Last year, the theme song for Gake no Ue no Ponyo filled the streets of Tokyo. You could hear it blasting from cinema lobbies, in the convenience stores and in department stores. It was everywhere. I never saw it.
Karigurashi no Arrietty (The Borrower Arrietty) had a more toned-down approach to marketing that was much appreciated. I’ve heard the theme song blasting from giant TV screens in Shinjuku, central Tokyo and I still love it. Besides, I found out a very important detail about it.
One of the draws of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli is their ability to find tiny slivers of rural life squeezed between the reality of the big city. If you’ve ever visited Japan via Narita Airport, you’ll know what I mean. As you head into Tokyo, a city so futuristic it was inspiring the setting for the Blade Runner movie around eighteen years ago, you can see Ghibliesque snapshots of the countryside. Rice fields, country cottages and shrines pass you by.
Arrietty opens with an establishing shot of Tokyo to ground the viewer, zooms to a car moving up the driveway of an old-fashioned house, then focuses on the garden. It’s not the full truth about Japan, but it’s part of it. The clear message is that there are thousands of totoros, susuwatari and borrowers living near you right now. That’s what makes their films so lovely.
And here’s what I found out about the setting for Arrietty — it’s in the general area I’m living right now. Today, I crossed over the Nogawa River on the way back home, almost certainly the river featured at the end of the film. I can see bats skimming the water and the fleeting shadow of a koi carp. A bullfrog croaks somewhere nearby, unseen. Once I heard that it was going to be set in my backyard, I had to see it, regardless of my feelings about Ponyo. While this could be set in any suburbs around a big city, I won’t pretend that watching it and seeing locations I kind of recognised wasn’t magical. It totally was.
The film moves fairly slowly. You could take a younger child to see it in a way you probably couldn’t with Mononoke-Hime (Princess Mononoke), although there are some scenes where Arrietty’s mother is in danger. The film is so gentle though, there’s never really any doubt she’ll be fine. Said younger child might even be a bit bored. I would say this is best suited to anime lovers with longer attention spans.
Overall, this is a lovely film with a gentle sense of humour that moves at a slower pace than most blockbusters. Despite it being Yonebayashi Hiromasa’s directorial debut, he brings out the usual Ghibli sense of wonder with it.