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.


John Berry said...

Fantastic review. I felt the same way about Arrietty's parents, but I hadn't thought about the absence of her father during the rescue.

Spiller was a neat character and I would've liked to see him utilized more than he was.

I definitely loved all of the play with scale in the film, and the creative ways the family utilized all of the objects they were borrowing.

Another thing I enjoyed, however minor was the way the liquids were animated on the borrowers scale. I would have never considered making them bead and squash, which added to the realism and magic of that tiny world.

Michael Sporn said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the film; I thought it was tremendous, although it played in a very quiet manner.
The pill bug sequence you mention is part of the heart of the film, to me. When Arrietty lets it go, we realize that the bug is no different than she - a creature trying to survive on its own scale in an amazing world.

I do disagree a bit with you in that I find the animation rather graceful and original that is something virtually impossible in cgi animation.There was a distinctive hand touching many of the scenes and real character traits of the animation. For me, nothing was expected, all motion was distinctive to the characters at play.

This was a sterling film; I got so much more than I expected and will return to see it again.

David B. Levy said...

Good point on the treatment of liquids in the film, John. What a great touch to show how the properties of liquids differ with scale. Seeing the tea water bead up as it was poured also helped give the Borrower's an "otherworldly-ness" that was important.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Michael,
I'm sure you're right about the animation, I bet I would benefit from having another look at it.

As for the stiffness that is there, I realize some of it was purposeful and effective, such as when Shawn leaves the sugar cube for Arrietty. He's almost monstrous to her point of view, and the fact that he's also sickly is another reason for him to move carefully and slow. There's a lot of thought in the whole film, probably more than I could absorb in one viewing.

Anonymous said...

I agree with much of your review, but Pod does give a reason for leaving. He says: "I'm going to make sure that it's safe. You stay with your mother".
I guess he's going to stake out a safe route for their journey.