Last Saturday night I went to see Arrietty, a Japanese animé film produced by Studio Ghibli. It’s based on a novel from 1952, The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. Its a title that evokes vague, fond memories from my childhood – probably from the book but maybe also from one of the various tv adaptations. I saw the film at the beautiful old Astor cinema in Windsor, Melbourne, with my friends Jane and Libby and a gaggle of assorted relatives. The occasion was also memorable for my daring choice of choc-top: arctic banana. Jane commented that I was very adventurous, that she, for instance, would never… It was a risk, admittedly, and not every adventure comes off. But anyway, on to the film.
The borrowers are a family of tiny people who live secretly in a house of “human beans” and discretely “borrow” tiny quantities of things they need. In the course of the story, a friendship develops between a human boy and the tiny, agile Arrietty. They help each other, but must part at the end – the boy to face a heart operation, and Arrietty to flee with her parents to find a new home. The borrowers are decamping because the house they are living in has become unsafe. Too many “human beans” have become aware of their existence and a hostile cook (whose foiled antics provoked by far the most laughter from the children in the cinema) is planning to have them trapped by a pest control company.
In keeping with Ghibli’s philosophy, the main message of the film is ecological – in a rather heavy handed speech the boy tells Arrietty that her species is destined to die out, just as many other species have done. The environmental message is also more gently communicated through beautiful drawings of plants and some very endearing insect “extras.”
The film also made me think about how “little” relationships – contacts with others that are brief, apparently random, a bit magical and seemingly inconsequential compared to “big” relationships with “significant others” – can be quietly transformative. Childhood encounters, but also travelling friendships - relationships formed outside of the usual run of life - are sometimes like this. They change you, or open you up, in ways you only become aware of later. Memories of such fleeting connections remain vivid, and their impact clear, perhaps because the time spent together is short, so the impressions you form don’t get blurred under the palimpsest of repeated contact.
In the film, there is a sentimental farewell scene between the boy and Arrietty (which doesn’t appear in the book). Arrietty gives him the peg she uses to put up her hair as a memento, and the boy makes a speech about how Arrietty has given him the desire and courage to get through his operation and to go on living. Although they must say goodbye, he will never forget her - she is a part of him now.
Usually, you don’t have such touching scenes of parting from the borrowers in your life. They appear, they “borrow” something, something they need, something you have plenty of, and then they disappear off into their own lives. When you realise what’s happened, it can be tempting to get upset about what’s been taken from you (your pride and sense of control, mostly), and even to think of such people as pests that ought to be eradicated (or more sweetly, as highly questionable varieties of icecream). But the truth is that you’re sorry to see them go, and fortunate to have been altered a little by what they took and what they gave.