Thoughts On: Arrietty - The Family Spirits


Arrietty - The Family Spirits

Thoughts On: Arrietty (借りぐらしのアリエッティ, 2010)

A family of tiny gatherers come under threat when they are seen by a young boy.

Arrietty is a meticulously beautiful Ghibli film and was a much-needed turn around for the studio after Tales of Earthsea and Ponyo. Taking Ghibli back to a time of quiet and peace that they captured in the late 80s/early 90s with Grave Of The Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday, Yonebayashi steers Ghibli away from the scale and chaos of the previous two films quite literally. And so, whilst there has been a rather intense focus on action and huge, sweeping animation ever since Spirited Away, Arrietty's attention is all on the minutia of character animation, still life and sound design.

For anyone who hasn't seen Arrietty, to fully appropriate the film, you must listen in a way that no other Ghibli film has ever really demanded. The world of this narrative is completely encompassed in subtle sonic waves that have you feel the weight and size of everything in relation to one another - and without being too obvious. It is then to be expected from any film that deals with a small world interacting with a big world that huge thumping footsteps and loud voices will contrast and conflict with tiny footsteps and squeaky voices. Arrietty smartly subverts this trope completely, giving the small figures the same voicing as the humans and refraining from the depiction of humans as big, slow, dumb giants, which is an integral decision clearly made to humanise the Borrowers and show that they aren't feeble, novel creatures. What's more, this film doesn't exploit the world of and use its novelty as an excuse to just play a game. This is what you see in the British-American adaptation of the book Ghibli also loosely transcribed onto film:

As you can tell from the trailer, this is not a film about calm and quite, about a serious and troubling - though reservedly small-scale - conflict between two worlds. I haven't seen this movie since I was a young kid, however, and so I won't say anything more than I'm pretty sure it's not as good as Arrietty.

What strikes me most about Arrietty beyond its incredibly technical direction is the allegory it builds into. Before we delve into this, I think it's appropriate to talk a little about Mary Norton's original series of books. We hit a bit of a wall here, again, as I haven't read any of the books. However, it seems to fit into a very specific time in the world: the 1950s . Emerging from the 50s were a selection of sci-fi fantasy books and movies about people being or seeming very small. Three of the most iconic films that come to my mind are Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Day the Earth Stood Still.


1950s American sci-fi is incredibly interesting as so many films and books of the genre and time are really direct reflections of the fact that the world was emerging from a post-war era and (for America) were transitioning into a highly prosperous period that was overshadowed by the Cold War and huge social change. Whilst films such as The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers are then quite obviously about a fear of Communism, the films we have listed are a little more subtle. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman seemingly deals with emasculation, The Incredible Shrinking Man, the scale of the new, nuclear world, and The Day The Earth Stood Still, the precariousness and frailty of a technologically developed and dependent society. We can think of these films as existentialist reactions to change in American 1950s society. This change, however, was not confined to America as the 50s and 60s saw huge social change spread across most of the world. This may explain why some of these films were and are so globally iconic, and also why a book such as The Borrowers would emerge from this time, 1952, in the UK.

Very much so like The Incredibly Shrinking Man, and most other stories that deal with small worlds interacting with big worlds, The Borrowers owes much to the stories of the homunculus, or anthroparion, archetype. The homunculus/anthroparion is a small little being often created by alchemists, inventors, scientists or wizards, and it is often used to question humanity.

In a way, the homunculus is humans recognising that they can be the Gods that give birth to a new species, and thus these small creatures (and others alike) have been integrated into theories of the inner man. Jung, for example, suggested just this; that the homunculus/anthroparion symbolised the inner being. However, other cognitive scientists use the homunculus for an allegorical argument describing the way in which the brain perceives the world; they argue that it is as if there is a little man/woman inside our heads who processes things. Cognitive scientists, of course, don't mean this literally, but seemingly want to suggest that there is a divide between our brain and body; that our brain is maybe slightly autonomous or free from our consciousness and so operates with a set of rules we cannot control. All of these associations to the homunculus and the world of the small person suggest that there is something deeply embedded into the character, something that is suppose to say quite a lot about who we are. Added to this, as 50s sci-fi/fantasy makes clear, the reflection that the smaller world, or even the bigger world, of low fantasy has upon humanity has much to do with changes in the real world.

Taking this set of ideas into Arrietty, we should be quite open to a lot of subtext. And so, as you may expect, Ghibli uses the homunculus, the Borrower, to possibly comment on changing times in Japan and the family who owns the home that this narrative is centred on. Like the quieter Ghibli films that we mentioned earlier (Grave Of The Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday), Arrietty is concerned with family, most specifically, however, its possible dissolution - which leaves Arrietty more akin to Grave Of The Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro than Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday. Possibly reflecting the crumbling of the nuclear family through divorce - a world wide trend, and national trend in Japan, since the 50s - Arrietty's fundamental use of the Borrowers is to contrast a broken family with a solid family.

What is most telling in this respect is that the Borrowers have lived in the human household for 4 generations. This may sound like a random number, but, looking back 4 generations we come to the war and post-war generations that were born in the the 40s, 50s and 60s. With this allusion to a generational conflict that has lasted since the 40s inside a film that is very clearly about family seems to provide strong evidence for the idea that the subtextual drive of this narrative is divorce and the more general dissolution of families that has been up-trending since this era.

With that noted, we can begin to look for greater specificity by asking why the homunculus figures are called Borrowers. What is the significance of their relationship as not-thieves with humans? This is a difficult question to answer as the small people aren't borrowing anything; they're stealing. The best answer I can conjure would involve thinking of the family in your own household. They take food and resources, but you wouldn't call them thieves - especially since those resources are probably meant for them. However, what if the family members in your house were estranged, but were still taking food. Because everyone is family, and they may not be taking more than what they deserve as family, you wouldn't want to call them thieves. Maybe the correct euphemism to describe the strange dynamic would be 'borrowers'?

This seems to be the best way to at least describe the homunculus family. They're stealing, but, we assume that their place is in the house - that they are almost like house spirits - so their title of thieves is euphemistically reduced to just 'borrowers' to relinquish negative connotations. And with that said, we can again return to this question: What is the significance of their relationship as not-thieves with humans?

As estranged family, or house spirits of sorts, the borrowers relationship with the humans is defined by friction. They have a place in the household, one that implicitly questions the ethics of the family within. Let's do a minor thought experiment. Imagine the borrowers are living in your house. How would your family react? Maybe some people would be freaked out, annoyed or disgusted, and want them gone. Maybe others wouldn't mind sharing the space and supporting the little family. But, what does it say about your family if there are some people who want the small creatures destroyed?

The tone of Arrietty, and other similar films that deal with small worlds interacting with big ones, suggests that aggression directed towards the small world is an indication that the bigger world is corrupt or damaged in some way. Think of films such as Ratatouille, An American Tail or Pom Poko. Ratatouille deals with the suppression of dreams; the big world is the suppressor. An American Tail deals with immigration; the big world is the breaker of harsh realities. Pom Poko deals with pollution and deforestation; forces of the big world. Arrietty as a film about family features a small, closely knit world that is striving to strengthen, whilst the bigger world - the household of a deteriorating family who have essentially abandoned their dying son with a maid - threatens to tear it apart.

With it now pretty clear that the Borrowers test the ethics of the human family by essentially holding up a mirror to them, we should ask what it is that they borrow. With every sugar cube that the Borrowers take also comes family values. We get a sense of this because, if the small world and the big world were aligned, then the Borrowers wouldn't have to borrow; they would simply be house spirits quite like the zashiki-warashi (a.k.a zashiki bokko).

The zashiki-warashi (translation: guest-room child) as a Japanese house spirit that indicates family prosperity and good fortune test the family they live with with simple mischief. The zashiki-warashi, much like other house spirits such as the Domovoi, seem to represent the essence of family. Family is difficult, and it takes patience and sacrifice to maintain. This seems to be why house spirits are often depicted as mischievous and should be left gifts. The Borrowers are a reincarnation of the house spirit and, as said, are bound to the homunculus. And such encapsulates all we have so far been discussing. The Borrowers as tragic house spirits who are forced to take minor gifts are a reflection of the inner being of dissolving families. When the family becomes aggressive, the Borrowers are forced to leave. And when a family becomes aggressive to the spirit of familial being, it is liable to fall apart itself.

Arrietty is a film about exactly this. There is no mother and father to speak of; the house is destabilised (and may have been this way for many generations). With the family falling apart, the maid becomes like an evil step mother. The evil step mother herself often symbolises chaos entering a once-perfect family that was struck by tragedy. We need only think of classical Disney films here. The maid, Haru, doesn't seem to care too much for the family she serves, she just does her job. It then makes sense that her character would not care for Borrowers like the Great Aunt does. The Great Aunt understands that the spirit of their family lies in the embrace of the Borrowers; it shows that they understand that family itself is sacrifice and care. However, Haru is motivated only by her job, and, in a way, the fact that the family is broken. After all, if the family was fully functional, she wouldn't have a place. This then says much about her wanting to capturing and hold hostage the Borrowers. But, the fact that Shō, the sick boy, understands and cares for the Borrowers despite Haru implies that there is hope for the future.

Shō is willing to sacrifice small things, such as sugar (symbolic of sweetness; empathy even), to maintain the small family. This act of sacrifice is a clear virtue. He also understands, however, that the right thing to do is more than turn a blind eye to the borrowing. The physical offering of the doll house is then incredibly key as it shows an attempt to not just accept the Borrowers, but integrate them into the family, turning them into house spirits of sorts that would welcome good fortune as they, themselves, would signify that the family understands the ethics of familial being.

The fact that the Borrowers do not live in the doll house is an expressive one; the Borrowers know they are not fully welcome - which may just be a consequence of the family being unstable, of there being no collective attempt to welcome them. The homunculus have remained Borrowers for so long, taking instead of receiving, which indicates that family values are evaporating. If they are forced to leave, we can then assume that this may signify that all family values have been completely lost.

What you would then expect from Arrietty is a reconciliation between worlds, for the Borrower family to move into the doll house and Shō's family to sort itself out. This, however, is not what we get. Arrietty ends with the Borrowers leaving and with a set of difficult questions. Will the Borrowers survive out in the wild, and how for long? Will their species die out, and does this indicate something tragic about the state of familial being in Japan? With the Borrowers leaving, is it accepted that Shō's family is inevitably going to fall apart? Is he going to die soon, alone with just Haru at his surgery, and will this be the cause of the family's dissolution?

Because of the tone of the film, I find it hard to foresee such a dark future. Instead, I think that Shō, as he suggests, has been given the courage to live on, and new Borrowers will move into his home. Just as different families came and went for previous generations in the house hold (which may further suggest that there is a long history of divorce and dissolution for Shō's family), new Borrowers may come as he becomes head of the household. Will Shō then welcome the new Borrowers and teach his children to care for them too? Will his family be functional, will they understand the spirit of familial being, and will they be as strong as the little Borrowers who hold up a mirror to them are?

For these beautifully constructed questions, I have to say that Arrietty is up there with the best of Studio Ghibli's films. But, there is more to be said about this film. So, what are your thoughts on Arrietty and all we've talked about today?

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