Studio Ghibli is often assumed to be the animation house that Hayao Miyazaki built, but Miyazaki has directed only nine of its 17 features to date. Four were made by studio cofounder Isao Takahata and four by four different directors. These latter four, however, are all immediately identifiable as Studio Ghibli products, from their spunky teenage protagonists to their pictorial realism in everything from the play of shadows through the trees to the raising of sticky windows.
The latest, “Kari-gurashi no Arrietty (The Borrowers),” features direction by veteran Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi and a script by Miyazaki himself. It is a simply told, beautifully animated delight that, like the best Ghibli films, speaks straight to the heart and imagination of the child in all of us.
Like the 2008 “Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea),” which was directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro from a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, “Arrietty” is based on a classic of British children’s fantasy literature: Mary Norton’s 1952 novel “The Borrowers.” But whereas “Gedo Senki,” as well as much of Miyazaki’s own oeuvre, is full-bore fantasy, with magical powers, mythical beasts and all the rest, “Arrietty” unfolds in a present-day Japan in which no one but birds can fly. True, its 14-year-old title heroine (voiced by Mirai Shida), together with her mother Homily (Shinobu Otake) and father Pod (Tomokazu Miura), stand only 10 cm tall, but these “tiny people” are ordinary in every other respect.
Living under the floorboards of a house in the Tokyo suburbs inhabited by the elderly Sadoko (Keiko Takeshita) and her wizened housekeeper Haru (Kirin Kiki), they “borrow” everything they need to live from their human hosts, in amounts so small they are barely noticed.
Pod is a sturdy, stoic, resourceful sort who carries out his nighttime “borrowing” missions like a veteran mountain climber, methodically scaling the heights of the kitchen with a fishing hook and string. He is also handy with tools, making everything the family needs for its survival and comfort, though the worry-wart Homily is constantly fretting about the threats all around them — the most dangerous being discovery by their human hosts.
The slender but athletic Arrietty is more her father’s child than her mother’s, fearlessly exploring the house and its lush garden while fending off Sadoko’s fat cat, a pesky crow and a variety of insects. Then she is spotted by Sho (Ryunosuke Kamiki), Sadoko’s sensitive, sickly 12-year-old nephew, who is resting up for a heart operation at a Tokyo hospital.
Instead of retreating into the shadows, however, she is drawn to this human, who sympathizes with her situation and understands her isolation. Their unusual friendship, however, leads to potentially disastrous consequences. With the loss of their little paradise looming, Pod begins to talk about moving to parts unknown.
Miyazaki reportedly selected Yonebayashi to direct “Arrietty” for his animation skills. There are few of the flights of animated fancy, from the dazzling to the bizarre, that Miyazaki has made his trademark; instead, Yonebayashi and his team (with Miyazaki supervising) have created a world that is both gorgeously detailed and thrillingly realized from the perspective of its miniature protagonists.
As Arrietty climbs vines to the roof, plunges on a thread from a kitchen table or performs other feats of derring-do, we have the heart-in-the-throat feeling of not only admiring her pluck, but being in her shoes. Would 3-D enhance this feeling? Possibly, but Yonebayashi and other Ghibli animators are past masters at creating the illusion of presence and depth without it.
The film threatens to devolve into the sappy, the preachy and the slapsticky at certain moments, but they are mercifully brief. There are also characters, such as the casually cruel Haru and the high-minded, mature-beyond-his-years Sho, who verge on annoying cliche, but they also have their virtues. Sho shows, in times of crisis, that he is no wuss, while bluntly telling Arrietty that she and her kind will probably disappear. What chance do they have against the billions of humans with whom they uneasily share the planet? One answer arrives in the form of a tiny “wild boy” (Takuya Fujiwara) Pod encounters in the woods, who lives minus the comforts of civilization that Pod has so painstakingly assembled and constructed.
Will this become our answer as well? Like many other Ghibli films, “Arrietty” comments on the devastation humans have wrought on the environment and speculates on the consequences.
More importantly for this Ghibli fan, however, the film gave me hope that when Miyazaki lays down his pencil for good, the studio will have at least one worthy successor. Sure, Yonebayashi is no Miyazaki — but who is?