Saturday, March 3, 2012
A Secret World of Quiet Dignity
I didn’t plan on writing about The Secret World of Arrietty, the new feature film from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. But, after seeing the movie this week, there was no way I couldn’t write about it.
First some criticism (spoiler alert), because I had some issues with the film. The mother felt pretty one dimensional and old fashioned in the “hysterical female” stereotype, not to mention the oddness that she looked more like Arrietty’s grandmother than her mother. Also it was hard for me to believe that such a feisty and independent heroine could be raised by such a fearful mother. In contrast, the dad was all quiet stoicism. He was the calm to the mother’s storm. But, knowing how Miyazaki (who co-wrote the screenplay) is an expert in coloring characters with shades of gray, I wondered why he gave us such one-dimensional parental units.
My second, and only other issue in the film, is that when Arrietty is tested to do big things to save her mother’s life, her father is inexplicably absent. Maybe I missed something, but it seemed to me that there was no explanation on where the father was when the borrowers' home was invaded and the mother was abducted. Earlier we see the father had an injured leg but there’s no way that would have stopped him from protecting his family. I wonder if something was lost in the English translation.
But, these issues aside I really enjoyed the film. It would be easy to frame any discussion about this work in the 2D versus 3D context, but the qualities I love about Arrietty have little to do with that. In fact, the models of the characters in this film are so rigidly (and stiffly) followed in the animation that they may as well be unchanging 3D character rigs.
For me, the magic of this film is how it conveys big feelings and emotional moments through a low-key approach. I've been trying to explore a similar approach in my recent short films.
There’s a moment in Arrietty that took my breath away. Hollywood features try to do that with a big chase sequence, but in Arrietty the moment comes with absolute silence and a series of long confident shots. Arrietty is on her first mission as a borrower, being trained in the trade of survival by her father. Tissue was on her mother’s shopping list so the young girl and her dad scale a table to reach an ordinary tissue box. The two take their positions to grab at the tissue from either side but, in mid motion Arrietty notices (to her astonishment) that she’s being watched by a 12-year old human being, the sickly boy Shawn who is staying in his Aunt’s house to rest up before a heart operation. Shawn watches her with a sleep-awake stare and talks to her softly as if speaking from a dream. The whole moment freezes time and burned into my memory, replaying long after the film was over.
Arrietty frozen in fear mixed with curiosity in the moment described above.
And, there’s other things I appreciate just because, however slight and unimportant, they add to the experience:
-Shawn’s Aunt pulls up to their driveway and sees an exterminator’s truck parked in front of her. As her car pulls in and she gets out of the vehicle you can feel the smallness of the driveway, the tightness of the space. It’s a nice thing to have things like this in a movie dealing with size and scale.
-Shawn laying in a field of flowers (show above), as seen by Arrietty. A moment all the more potent because the distance allows Arrietty to see him as her size. Also, he's enveloped by the beauty the natural world––something she surrounds herself with in her bedroom decked out with flowers and plants. It makes this moment a double connection between the two.
- Arrietty plays with a pill bug and then releases it. For a moment we follow the insect as it makes its way back to the grass and encounters another pill bug. In a Hollywood movie, to stay on this action would be in the service of setting up a crude gag, but here it’s simply another moment that helps create a convincing world.
-There’s a scene showing the beginning of a rain shower. We see a view of the concrete and delicate patter of the drops, gently hitting, and then very slowly expanding to stain the ground.
My excuse to see this film was to fill in a two-hour hole between errands in Manhattan, but what I got was a rich film with a quiet dignity. The latter of which is a term I seldom get to use to describe an animated feature.