 9, 2012 at 7:04 pm

  5. I wouldn’t watch a movie just because it’s anime, but I would watch a movie just because it’s made by Studio Ghibli, even if it’s not by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata.

    If you want movie as rich as “Spirited Away”, check those two directors. Specially “My Neighbor Totoro” ( I join voices that recommend it to you.


    February 9, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    • I know you have recommended it to me many times before and I’m sorry I haven’t come around to see Totoro yet. But now at least I know they have it at my library! I’m approaching it!


      February 9, 2012 at 7:04 pm

  6. Have you seen “Kiki’s Delivery Service”? The city and landscape design is oriented on Stockholm and Visby.


    February 9, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    • Nope, I haven’t seen it but I just checked it up and it appears as if you’re right. Just so you know: Visby is one of the most beauitiful cities I know of in the world, matched only by Paris, New York and Edinburgh.


      February 9, 2012 at 7:07 pm

      • New York is no match for Visby in beauty.

        With “Spirited Away” you watched the probably most “japanic” Studio Ghibli movie. They often show a lot of inspiration from around the world, like in “Castle in the Sky” you can see Wales or different European cities in “Howl’s moving castle”.

        Those movies are absolutely untypical for the anime genre because of their quality.


        February 10, 2012 at 8:03 pm

        • I haven’t seen all of NY mind you. But I’ve been to Manhattan and just… wow… The houses are just as high as in the movies – or higher – and the cabs are as yellow and the Brookly bridge as beautiful. I realize that’s just a tiny part of the city though…


          February 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm

          • That wasn’t meant to be too serious – it’s a matter of taste, very personal. E.g. for me high buildings (and very big cities in general) are not so much impressive but more depressing. Might have to do with a little fear of height – watching “Hugo Cabret” in 3D did cost me some years of my live, especially the Harold Lloyd reminiscence.


            February 13, 2012 at 3:51 pm

          • Oh, one last thing: Is the “burrowers” in the title intentional?


            February 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm

  7. Heya Jessica,

    I’m really glad you reviewed this movie – I’m hoping to get the chance to see it soon – I’ve fallen a little behind on Studio Ghibli’s works as of late, Spirited Away being the newest one I’ve seen. There have been a few since then, and I’m hoping to catch up sometime soon.

    I would highly recommend anything by Studio Ghibli, as, it seems, the others here do, too, especially those directed by Miyazaki Hayao-sensei. (Just to let you know, his son directed one – Tales from Earthsea – which was not as well received as their other works in the past, so it’s still up in the air who will take the mantle once Miyazaki-sensei decides to retire.) All of them are beautifully animated, deal with very human topics, even if the presentation feels foreign. For example, Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) takes a look at the conflict that arises between nature and industry and presents it in a very unusual, fantastic setting, in the conflict between a young girl raised by wolves, the boy that finds her, and a local forge whose work is affecting the natural setting around it. It’s weird, the first time you watch it (especially if you see it without subtitles, like I did, though Disney has released it on DVD), but in the end, it’s exciting, cute at times, and overall well done.

    If I had to give you the Ghibli “essentials” list, I think it would be:

    Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa) – Ghibli’s first major film
    My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)
    Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no Takyuubin)
    Castle in the Sky (Tenkuu no Shiro – Laputa)
    Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta)
    Pon Poko
    Whispers of the Heart (Mimi wo Sumaseba)
    – My favorite
    Howl’s Moving Castle (Howl no Ugoku Shiro)
    Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)


    On Your Mark – a music video animated by Studio Ghibli for Chage & Aska. (Excellent song, though the actual song is about a bicyclist, as I understand it, while the video is something else.)

    There are a few others that are good but didn’t really make the list – the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies, which was excellent, but a total downer – it’s in my collection but I have never watched it since the first time I saw it in college, and I still remember scenes of it clearly; Only Tomorrow (Omoide Poroporo) – which while an excellent film, is slow, though it does present an interesting take on the differences between more modern thoughts of societal culture versus the older culture from the Imperial era of Japan’s history; The Ocean Waves (Umi ga Kikoeru) a high-school romance story that while sweet at times, has a bit of the element of ‘you can treat people badly and still come out ahead in the end if you’re beautiful’, though that’s not really the whole theme of the movie – it’s a ‘discovery of others’ sort of film; and Tales from Earthsea and My Neighbors the Yamadas, both of which are lesser known titles of Ghibli’s works that have had little written up about them, as far as I’ve seen.

    If you’re interested in seeing a few other anime titles that should be in many animated classics collections, I’d add Lupin III – The Castle of Cagliostro (Miyazaki-sensei’s directorial debut, as a matter of fact) and Millenium Actress (Sennen Joyuu) – a film by renowned director Satoshi Kon (Paprika, Perfect Blue) as well.

    I hope you’re able to see more of this genre – there’s a lot of junk out there in it, but quite a few gems, too.

    My 2 yen,



    February 10, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    • That’s quite an extensive guide! Thank you so much! Again: all those movies aren’t easily available to me since I don’t want to buy them and I don’t do downloads. But I’ll keep an eye for them and see what my library can come up with.


      February 12, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      • One good thing – All of those that I’ve mentioned, Disney has released, at least here in the US, so they should be less difficult to find than if they were coming from Japan.

        And one other thing – Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) should have been on the list, too. As should Ponyo, truly the most recent Ghibli flim I’ve seen. I’d forgotten it, but it was quite a magical film – artistic, sweet, and classic.

        I hope you get to see most, if not all of them, Jess!

        My 2 yen,



        February 13, 2012 at 3:31 pm

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