The Secret World of Arrietty: 10 years later

The Secret World of Arrietty is inspired by Mary Norton’s 1952 book, The Borrowers. I first came across the book when I received it as a birthday gift from a tutor and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was then a pleasant surprise to me when I found that Studio Ghibli animated a movie inspired by the book because the latter was an important part of my childhood. Rewatching the movie for its tenth anniversary — the film was originally released on 12 July 2010 in Japan — brings back a lot more nostalgia than it should have, considering this movie is one of the newer installments in Studio Ghibli’s movie catalog. 

Both the book and the movie depict the events of a young boy named Sho befriending the titular protagonist Arrietty Clock, who is part of a species of tiny humans called the “Borrowers.” They “borrow” things — or keep things indefinitely — from humans for their daily living. It could be anything, whether they’re daily essentials like sugar and screw nails for tools or odder commodities such as tissue and dollhouse furniture. However, “borrowing” is a deadly endeavor, as shown in the movie via the warnings given by Arrietty’s father, Pod. One wrong step and they could end up being eaten by animals such as rats or be caught by humans and killed. To me, they are basically a bunch of tiny humans who are trying to live in peace without having conflicts with the “Big People.” That’s right, the “Big People” are us: tall, scary-looking humans.

I’m much older than when I first watched the movie, so as a result, I’m exploring the movie a second time and sharing how I feel in retrospect. During the watch, there definitely were interesting parallels that my sibling — who was watching with me — and I noticed. For example, when Sho was calmly reading in his bedroom near the end, the book he was reading clearly showed the title “秘密の花园,” which translates to “The Secret Garden.”

The 秘密の花园 can be seen if one looks carefully

For anyone who has read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, you will find the interaction between the male and female protagonists are very similar to the protagonists in Arrietty. Both Arrietty and The Secret Garden feature a young, adventurous female protagonist who is very much willing to step out of her comfort zone, while the young male protagonist is sickly and quite pessimistic about their health. At the end of both stories, the young male protagonist finds meaning in living and enjoying his life to the fullest instead of simply waiting for death, thanks to the young female protagonist who drags him along on her adventures.

Arrietty’s courageous and adaptable side

This particular theme is congruent with how Studio Ghibli presents its female characters as well. These protagonists are never passive characters; instead, they are courageous and proactively take charge of their lives, and they often make important decisions like in Nausicaä: Valley of the Wind. In Arrietty, our adventurous 14-year old decides to rescue her mother on her own accord, using her wits and friendship with Sho to successfully reunite with her mother. Her courage to interact with people who could potentially end her life was something admirable — her mother for one would have quaked at the idea. Even how Arrietty bravely approaches Sho despite being afraid of him at first is a mark of her courage.

While rewatching Arietty, I realized how obvious the housekeeper was in conflict with the Borrowers, but for what reason, this conflict was never explained in the movie. In my view, the housekeeper represents those who are willing to destroy the Borrowers without trying to understand their way of living, which, as a result, forces the Borrowers to move. It could easily be compared to how different groups of people interact with each other in real life, especially in different religious or ethnic groups. While these groups are often in conflict with each other for various reasons, each is willing to destroy the other without coming to some form of understanding. This might result in others moving away, just like the Borrowers did, so that they could be safe. As a person who strongly desires peace, it pains me to see different groups continuing to be at conflict, either because of a lack of communication that has led to distrust or because it is for their own benefit.

Aside from its characters and symbolism, Arrietty stood out to me for its music and art. As a younger child, I had thought everything was amazing because the film was “pretty” or “sounded nice.” While that thought has never changed, I can now appreciate the music and art better. The movie has many tracks that deserve a listen because they almost always accurately portray the movie’s emotion and feeling. This is especially true for Arrietty’s Song by Cecile Corbel. While the instrumental gives a sense of freedom to explore the world beyond, the version being sung not only reinforces this feeling of freedom but also gives off a strong sense of otherworldliness. Indeed, Arrietty herself is from another world of sorts, since everything she uses is tiny in size, despite being of human origins.

Arrietty’s art also caught my eye because of how detailed everything was. This was best exemplified in the scene where Arrietty’s house and the dollhouse that is passed down in Sho’s family is shown.

Arriety’s colorful bedroom
The dollhouse’s intricately designed kitchen

The photos show the intricate details of Arrietty’s room, the knick-knacks around her home, and the dollhouse’s kitchen design. Compared to the luxury dollhouse, the kitchen set Arriety’s family uses is much more plain in design. Small details like these give us potential insight into the characters’ backgrounds. For example, the fact Sho’s ancestors could afford such a luxurious dollhouse meant that they were likely educated and wealthy for their time. Arriety’s colorful bedroom showcases her youth and her energetic, curious personality. I personally love how they added these tiny details into the movie. To sum it up, I just love the visuals for Arriety.

Arrietty is still relevant even 10 years later. It has aged well, just as most Studio Ghibli movies have. The art and music are simply timeless. Arrietty represents the memories of doing or witnessing something extraordinary while you’re young, creating special and unforgettable moments that we hold close to our hearts even as we eventually step into adulthood. I have the Arrietty movie and the book to thank, because they have given me precious memories that I will remember fondly for the remainder of my life, and that I will hold dear to my heart.

An avid gacha game (think Fate/Grand Order, Genshin Impact, 食物语) player, you can find Crystal thinking about food if they're not playing games.
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