Official US poster for The Secret World of Arrietty
Official US poster for The Secret World of Arrietty

[Review] The Secret World of Arrietty and its lesson on virtue

Having seen The Secret World of Arrietty (2010 Japan, 2012 USA), I must say it is a thoughtful anime (as Japanese animated movies are called) and its 95 minutes proved to be a great way of ending my film roadshow in 2012. Produced by Studio Ghibli, the famous anime maker Hayao Miyazaki provided this piece with screenplay, while Hiromasa Yonebayashi was successful at holding the director’s reins. Curiously, Arrietty also has a European background, as it is based on a children’s fantasy book The Borrowers (1952) from English author Mary Norton.

The very first look on The Secret World of Arrietty might give us an impression that the storyline is rather simple and only describes the life of “a family of tiny people,” who have their home made of cardboard hidden under the floor of one typical household. The Borrowers, as these tiny people call themselves, live there secretly and in the night borrow their food from human beings; the “big people” living in the house above them. We are introduced to the daily life of the Borrowers right in the beginning of the film, when Arrietty, an almost 14-year old Borrower, is taken on her first “borrowing mission” above the floorboards by her father Pod. We follow them as they embark on a journey to retrieve a cube of sugar and a piece of tissue from a box to resupply the diminishing stock of Arrietty’s mother kitchen. In doing so, the small Arrietty is spotted by Shawn, a boy who recently moved into the house. Rather than being alarmed or surprised by Arrietty he asks her to stay and talk with him for a while. Startled and hesitating at the same time, Arrietty drops the sugar cube and she and her father Pod quietly leave. This sparks a series of events when Shawn tries to meet again with Arrietty, which is not all appreciated by her parents, who see humans and their endless curiosity as a threat that will result in them being driven out of the house. As Arrietty and Shawn meet once more, the existence of the Borrowers is discovered by the house maid Haru. Mischievously, she responds by calling a pest removal company and embarks on a mad hunt to capture the Borrowers.

I will not spoil to my reader the whole film and stop here. Suffice it to say that the anime develops in an uncomplicated way as a ballad of friendship between Arrietty and Shawn. There is neither some messianic mission to save the world of the Borrowers as we could expect in the Hollywood films nor a great love between Arrietty and Shawn that, notwithstanding some story twists and difficulties, would result in their final reunification. The Secret World of Arrietty is not a grand narrative but a pleasant story of a developing friendship and mutual understanding between “small and large people” that is only interrupted by the scheming of Haru, in whose role we could well imagine any other spiteful and ignorant individual that we regularly encounter in our life. Notwithstanding the fantastic elements and animated nature of the film, the narrative therefore presents us with common themes to which we can easily relate.

Studio Ghibli already has world-renown for the quality of its animation and this new film only confirms it by the beautiful and smooth look that it presents us with. The sceneries of the world of the little people are dreamy, colourful and truly detailed in showing everything in the Borrowers’ “enlarged” world in which we follow them – from simple raindrops to various curious bugs that crawl around and accompany Arriette throughout the story. Thanks to the work of the animators, a night journey of the Borrowers to the kitchen turns into a thrilling expedition. One can be only grateful that the Japanese film makers did not follow the Western obsession with 3D and used traditional methods of drawing, which do not become obsolete with age. The Studio Ghibli’s effort was crowned in 2011 when The Secret World of Arrietty received Japan Academy Prize and Tokyo Anime Awards for Animation of the Year. The whole audio-visual experience is then complemented by the gentle tunes of the soundtrack from Cécile Corbel that only underscore the film’s pleasant and optimistic feel.

This so far presents us with an image of a relaxing and well-made fairy tale, but what makes this film really worth watching is its sometimes hopeful and sometimes bleak message about our culture that it projects in the form of its virtuous ethical standard. It is in the character of Shawn that we see represented something that we can call common decency. In Shawn’s selfless act of aid to Arrietty and her parents, which can be seen when he gives them back a sugar cube that they previously left in his bedroom or when he helps them in escaping the schemes of Haru. Shawn’s gracious conduct is spontaneous in the sense that he is not motivated by any personal gain, but by friendship and compassion that have their own proper merit without requiring any further justification.

In another observation we might also say that Shawn is more empathetic to the daily difficulties encountered by the Borrowers since, as we gradually learn, he suffers from rheumatic fever and is waiting for his heart surgery. Indeed, the fact that when reminded of our mortality we become more perceptive to the environment around us, of our existence, and of the specific place that other people and things hold within it, was already observed by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time. Realising that being is always fleeting, one’s ego and desires are shown as limited by this place and this time and we thus get the needed impulse to see the world from a greater perspective. Indeed, true friendship and understanding of other people’s needs, as well as considerate treatment of natural environment, can come only when we do not regard our surrounding solely as a means for satisfying our desires. Never stated directly or spoken by any of the characters, Arrietty sends this message in a manner more subtle and delicate than the famous German philosopher.

The Secret World of Arrietty tacitly communicates the same idea on the personality of housemaid Haru, whose curious interest in the Borrowers is not motivated by friendship and care as in the case of Shawn, but by her conviction that the Arriety and her parents are particularly nasty sort of a pest. Since Haru only thinks about her own schemes, in other words, she does not really care about her surroundings, she also cannot understand that the Borrowers are virtually indistinguishable from humans except their size. And this is a powerful message that goes against the fundamentals of the Western culture – true understanding, or what is regularly called “objective understanding”, does not come with detachment and rationalisation, but actually through care. Only if we sufficiently care – about our loved ones, family, friends, community, animals or environment – can we really understand their wishes and needs. This idea is certainly known to the hermeneutic tradition in philosophy, but is not often seen on the screens of cinema and television. For Haru and her likes the world is a projection of their ego and its desires without reflecting about the nature of other people and environment. For the narcissist Western society whose pursuit of individual self-gratification is mirrored in its consumerist culture this would be a powerful lesson to learn. But will anyone listen to it? That is to be seen.

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