A young Japanese boy named Sho (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki) moves into his great aunt’s house where he discovers the presence of tiny, little people called Borrowers. Fourteen year old Arrietty (Mirai Shida) and her parents Pod (Tomokazu Miura) and Homily (Shinobu Otake) live underneath the floorboards and survive by “borrowing” things from the world of human “beans”. While on her first borrowing mission, Arrietty comes face to face with Sho, breaking the rule that humans must never learn of the borrowers’ existence. Nevertheless, a deep friendship grows between the two as they strive to keep the Borrowers safe from harm.
In retrospect Mary Norton’s much beloved Borrower books seem like perfect source material for Studio Ghibli. Anime legend Hayao Miyazaki scripted this eloquent adaptation but handed directing and storyboarding duties to talented newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the youngest animator ever to helm a Ghibli movie. Yonebayashi ably melds his mentor’s familiar concerns how children mature and grow learning to live in harmony with nature with Norton’s themes of trust, secrecy, and survival in a sometimes hostile world where giant bugs lurk in the shadows and almost every journey through the outsized landscape seems perilous. Norton stresses the Borrowers’ preparedness at the core of their culture which merges neatly with Ghibli themes of community and cooperation. The film also touches on environmental issues as Sho notes the Borrowers are an endangered species, to which Arrietty argues they will fight steadfastly against extinction. Another typically humane Ghibli touch is the ostensible villain of the piece is no malevolent Borrower-killer, but an irate, elderly housekeeper (Kirin Kik) simply aggrieved that they things keep disappearing around the house.
There are some notable differences between Kari-gurashi no Arrietti (literally: Arrietty the Borrower) and its source novel. The titular heroine is recast as an only child and the filmmakers downplay the cross-generational conflict in a nod to traditional Japanese filial deference. Pod is a sagely, loving, caring father as much as he is a shrewd survivalist. Also, Spiller (voiced by Tatsuya Fujiwara, star of Battle Royale (2000) and Death Note (2006)), the gruff and feral Borrower who becomes Arrietty’s potential mate in the books, is consigned to the peripheries although rather more amiable than the character is usually portrayed. Norton’s novel offers a wealth of cinematic set-pieces that past BBC adaptations (notably in 1977, 1992 with Ian Holm and Penelope Wilton and another on the way in 2011 starring Christopher Eccleston as Pod) and the big-budget Working Title production The Borrowers (1997) mounted with great aplomb. Similarly, Ghibli’s animators seize on their possibities and deliver an array of lovely, lavishly detailed images. There is an epic feel to this film lacking in other versions. Whereas Peter Hewitt’s film opts for frantic action and zany comedy, Ghibli allow the more lyrical aspects of the story to flow gently and foreground the bittersweet, almost-romance between Sho and Arrietty.
Arrietty shares an adventurous spirit in common with other Miyazaki heroines as well as an individual sense of style. Both Arietty and Sho are similarly isolated inside their respective environments and his protective instincts towards her stem from his own feelings of frailty. We sense a real connection between the two which lends weight to the film’s key theme of trust, as at one point Arrietty literally places her life in Sho’s hands. Beautiful score by French singer-songwriter Cécile Corbel.