Arrietty is a winner: Studio Ghibli’s quality once again

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Regular readers of this blog will have noticed an occasional tendency to enthuse about the Japanese animé films from Studio Ghibli. So here we go again! Arrietty is their latest.

Released in Japan in 2010, it came to Europe in early 2011 and UK/Australia in July. Now, finally, North America gets it too – released on 17 February, under the US title The Secret World of Arrietty. The delay must be in part because Disney, for better or worse, has rejected the existing English soundtrack and started again with different, American, actors. Actually, when watching Studio Ghibli I generally prefer to switch to the Japanese-language version and read the English subtitles.

Because it is a sheer delight. Pure treasure. The artwork and soundtrack are beautiful, detailed and subtle. At one point, you can even hear the sound of a ladybird’s wings starting to open. The story-telling is gently paced and harmonious. The opening song and other music from French Breton celtic singer and harpist Cécile Corbel a joy – see video below. (Lyric: English  | Japanese) Indeed, Ghibli theme music is usually haunting and first class, as this orchestral medley demonstrates.

True to the book

If you have read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers books or seen the BBC serial, you’ll recognize the first two books’ narrative as retold in the Ghibli version, although it is slimmed down and placed in a Japanese setting. It is very true to the spirit of the original, unlike the Jim Broadbent/John Goodman 2007 film which was pure gung-ho Tom and Jerry action. The BBC made a new 90-minute TV version with Stephen Fry, Victoria Wood, and Christopher Eccleston, shown Christmas 2011. BBC also aired two mini-series in 1992-3. All three are available on DVD.

If you want to come to the story fresh, skip the spoiler synopsis in the Wikipedia article, which has lots of helpful information about the film. For a sensitive and detailed review, see Helen McCarthy’s article. McCarthy is a foremost expert, writing and speaker on many areas of Japanese culture including animé. You can watch her lecture From Nausicaa to Ashitaka: The development of the heroic ideal in the 20th century works of Hayao Miyazaki at the University of Maryland.

Reviews in National Catholic Register and Christianity Today are enthusiastic.

DVD availability

If you missed it as a movie in Europe/Australasia, the English DVD (Region 2) is available in UK and many other countries. Release in North America is mid-2012 after its movie theater run. You can already buy the Japanese-language version (all-regions DVD with English subtitles) from good Asian suppliers such as ZoomMovie with cheap delivery charges. You may also prefer the British dub to the Disney US English dub (which inexplicably has removed Cecile Corbel’s song).

Gift ideas

Studio Ghibli DVDs make great presents! Individual titles are relatively cheap on Amazon. A boxed set (DVDs work in all regions) of all 14 movies is available from specialist animé dealers such as Anime United and often from independent sellers within Amazon.

If you don’t know the genre, start with the less fantastical Studio Ghbili titles such as Only Yesterday, The Cat Returns, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa, Whisper of the Heart, and Ponyo. The pre-Ghibli Castle of Cagliostro and (for younger children) Panda Go Panda are also fun. A further pre-Ghibli gem directed by Hayao Miyazaki is the 1978 26-episode made-for-TV Future Boy Conan. It’s not distributed in the West, but can be easily found on eBay or Asian anime suppliers. Similar films in the Ghibli style include The Girl Who Jumped Through Time, and Mai Mai Miracle. Most Ghibli films relate to any age group, through perhaps Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Grave of the Fireflies are too esoteric/scary (and Grave is sad) for younger ones. For teens and adults, check animations by the late great Satoshi Kon, such as Millennium Actress. You can find trailers for all these films on YouTube.

Christian parallels

Popular culture frequently gives us spiritual parallels and starting points for conversation. What can we see in Arrietty?

The main theme is the need to escape from an untenable situation with a journey to an unknown freedom. This resonates clearly with the Exodus story (itself reflected so tragically right through Jewish history), which the Bible clearly positions as both a historical physical escape and a figurative parallel of spiritual journey into new life.

The restricted enclosed world in which the Borrower family has lived in reasonable safety (due to wise precautions) is finally compromised. Likewise we may live for years within a limited or non-existent understanding of ourselves in relation to God’s purpose and plan for us. Sometimes it needs a crisis to jump-start us into a spiritual journey, to search for who God really is and how Jesus fits into this picture.

You may see other parallels too? Please add them using the ‘Comment’ link below.

7 reasons to like Studio Ghibli films

  1. They are tender and gentle, not in-your-face, all constant action, noise and smart-guy banter. They don’t try to doll up a thin story with a thrill a minute.
  2. They appeal to people of any age. Before she was five, our youngest granddaughter could easily understand Nausicaä – Valley of the Wind, and proclaimed it her best movie. Yet they are not ‘children’s stories’. In Japan, these are mainstream adult viewing as befits their deeper levels of complexity.
  3. They reflect the many attractive facets of Japanese culture, where politeness, harmony and understated gentleness are key. (Japanese cuisine is like this too – cooking is a delight of subtle harmonious flavors.)
  4. Many Ghibli films tell their story through the eyes of a child or young person, who is learning to face challenges in the wider world. Frequently, this is a girl, in contrast to Western animations where, with the exception of princess stories, it’s normally a male lead (as The Guardian discusses in an excellent article).

    Using Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots definitions, Ghibli stories frequently include the ‘Voyage and Return’ theme. ‘The Quest’ and ‘Overcoming the Monster’ themes are common too. (Review of Seven Basic Plots book)

  5. Ghibli films demonstrate a far-reaching contrast to Western ‘me-centered’ individualistic culture. Consider, for instance, most of our favorite Disney princess-themed stories. It’s all about the heroine and a her journey to get her life-goal – usually a prince and freedom. She may receive and give help to others along the way. But the big prize is exclusively hers. (See hard-hitting cartoon and discussion on Disney princesses, which happily does not criticise the saintly Belle!)

    Eastern culture is different – the community is more important than the individual. Ghibli heroes and heroines are not about getting, but giving. They usually bring redemptive help to others around them, rather as Vianne channels healing to her repressed village in Chocolat. Indeed, their main prize is the satisfaction of having helped others, while gaining maturity and wisdom from the life lessons in this journey.

    I wonder which is the more biblical?

  6. Villains are not usually portrayed as utterly evil, but honestly nuanced with at least some good motives or traits, and they frequently find a measure of redemptive resolution through the leading character. (Again, compare with Chocolat.)
  7. The central character is also honestly depicted, often with flaws or other issues. They are not cutesy, stereotyped or cloyingly sweet.

You can read more about Ghibli films in Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata(also available in UK).

Coming soon

Now Ghibliphiles must wait in happy expectation for the next film: From up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-Zaka Kara).

This is an updated version of a post first published in August 2011

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