Sho (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is sick and has been sent by his parents to stay with his aunt Sadako (Keiko Ohtake) in her large house, on the edge of Tokyo. Sadako is away much of the day and her maid Haru (Kirin Kiki) is a strange, irritable, old woman who constantly mutters under her breath as she goes about her everyday duties, so Sho has little company and it is up to him to amuse himself in the gardens and empty rooms of the rambling house. Upon his arrival Sho believes he sees something, or someone, in the garden. But they are minute, no more than a few centimetres high, and everyone knows 'little people' don't exist.
However under Sadako's house they do, and a young girl Arrietty (Mirai Shida), the little person Sho saw in the garden, and her parents live a life by 'borrowing' what they need from the humans. The humans who must never see them, otherwise it will mean certain death. But now the humans have seen them...
Sometimes, though it's increasingly rare, a film comes along which restores your faith in the industry. There's no violence, no sex, no unnecessary gratuitousness passing itself off as clever, self referential humour. It doesn't involve superheroes (at least not in the conventional sense), bickering families or angst ridden teenagers. That none of it has anything to do with Hollywood or America, neither the books on which the film is based or the film makers who have brought it to the screen, will hardly come as a surprise. It appears Hollywood is increasingly incapable of producing anything original or for the pure and simple enjoyment of film - their bottom line, as I guess it always has been, is whether it will make a fast buck and recuperate the millions they have pumped into the production.
To find a film these days which is simply beautiful you have to go to Europe, as with the recent The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, or further east with the likes of the magical cartoon Spirited Away. It is from Studio Ghibli, the same geniuses behind that classic, and their recent retelling of Diana Wynne Jones' fantasy Howl's Moving Castle, that a film comes which is a sheer joy to behold. Their visualisation of Mary Norton's classic fantasy quartet 'The Borrowers', in the form of the new release Arrietty, is ninety minutes of intoxicating bliss.
That the film is set in Japan may initially be off-putting to Norton purists, however much of what you see on the screen from a 'location' viewpoint is pretty neutral. Once Sho enters into the grounds of his aunt's home, he crosses into a never-land where the real world stops at the boundary walls and fantasy takes over. The scenery and backgrounds of this peaceful oasis appear as though someone has taken a paintbrush and washed the screen with a palette of muted pastels. Rivers undulate through the gardens, butterflies and birds flit amongst the bushes, whilst the house itself is a haven of empty rooms, silent corridors, and sun dappled stairways. It is the perfect place for the sick boy to rest. It is also the perfect place for his vivid imagination to take over, as at first he is unsure whether what he sees out of the corner of his eye are people or tricks of the light. It is as the film progresses, and he eventually meets the 'little people' face to face, that the fantasy element of the film really kicks in.
What may have been reality with a 'fantastic' edge above ground is reversed when we enter the world of Arrietty and her family beneath the floors and behind the walls of the human's house. The borrower's imaginative use of everyday human objects, from nails stuck at intervals in a wall to form a staircase, to painted backdrops of a sandy cove with the sun glinting of the waves outside their kitchen window hiding the reality of a bare brick wall, come vividly to life on the big screen, giving the viewer a real sense of the little people's perspective.
The film is, apart from a truly breathtaking artistic achievement, ultimately an ode to childhood. To be a successful children's writer you have to see it from the child's point of view, though never in a condescending way. C. S. Lewis achieved this with his Narnian books, and so did Norton with The Borrowers. Here it is the children, both isolated and misunderstood, but self sufficient and older than their adult counterparts give them credit for, who are the heroes. In many ways they are more mature and grown up than, in Arrietty's case her superstitious and suspicious parents, and in Sho's case his aunt and her housekeeper who worry about his upcoming operation to which he seems to take an adult like, almost fatalistic approach. Perhaps this film with its visual beauty and philosophy on life, has something to teach everyone, whether child or adult?
Alternate versions of the film are on release, both in Japanese with English subtitles, or dubbed in English.