Sunday, November 20, 2016

Arrietty, Ghibli, and One Last Song

Everyone who watches anime has heard of studio Ghibli and has probably seen at least one of their many excellent movies. Some of them, like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, have even bled over into mainstream Western culture. Known for their re-occurring themes of pacifism and environmental protection and usually created to be consumable by people of all audiences, these films do a good job of giving you a sense of wonder and motivation and then making sure all the characters get a happy ending and everything ties up nicely in a fashion usually slightly more nuanced and significant than your traditional Disney movie. I grew up on many of these movies and never hesitate when I get the chance to share them, but over the years Ghibli's most famous director, Hayao Myazaki, has become less active, going in and out of retirement while other directors give a whirl at putting the industry titan's resources to use. The last Ghibli film I saw in theaters was Ponyo, which while I thought had many qualities did not resonate with me in the same way stuff like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or The Castle in the Sky did. After that I watched Wizards of Earth-sea on DVD, and, soundly disappointed, stopped feeling especially motivated to keep up with their new releases. A few new movies came out: The Wind Rises, Up on Poppy Hill, Arrietty, When Marnie Was There; I heard little about any of them, and after reading the premises I assumed they were more or less various versions of The Cat Returns: cute stories beautifully animated, but the not the heart-wrenching epics of old.

Recently I've been catching up because, well, it's Ghibli, and it's not like I'm ever gonna finish a Ghibli movie and feel like I wasted my time. The Wind Rises was a solid drama with a middling romance, When Marnie Was There was an excellent tale about abandonment and resentment hampered by a weak ending, and Arrietty... well, Arrietty was the one I had heard the least about, so I didn't even know if it was worth watching. I'd seen The Borrowers back in the day, and didn't know if having gorgeous animation was enough to make Miniature Home Alone anything more than a series of endearing, albeit not all-that-creative gags. This, however, serves as the recommendation part of the review. Watch Arrietty. Not only was it an outstanding movie, but as a long-time Ghibli fan it... well, it might actually be my favorite of their films. Sure, it doesn't have the scale or scope of something like Princess Mononoke, but I actually found it to be more effective at conveying Ghibli's core ideas than any of the countless fantastic movies that came before it.

Arrietty's core strength is simple and tragic: it's the fact that it's tired. Time and again Ghibli has produced uplifting movies capturing the very real and very overwhelming problems of the world post-industrial revolution, but these movies are all hopeful, happy renditions of these issues, stories that paint the future in an positive light. No matter how bleak the films get (and Nausicaa has a nuclear-beast detonate a genocidal attack, so they get pretty bleak) they always come back to that Hollywood conclusion where everything works out alright for all the protagonists. On top of this, they frame the issues they address as fast-paced and exciting, the culmination of epic adventures and sequences of intense action. Even adversity is full of excitement: Princess Mononoke has sword fights and people riding wolves and heroes possessed by demons. Spirited Away has dragons and radish spirits and duels with river gods. The Castle in the Sky has sky pirates and mythical robots and spells of destruction. You get the idea. The antagonists are out in the open, the heroes are presented with clear and discernible conflicts they need only find compromises and solutions to using their hot-blooded enthusiasm. But problems as large as war and climate change and environmental degradation aren't always out in the open like that, and we're certainly not at a point in history where we can pat ourselves on the back and reminisce about how we've solved them. Now, more than ever, we need people who are active in making these changes in the world, not just fantasizing about them, and what the world needs is less stories about how everything will work out alright and more stories that demand something from their audience, that don't give them the satisfaction of watching the credits roll with a sense of contentedness. I think that uneasiness is a valuable feeling to possess at times, and I know that at least personally I tend to contribute the most to our horribly broken world when I'm overwhelmed by just how much work there is to do.

Which brings us back to Arrietty. Arrietty is a movie that is fundamentally uneasy. It's creators have experienced the high of watching Everything Work Out Okay, and they've become numb to it. They're no longer able to drag out some tale in which it all wraps up alright and undercuts what the movie is actually saying. Arrietty is straight and true, and kinda, well, er, perfect. I mean, no work of art is truly perfect, but in my eyes I don't know what I would change about this film. For me, it does everything right.

Arrietty is about a family of little people, the Borrowers from that goofy story you may have read growing up. They even call themselves as much. The Borrowers are a traditional folk: Arrietty's (the character) parents are clearly kind, capable people, but they also cling to what they know of the world and are unwilling to adapt to an expanding human race that no longer feels the need to respect or leave room for them. Arrietty herself isn't some ambitious young new wave, either. She is molded by her parents words, part of her craving to work out some sort of situation with the humans of the house, but never ever to quite put this idea into words or truly defy her veteran parents whom she holds great respect for. However, the Borrowers need to change. They're skilled at what they do, but they're also dying out. Time and time again throughout the movie they express their fear that they're the last of their kind, that they're alone in a world full of strange things. Symbolically, they exist in some strange  purgatory between nature and mankind, representing a culture tied to tradition and to the land, a culture that is seen by most humans as a source of the sort of fascination you find at a zoo. They embody the way modernization is not only stamping out countless species and destroying ecosystems, but marginalizing human voices that defy the general consensus of what progress means.

There's a sort of magic imbued into the world of Borrowers, a magic that made me feel like there was value there just beyond the individual Borrowers themselves. I feel it's worth mentioning the film's incredible art design and pacing, because it's the execution of the atmosphere that makes this tale work in the first place. Arrietty is very much concerned with non-action. It doesn't want its tale to feel epic in any way. It takes its time with everything, going through the motions of daily life for the Borrowers with excruciating detail, detail that is perfectly mesmerizing thanks to the phenomenal depiction of the time-steeped clutter of their lives. The entire society the Borrowers have constructed for themselves feels fantastical in a way that doesn't need to be disrupted or cataloged. The excitement of the world of the Borrowers comes from cats and crows and crickets and other entities that are entirely mundane for us, but take on an aura of fear and excitement for our tiny protagonists. This isn't some comedy-routine shrinkage movie depiction, though. The Borrowers avoid threats and excitement whenever possible, allowing the movie to revel in the beauty of the complex simplicity of their way of life.

The human boy, Sho, seems to understand this beauty. For him, it's not so much a matter of whether or not the Borrowers are an active part of his life: just know that they are there and thriving is enough to make him happy. He wants to see them, and to meet them, but only as they are. Others, however, feel differently. His caretaker wants to capture and display the Borrowers, going so far as to put them in jars like insects for her own amusement. She, too, is fascinated by them, but this leads her to want to find a way to domesticate them into something that is hers. She's hardly an antagonist though. In the end she's portrayed as more of a nuisance than a source of malice, and it's clear that her own actions come from thoughtlessness and misunderstanding more than anything. This is accented by Sho himself, who despite his comparative conscientiousness rips apart the Borrower's house in an attempt to 'gift' them a new kitchen, an act that does more damage than good thanks to the difference what the Borrowers actually need and what he thinks is good for them. Even he is imposing his own vision of modernity on the Borrowers, in his own way, despite being a perfectly kind, compassionate person. It doesn't matter that he's a nice guy; being a nice guy won't save the Borrower's from their fate. Taking action based on informed decisions might, though.

It's not as though the humans and Borrowers could not find a way to coexist. This becomes progressively more clear over the course of the story. If they were willing and brave enough to communicate with one another, it would be no doubt a matter of a single conversation to work out an arrangement. The offering of the dollhouse proves this, as does Arrietty's friendship with Sho. But here's the kicker, and also kind of the point: this conversation never happens. Arrietty never asks, and Sho never offers. "I wanted to protect you" says Sho, with a hopeless past-tenseness that is telling of his own outlook. Sho is sick, and is consumed by the matter of his own heart operation. While the borrowers may serve as a distraction, he seems to be of the opinion that he can't take real action until he solves his own problems, problems that may never be solved. In the meantime, while he is waiting to learn the results of his operation, the Borrowers have had enough: scared of being discovered and railroaded by their customs, they uproot their home and strike out with the hopes that they will be able to find somewhere else to settle before they help dwindle the number of their kind. Mankind pushes the magic of this world further to the margins, not because we are cruel or vicious or insensitive, but because we are unwilling to act or consider. The antagonists of Arrietty are hesitation and thoughtlessness. How are you supposed to defeat those with willpower or kindness? They aren't a witch running a bathhouse, or a ancient king summoning a robot army. Arrietty is Ghibli at its best because it doesn't cut corners or force answers. It presents a dilemma, and then it ends. The only one who gets to decide how it turns out afterwards is you.

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