sarcasticwriter: (Ghosts)
[personal profile] sarcasticwriter
Man, I hate the spring movie dead zone. All the Oscar-hopeful movies - the kind you wear a sweater to - have come and gone, and it's not hot enough yet for the comic book blockbusters. There are usually two decent movies released between February and May - this year those two movies were Haywire and Chronicle - but otherwise, the theaters are barren.

Sadly for me, I had earned a free movie ticket that was going to expire on the 21st, so on Saturday I took myself to see The Legend of Arrietty, the latest movie out of Studio Ghibli. It was the movie I didn't want to see the least, and was only willing to see for free.

Luckily for me, it ended up being pretty darn good. God help me as I say that I enjoyed it more than almost anything else that has come out of Studio Ghibli/Hayao Miyazaki. And I'm about to say something xenophobic here, so hang in with me:

Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro all have plot points - minor and critical - that are informed by Japanese cultural. Characters make leaps in logic my Western mind doesn't follow, revelations are made that seem significant to the characters but not to me, protagonists react to emotionally provoking situations counter-intuitively, and eccentricity of behavior often goes ignored and unexplained.

It's not bad storytelling. I can feel that there are layers of significance that I'm not perceiving. I can clearly see that the movies assume that I know certain things about the way these stores are told. I can see that the movies are expecting me to bring a certain life experience into them. A mostly Japanese life experience.

Ponyo is the most aggravating of the Ghibli films (why does nobody care that their homes have been destroyed by a tsunami?), followed by Spirited Away (why is it again that Chihiro able to tell that her parents weren't any of the pigs presented to her?).

The Legend of Arietty isn't aggravating at all. It tells an absolutely simple, straightforward story about a "Borrower" - a 3-inch tall 14 year old girl who lives with her parents in the crawlspace of a house unbeknownst to the full-sized human beings who live there, until she accidentally beknownsts herself to an ailing teenager who wants to make friends. Even though Borrowers are traditionally afraid of full-sized human beings (with good reason), they make friends.

That's about it. There are no supernatural elements, beside the fact that there is a race of three-inch tall people. The story does not require an education in the behavior of Japanese spirits or demons. The Legend of Arrietty is just about a couple of people who make friends, despite their wild, wild differences.

Since the story is universal (or what I mean by "universal" is fully accessible for the Western mind, anyway), it's easier to concentrate on the beauty of the animation. The characters themselves are fairly standard for the anime format, but the backgrounds are extraordinary; hand-painted, stylized (sometimes even impressionistic), always beautiful. My favorite scene was Arietty's first journey from under the floorboards into the house; she follows her father as he makes his way between the walls and into the kitchen. Perspective and sound design reframe the homey kitchen as an impossibly huge cavern, the gigantic shadows ominous with threat. It's also fun to see how three-inch tall people cope with the challenges of scale, and how they repurpose the full-sized items they've borrowed for their small-scale life.
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Christina

July 2012

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