Tsunderin: So far on our journey through Ghibli’s film library there have been quite a few films that MadameAce and I have disliked. And whereas my dislike for a film will certainly color my desire to see it in the future, I don’t think there has been a movie so far that I would outright not watch ever again. That all changes today. Today, we review The Secret World of Arrietty: the only Ghibli movie that I will go out of my way to never watch again.
Based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, the film follows the young Arrietty who has finally reached the age where she can go out ‘borrowing’ with her father, Pod. ‘Borrowers’ are small (see: near matchstick sized) people who inhabit houses, living off items belonging to the normal-sized people who live there; borrowing is the act of retrieving said items. In her excitement for her first borrowing, Arrietty accidentally lingers a little too long gathering a piece of tissue and is spotted by Shawn, the sickly boy who lives in the house they’re borrowing from. The two borrowers leave quickly, but not before Shawn happens upon a cube of sugar that Arrietty dropped in their haste to return home. The following day, Shawn leaves the sugar cube outside where he thinks Arrietty will find it, but Pod instructs Arrietty not to take it. If she takes it, then the boy will know that they actually exist. Arrietty’s pride is much stronger than her desire for safety, as she confronts Shawn rather than listen to what her father says. She scolds the bed-ridden boy and tells him that they don’t need his charity.
Thinking that will be the end of it, she heads home only to be approached by her father. He and Arrietty’s mother have decided it’s too late: they’ve been found out, so they have to move. In an attempt to make amends—and partly because of his own selfishness at wanting to see the borrowers—Shawn, after finding the location of Arrietty’s home, decides to replace their kitchen with one from a dollhouse that belonged to his mother. What he thinks is an olive branch of sorts the borrowers take as a sign that they need to get out faster than ever. Unfortunately, all their plans are disrupted due to the sneakiness of Haru, Shawn’s caretaker.
Haru had always been skeptical of the borrowers’ existence, but when Shawn starts acting strangely, she decides to go searching for the small folk as well. She manages to capture Arrietty’s mother and trap her in a jam jar. At the same time, she calls the exterminators to wipe the rest of them out. With her father out exploring new areas to move to, Arrietty is left with the task of saving her mother. Not alone, mind you. She calls on the help of Shawn and together they manage to save Arrietty’s mother and send the exterminators away. Afterward, Arrietty’s family still moves, but their strength has given Shawn a new outlook on life. One last time Arrietty returns to Shawn and thanks him for what he’s done. They promise to remember each other even though they will never meet again.
As opposed to some of the other Ghibli movies, there’s not a lot going on, but the problem with this film isn’t the narrowed scope. The problem lies in the narrative.
MadameAce: While I do believe that the narrative holds a lot of fault, some of the blame also lies within the characterization. All of the characters—all of them—are either completely reprehensible or completely irresponsible and stupid. Or in the case of our main characters, Arrietty and Shawn, a combination of the two. I don’t think I’ve ever had so few fucks to give since The Last Airbender movie premiered.
Arrietty is a disappointment, because I expect Studio Ghibli to do so much better with its protagonists. I almost want to argue that Arren from Tales from Earthsea is better written than the characters here. Shawn’s character, though, has to be the worst offender. I cannot even begin to understand some of the writing decisions that went into him. His character is presented as having a lot of conflicts—living away from home, chronic heart condition—but there’s no resolution for any of these issues. Additionally, these issues, specifically the medical one, lack consequences and have no bearing on the story other than to create angst instead of actual character development. Shawn’s heart condition in particular upsets me—not because it exists, but because of what the story does with it. I’m certain most of my anger with this comes from also having heart problems myself. I’m not familiar with the book Arrietty is based on, so I cannot say for sure how the boy’s health is handled in the original story. What I do know is that this movie handles it very poorly.
So Shawn has a heart condition. What kind of heart condition? The fatal kind apparently, as if that’s the only kind of heart issue there is. It probably doesn’t matter, though, because the story doesn’t seem all that concerned with addressing it. Shawn is staying with his aunt and he’s scheduled to have surgery sometime in the near future. He even mentions to Arrietty that he’ll die without this operation. The thing is, though, none of the characters actually act as if he has a heart condition. They don’t talk about it, other than to let us know that it’s there and that it’s bad if Shawn is stressed out. That’s it. His impending death through whatever his condition is—we’ll call it Obligatory Angst Syndrome, or OAS for short—is not important enough to be named or expanded upon.
None of the characters care, least of all Shawn, who I think is supposed to come across as accepting of his fate rather than bothered by it. I know that feeling all too well, but accepting the fact that you have a medical condition that might kill you is a far cry from being completely apathetic about it. People react to these things, no matter how much they’ve accepted death. For example, just a couple days ago, I found out that I have yet another issue—on top of numerous other problems—that might require surgery. Does it upset me? No, not really, but I still reacted to it. I still called up Rin so she and I could spend over an hour on the phone laughing at my misfortune, because laughter is one way to deal with something like this. Shawn isn’t amused or sad, he’s not worried or content, he’s not angry or depressed; he’s just apathetic. If he cares so little about his own health, why should I be bothered to form an emotional connection to his drama?
Additionally, Shawn’s OAS doesn’t affect him physically all that much either. He’ll jog and run out of breath very quickly, but that’s about it. Shawn’s OAS is going to kill him, yet he can still run around his house, climb on the roof, get super excited, so on and so forth without any overt consequences. At the end of the movie, we never even find out what happens with it, if his surgery is successful or not.
His condition only exists so Arrietty can feel bad for him and not stay angry that he stole her entire fucking kitchen from her house.
Tsunderin: Shawn is quite honestly the biggest problem this movie has. There, I said it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he shouldn’t be in this film at all. He doesn’t really add anything to the story, and worse,
he ruins any character development Arrietty herself could have had, even going so far as to completely intrude on and halt Arrietty’s character arc.
In terms of the heroine’s story, this is horridly detrimental, especially considering Ghibli prides itself on their strong female leads. In Arrietty’s case, I would be remiss to say that they didn’t try. However, simply having the elements of a good character does not a good character make. The audience is shown that Arrietty cares about her family, that she is brave, and that she is willing to take chances—all good traits, but we’re only shown the surface of them or in a manner that relates to Shawn. Take, for example, her bravery. Arrietty is stoked about going borrowing, but more than that, she’s excited about exploring the world outside of her home. She takes it upon herself to venture outside looking for useful items in equal parts want and need. Or at least this much I can assume. She sounds like she’s been out on her own before, but she only goes out when it’s important that she meets Shawn. When her mother is kidnapped, Arrietty should have used her knowledge as a Borrower to rescue the captured woman, only relying on a human if there are no other options, but she goes right to Shawn first.
Now that I think about it, after she indirectly meets the sickly boy during her first borrowing, there’s not a single scene where Arrietty acts without Shawn’s presence in some form. If I wasn’t completely certain that that was what Ghibli intended, I would be almost convinced that Arrietty was a personification of Shawn’s desire for adventure or a coping mechanism for being bedridden, rather than a real character.
With Shawn’s presence being so overpowering, Arrietty cannot develop on her own. As such, in the end, she learns nothing. She doesn’t change. Ultimately, her character is unfulfilling because she isn’t her own character—she is a part of Shawn.
And, again, much like Shawn, Arrietty also lives in a world with no consequences. I know, right? She’s smaller than a Coke can, just about everything should be a danger for her. She kind of acts like she knows this—she at first only visits Shawn without being visible to him—but the audience can’t feel the danger that she faces every day of her life. When she travels outside, she isn’t attacked by the birds that may mistake her for food, or any other predators that may think the same. She isn’t worried about drowning when it rains. Least of all, she isn’t worried about talking with a human who has a pet cat. Why would she be? Clearly the world is tailored so that nothing bad happens to her—just her father, who gets injured the moment he leaves the family to find a safer home.
MadameAce: There’s really not much else to mention about this film, especially character-wise. At least in movies like Tales from Earthsea, some of the secondary characters were rather interesting and not completely void of personality or depth. Here, that’s not the case. Arrietty’s father has all the personality of a stern chunk of rock and is incapable of speaking outside a monotonous drone. Arrietty’s mother exists to worry about everything that’s going on while dutifully standing in her kitchen and doing absolutely nothing, other than get kidnapped by our clichéd villain, who also has no real defined motivations.
The movie’s only saving grace is the music, which is some of the best music in any Ghibli film. And that’s the only thing that made this movie even remotely bearable.
Tsunderin: As a children’s film this still is better compared to about 85% of what’s currently on the market. Yet as a Ghibli film it doesn’t stand up to the rest of the library. Even films like Pom Poko, which we also didn’t like, had a compelling plot, and while some of the characters were lacking, the secondary cast took up the slack. We expect so much more of Ghibli because we know they’re capable of it; obviously they’re capable of it. Arrietty just feels like a “we’re obligated to make a film every year” slap to the face. And it stings.
I should mention that while Miyazaki did have a hand in this film, it was directed by first-timer Hiromasa Yonebashi and co-written by fellow newbie Keiko Niwa. I hope this film at least gave these newcomers practice for what they’ll need to do in the future. A first film is never going to be amazing, so with this behind them, I truly hope they can grow and produce something incredible in the future. As for Arrietty, I have no doubt that it will fade into obscurity, much like Earthsea. Speaking of, next time we’re watching From Up on Poppy Hill. Let’s see how much Goro Miyazaki has improved from his own debut work!