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A Japanese take on the Borrowers

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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