Tuesday, 16 August 2011
Studio Ghibli, the beloved Japanese animation house behind 'Spirited Away', 'Grave of the Fireflies' and 'Ponyo', have had two directors to thank for their artistic and commercial success. Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki have, between them, accounted for twelve of the studio's sixteen theatrical features (thirteen of seventeen if you count the latter's 'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind': pre-Ghibli but now considered part of the canon). In the last ten years, increasing concern that both men are in their seventies has seen the studio push younger talent into the spotlight, usually with a noticeable drop in quality.
Hiroyuki Morita's 'The Cat Returns' was a made-for-TV movie which ended up receiving a cinema release in order to cash in on the runaway international success of 'Spirited Away' back in 2002. It's a charming and watchable film but it doesn't hold a candle to 'Whisper of the Heart', the film of which it is a nominal sequel. That under-appreciated gem, written and storyboarded by Miyazaki, was another attempt to get young blood to take over in the mid-90s - but it came to nothing when promising director Yoshifumi Kondō died of an aneurysm at 47. The real nadir of this quest to replace Miyazaki was reached in 2006, when producer Toshio Suzuki convinced the great master's son Gorō to give up his career in landscaping to direct the awful 'Tales From Earthsea'. Yet long-serving animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi has provided a ray of hope, directing 'Arrietty': a delightfully pleasant and beautifully detailed adaptation of The Borrowers.
As you may have guessed from the film's source text, 'Arrietty' follows the adventures of a family of "borrowers" - folkloric little people who live between the walls and beneath the floorboards of houses, keeping just out of sight of "human beans". However 13 year-old Arrietty, the precocious and determined daughter of the family, gets seen by a sickly young boy named Shō and her parents decide it's best to uproot and find a new home. But not before the the maid of the house, the creepy and slightly mad Haru, discovers their presence and calls in the exterminators. Along the way Arrietty also contends with insects, birds and a mangy old cat.
Chief among the film's accomplishments is the great sense of scale Yonebayashi maintains, as borrowers interact with (to them) enormous everyday objects and animals. Scale is considered a notoriously difficult challenge within animation circles, there is consistently a sense of awe - most memorably when the girl enters the human kitchen for the first time (her hair rising with her spirit in the established Miyazaki tradition). The characters' use of mundane objects, such as earrings and sellotape, is also really fun to watch and terrifically inventive.
It isn't exactly at the hi-octane end of the Ghibli spectrum, being a slowly paced and gentle yarn rather than an epic in the mould of 'Princess Mononoke'. Though it nevertheless held my attention from its enchanting beginning to bittersweet conclusion, mostly thanks to some of the most elegant, neatly observed character animation in the history of the studio and some breathtaking backdrops. I suppose it's style over substance, though 'Earthsea' had neither so I'm loathe to be too critical. One crucial absentee here is veteran tunesmith Joe Hisaishi whose scores never fail to invoke a sense of grandeur and earnest emotion. French singer Cécile Corbel instead provides the film's music which is chintzy and all too fay.
'Arrietty' is a work of promise. Yet, as promising as the film is, the studio aren't quite out of the woods yet. Miyazaki played an active role in shaping the project, even co-writing the screenplay which is riddled with his DNA - from the goggles on the father's head to the resolve of the titular heroine. But Ghibli's youngest feature director, Yonebayashi has really given a measure of hope to fans that the animation institution can outlive the two old men. It's as pleasing on the eye as anything Studio Ghibli has made and the story, though slight, is as innocently joyful a way as you can spend 94 minutes at the movies.
'Arrietty' is out now in the UK, rated 'U' by the BBFC.