Latest Miyazaki Studio Gem Is One for Keeps

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Four-inch-high Arrietty confronts a bewildered Sho, in "The Secret World of Arrietty," the latest from Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. The American release opens in theaters this Friday. (Images courtesy Disney/GNDHDDT)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor

Last summer, in my review of the Disney blockbuster “Cars 2,” I expressed a fair amount of dismay at the film’s drive to fill every corner of the screen (and every cell of your brain) with action, sound and imagery.

Consider “The Secret World of Arrietty” the antidote.

The latest film from Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli is a measured, enchanting tale, that despite its inherent gentleness, never devolves into becoming overly cute nor hyper-sentimental.

The English language version of “Arrietty” opens in U.S. theaters this Friday through Disney, which has been responsible for bringing several of Miyazaki’s films to American audiences.

The American release features an attractive casting, including Amy Poehler and Carol Burnett, both seasoned veterans of creating character voices.

Several weeks ago, however, I was able to screen the original Japanese version, “Karigurashi no Arrietty.” I almost always prefer a film’s native language, but I’ll admit that my interest has been piqued by Burnett’s casting.

By the way, the Japanese release (with English subtitles) can be found locally at practically any Japanese video shop, including the ones here in Little Tokyo.

The story, based on Mary Norton’s popular children’s book series “The Borrowers,” takes us into the everyday life of a diminutive family who live under the floor of a country house in the rural outskirts of Tokyo. The father, Poddo, provides for his wife and 14-year-old daughter by “borrowing” necessities from the owners of the home – a sugar cube, a scrap of tissue, etc. – and bringing them to the family’s cozy home beneath the hardwood.

All is well until Arrietty, with the curious nature of an adolescent, is spotted by and later interacts with Sho, a teenager who has come to convalesce in the house, his mother’s childhood home, while he awaits surgery for a chronic heart condition that has all but drained him of life.

Arrietty and her family are able to subsist on items purloined from the home beneath which they live, such as a binder clip, for her hair.

Arrietty, an archetype of a Miyazaki lead character with delicate balance of innocence and rebellion, has broken the cardinal rule of her parents by interacting with humans: you must never let them see you.

The tension is ratcheted up when the housekeeper, Sadako (Haru in the American release), discovers the tiny family home and sets out to expose the heretofore mythical creatures as real.

Directed by longtime Studio Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “Arrietty” has the hallmarks that make any Miyazaki studio film a treat: the detail of a raindrop from the perspective of a four-inch girl or the enlarged texture of dust and flowers, not to mention the masterful scene design and angles.

Co-written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, the story moves along at a pace that seems to make perfect sense, while – in perfectly Miyazaki fashion – no explanation as to the origin of these tiny people is ever given…or necessary. In Miyazaki’s worlds, the extraordinary lies not in the nature of the environment, but in the hearts of those living in it.

And it is within the context of a failing heart – Sho’s – that the film touches upon a serious yet wholly natural course of life: the fact that all things eventually die. Sadly, that can include young boys or an entire species of tiny beings.

“The Borrowers” has had at least two big-screen and TV iterations, including the 1997 live-action comedy dud that starred John Goodman. This time around, Norton’s world of a symbiotic relationship between people of vastly differing stature – but warmly similar values and emotions – is presented in elegant fashion and worth every little moment.

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