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At The Movies: Arrietty, or Markgraf Loves Studio Ghibli Forever What A Surprise

2011 August 18

I’ve just been to see Arrietty, people. Like, literally just this minute got back in after the 2.3 mile (I checked on Google maps) schlep from my favourite cinema. I’m hot and I’m sweaty and I’m tired. Better make this review a bloody good one.

Japanese poster for Arrietty showing a small girl with pale skin and brown hair pinned back using what appears to be a bulldog-style paperclip, wearing a red dress and standing among giant leaves with raindrops onSo, Arrietty is an adaptation of Mary Norton’s childhood-favourite series (and don’t forget the films!) The Borrowers, which is about an ecologically invalid subspecies of human beings that are inexplicably about five inches tall or less and basically subsist off stolen goods and services. This adaptation is by Studio Fucking Ghibli, who also did my favourites Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke. Oh, and not forgetting the godlike Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro.

I literally couldn’t love Studio Ghibli films more if I tried. They are a tour de force in animation, steadfastly championing the 2D cel-shaded animation genre like the 24-carat geniuses they are. Pixar and Disneamworks can’t touch them. People are leaping frogs about Pixar producing its first female protagonist!! with the (and rightly so) hugely anticipated Brave – but Studio Ghibli have been writing fantastic, inspirational female protagonists since they first began with Sheeta in 1986’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. I mean, come on. While we’re fannying about here in the West with bloody Sucker Punch apparently making history with having so many female protagonists, they’ve made things like Princess Mononoke, where not only is the title girl a complete badass, she’s also actually not by-the-book squeaky blameless sacrificial-lamb benevolent. She has power and flaws and rage and potency and – wait, this is a review of Arrietty.

Arrietty is the first film to be directed by the Studio’s newest induction to directing, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and it’s absolutely magnificent. I am slightly ashamed to admit that, while I read the first Borrowers book when I was a kid, I can’t remember much about it, other than Arrietty being great fun and very empathic as a main character, and that I wanted to know exactly how they made their clothes. The film does an awful lot for scale fetishists like me (SMALL VERSIONS OF BIG THINGS THAT ARE JUST THE SAME!!!) and explores in quite some visual detail the things that will change at that level of minutiae – in particular, surface tension and the behaviour of liquids. How they pour tea! Is amazing! I squealed in the cinema!

Still from Arrietty. Against a blue sky, a field of pink and yellow flowers. The tiny figure of Arrietty is standing on a flower with her back to the camera, and a young Japanese boy with a white shirt and floppy dark hair is staring at her with an expression of wonder. Copyright Studio Ghibli 2010The story is simple and quite static. It takes place in only a few days, and really, nothing huge happens in the vast scheme of things, but that’s just it: from your perspective as an audience, nothing much has changed at all. But from Arrietty’s tiny perspective, everything has! Her house that she’s lived in all her life has had to be abandoned, she’s met more of her own species, having believed that her family were the only ones left, and she’s made friends with a human boy, despite her parents, Pod and Homily, warning her of the inherent dangers therein. Everything’s changed. Her whole worldview has been rocked to the core – and yet Yonebayashi keeps us, the audience, at this cool, gentle, static distance with his long still shots of water dripping off the edges of plants and C├ęcile Corbel’s gentle music. It’s amazing. It’s like he does perspective with your perspective.

That was the most amazingly pretentious sentences I’ve ever written and I’m not even sorry. But yes. There’s a lot of focus on scale, naturally, in this. That’s where the magic is. From the moment you see Arrietty, fleeing expertly from a laugh-out-loud-amusingly-faced fat cat, you’re enchanted. She’s so small. And everything she has in her life, from bay leaves to fish hooks, feel so familiar and worn with use. You’re captivated between the alien nature of observing life lived at 1/8th scale, and being charmed by how familiar it is at the same time. It’s perfect. Dude, did I mention the tea?

The main difference between (what I remember of) the first book and the film is firstly that it’s vastly simplified, and the inclusion of Spiller (“Dreadful Spiller” in t’books) as a motion catalyst. He’s introduced having rescued Pod from a sprained ankle in the rain – and my god, the moment he came on screen? I fell in love. I am going to cosplay as that boy every day for the rest of my life. He’s completely amazing. He’s wild and awkward and ingenious and has a KETTLE FOR A BOAT. He’s a little bit of a shoehorned-in love interest of sorts for Arrietty, but the shows of affection are mostly from him to her – she’s far too busy escaping crows and playing catch with woodlice. And even then, there’s only arguably two of these awkward Spiller-y shows of admiration, so you needn’t worry – as I do – that an oafishly stapled-on heteronormative TWOO WUV will impinge upon your film-viewing.

Basically, I want Spiller to have a cameo appearence in everything. Which will happen, because I will dress as him and climb onto sets of productions and films and things and run around in the background.

Drawing on textured card of Markgraf using a furred cape to fly. He is holding the top two corners and the bottom two are strapped to his feet, which protrude at an amusing angle. The only thing visible of Markgraf's face under the shadow of the cape are his gleaming glasses and a big, lit-up grin. The sun is shining just behind him, implying that he is flying quite high up. The caption says, 'This is why I shouldn't watch films'.

Overall, this is a brilliant directing debut for Studio Ghibli’s brand spanking new physics-obsessed boy, and I’m very excited to see what else he’ll be doing in the future. I’d compare him to Miyazaki, but I can’t, because all I’ll do is shriek “HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE” seventeen times before passing out in a flood of my own tears.


  • You should always see a Studio Ghibli film immediately and without reservation because if you don’t, I truly believe you become one of the soulless
  • This is a charming adaptation that I think does Norton proud – if only for the fact that it engrossed me so completely that I now have to return to the novels!
  • Niya the cat is side-splittingly hilarious


  • I can only think of one reason that’d prevent you from seeing this film, and that is if all the cinemas in your area immediately burn to the ground tonight.
19 Responses leave one →
  1. August 18, 2011


    I saw this in the cinema with Ben. My eyes misted with tears at how searingly beautiful every single shot was. It’s a bit like Hero – you could take any one cell out of the film and frame it, and it would just look exquisite.

    We both did a bit of a double-take at Spiller’s entrance – person dressed in furs, with a hunting bow, stepping into the light to reveal thick hair and dark skin while “tribal” drum music played – but after a post-film discussion we chalked this up to a desire to show the contrast between the neat little world that Arrietty inhabits and the vastly different world she is about to (unknowingly) plunge into.

    And as this is my beloved Bad Rep, I feel I should also drop in what I saw as a +feminist point, which is her first borrowing excursion. Her father seemed to regard her as being just as agile, strong, competent etc as he was at that age – I don’t remember any specific conversations regarding her shortcomings or shots of him having to help her because “she is a girl.” And that, to me, is awesome. (If there were, I may have filtered them out.)

    My favourite thing about the film, though? Let me tell you.

    We saw it at Covent Garden Odeon, in Japanese, with English subtitles. The audience was a mix of all sorts of people- groups of friends, couples (with ages ranging from 15 to 50+), family groups… One group sat behind us had a fairly young child watching with eyes wide in rapture, as his father whispered the translation to him; another family let their wee girl walk around and play peek-a-boo – which, bizarrely, nobody really seemed to mind. It was just… magical. All sorts of people brought together by the wonder of film. This wasn’t a trip to the movies; this was cinema.

    • Markgraf permalink
      August 19, 2011

      About Spiller: anime is notoriously bad at race, probably for lots of complicated reasons that I don’t understand because I’m an English bloke who’s never been to Japan, but I’m not sure that’s wholly what’s going on with Spiller. I think it’s a bit of anime-and-race-oh-god-what and a bit of, as you say, very important contrast between Arrietty’s home-and-kept lifestyle and foreshadowing of everything she’s about to trade up her life for.

  2. August 18, 2011

    This is one of the most entertaining film reviews I have ever read. Well done.

    • Stephen B permalink
      August 19, 2011

      This is pretty restrained for Markgraf :) There’s a whole series of “Markgraf’s Movie Adventures” here! (But yes, they crack me up every time)

      • Markgraf permalink
        August 21, 2011

        Ooh, sir, you’ll make a boy blush.

  3. August 18, 2011

    But how do they pour the tea??? HOW??? You can’t say and then not say!!! How do they pour the tea???

    I’m haunted now, until I see this movie.

    • Miranda permalink*
      August 18, 2011

      I know, right? I’m like, is it a thimble with a spout cut in? A system of ingenious TUBES?

      What about the TEA itself? Is it loose leaf, so they only us a few granules per pot? Do they “borrow” a single teabag and make it last a month? QUESTIONS.

    • Markgraf permalink
      August 19, 2011

      You just gotta see it! I can’t explain it! You gotta go look!

  4. Barbara permalink
    August 18, 2011

    Arrietty and her family were awesome. And I loved seeing things from their perspective. And OMG the tea o/

    But I cannot put this on the same level as Miyazaki’s films because of Sho. I watched the English dub, and the voice acting was pretty bad all around, but his in particular. That extinction speech in the middle – he’s not supposed to be enjoying it right? But that’s how it came across to us. And the final “you’ve given me the courage to blah” at the end didn’t seem connected to the rest of the film at all. More Spiller plz.

    I was really looking forward to this but we giggled the entire way through, and not at the stuff we were supposed to be laughing at. I’m wondering if it was maybe the fault of the UK translation and the original Japanese or the Disney dub coming out next year will be better?

    • Markgraf permalink
      August 19, 2011

      I saw the Japanese-with-subtitles, and I didn’t notice this as a problem. I suggest it’s the English dub.

      • Miranda permalink*
        August 19, 2011

        I always prefer my world cinema to be subtitled rather than dubbed, somehow. Ghibli particularly has a variable level of dub quality- Laputa was redubbed with James Van Der Beek in the early noughties I think, and it isn’t very good. But Arrietty had what appeared to be a pretty interesting English voiceover lineup (Mark Strong’s usually good value!) and more and more Hollywood stars seem to be doing anime voiceovers as Ghibli grows ever more popular in the West, to the point that I’ve been considering viewing the dub- so I’m sorry to hear it wasn’t very impressive!

        • Markgraf permalink
          August 19, 2011

          Yeah, the fact that the English dub blows actually surprises me – Mark Strong being on the cast is my main thing of course (HHRRGNNNGGHNNGH MARK STR-STRONNNGG CAN I HAVE HIM FOR MY BIRTHDAY GOD PLEASE) but also because Studio Ghibli have, in my experience, had rather good dubs! The Princess Mononoke dub is lovely! And I seem to recall the Howl’s Moving Castle one being decent, too.

          (An aside: my award for Best Anime Dub Literally Ever will always go to Hellsing. Always and forever. It is so appropriate and perfect.)

          • Barbara permalink
            August 19, 2011

            I agree with you on the subtitles front, but our local art cinema’s having some renovation done, so we only had the opportunity to see the dub. What I find weird is that are two English dubs – the UK one which I saw, and the Disney one that comes out next year. After Warriors of the Wind (the massacre of Nausicaa) Ghibli’s been very protective of its films and Miyazaki has a very close relationship with John Lasseter so I’m not sure why there are two English dubs. I hope the DVD gets both of them as well as the Japanese track though, that would be awesome.

            RE: favourite anime dub, I only actually watch the Ghibli films dubbed. I loved Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. I find that because Japanese is a relatively monotone language, English voice actors try to emulate that and it just doesn’t work. I think it’s been improving with more recent releases though.

  5. Sarah Cook permalink
    August 20, 2011

    I cannot see this film because I am home with my parents in rural Lancashire where the nearest cinema is showing Die Hard 2, or something.

    But soon, soon…

  6. August 23, 2011

    Awesome review! I *must* see this film… and I must also now remember to refer to myself as a scale fetishist as that’s a brilliant phrase :-)

    • Metal-eating arachnid permalink
      August 26, 2011

      Three cheers for scale fetishism! Is there a club? I think there should be a club.

  7. Loopymushroom permalink
    September 1, 2011

    I was very dubious about this one, mostly owing to having loved the Borrowers books as a kid and being generally mistrustful of book-to-film adaptations. But now I really want to see it! :D I do like your reviews, they make me giggle :)

  8. SeraphL permalink
    September 16, 2011

    I am going to hunt down this film if it kills me. But in the meantime I am listening to the entire soundtrack on repeat via youtube. Already I feel as if I’m in some delicate leafy dreamland. If I ever find the movie it may well put me into a big old Romanticised Trance to boot.


  9. March 4, 2012

    YESSSS Someone who loves Spiller! I just about died when he came on! I wanted to see more of him though :(. I want a sequel full of Spiller… That probably won’t happen though… But i sill lurve him ^_^ great review by the way :D

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