Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Saturday, March 10, 2012

03:03:00 pm , 1338 words, 6022 views     Categories: Animation, Movie


I saw The Secret World of Arrietty in the theater last night. I had low expectations going in, but unfortunately they were met. While on the surface this is a lush film that vividly brings alive the small world of Arrietty, it is Ghibli lite: all of the vivid coloring, enjoyable character animation, carefully pleasing scene presentation, believable if idealized characterizations, and charming atmosphere, without the substance.

Like all of their previous films not directed by the two founders, Arrietty is directed by a first-time feature director, and clearly suffers for it. Ghibli is still flopping around frantically trying to find its next generation of directors. Two decades on, it feels like we're re-treading what happened with I Can Hear the Sea (1993), when Ghibli tried to bring in a new face - Tomomi Mochizuki seemed like the perfect fit - but wound up creating a bland and forgettable teen drama that had nothing of the fire we expect from the two founders, only the shell of a Ghibli appearance.

They tried again with the very talented Hiroyuki Morita and The Cat Returns (2002), this time in the fantasy vein, but while the film was pleasing and somewhat different in style, it was paper-thin and only served to underline how few directors were even close to the level of the two founders. The next attempt in 2006 with Tales from Earthsea was in my estimation the studio's most disappointing and even repugnant chapter. Bypassing the many talented directors in the industry for Miyazaki's son was a repudiation of the philosophy of craft the studio stood for, as if they had given up on industry-fostered talent and were placing their last bet on an absurd belief in hereditary talent straight out of Francis Galton. Ironically, the most successful attempt was Whisper of the Heart (1995), whose director died not long afterwards.

Nobody will ever be able to replace or replicate Miyazaki. The sooner Ghibli realizes this, the better. Arrietty was a film that seemed perpetually on the verge: On the verge of going somewhere, and on the verge of attaining Miyazaki's level. But it never did. Given a situation with many similarities to Totoro, at no point did I feel any sort of magic or wonder as I did at every point of Miyazaki's film while the protagonists ran around exploring their new home and the surrounding forest. Everything here was sullen, dull, dreary. There was not a moment of dynamism in the film, of surprise, wonder, any sort of explosion of built-up dramatic tension. It was too one-note.

As in Totoro, youthful coming-of-age and awakening were contrasted with illness and fatality. But Totoro was spontaneous, where Arrietty feels calculated and forced. The scenes with the boy talking about his terminal illness were more awkward than moving. The backdrop of divorce and uncaring parents was hinted at in passing in a way that felt like nothing more than a backhanded attempt at a stock Ghibli storytelling convention.

The all-important animation, while lush, never felt immediate. The planning of scenes felt limp, without any unexpected or creative angles or compositions. The characters were generic Ghibli in a way I've never felt before. Ghibli characters always have a that identifiable Ghibli look, but here they were bland to look at in a way that I never felt they were in previous Ghibli outings. Take Hara, for example. Her face wasn't stylized in a way that I found interesting or believable. The old lady who bakes the cake for Kiki in Kiki's Delivery Service felt like a far better rendered and realized spinster, her design and behavior informed by reality just enough to make her feel like an individual. Hara felt too generic, without personality. She felt like a caricature without feeling real, there only because they needed a baddie to capture Homily. It wouldn't be Miyazaki if we didn't simultaneously sympathize with her, but she seemed so shallow and one-dimensional.

The only sequence of animation that stood out to me as feeling particularly interesting was the bit where Homily is captured, and I was disheartened to discover upon looking into it later that, surprise, surprise, it was done by Shinji Otsuka, the guy who in Ghibli film after Ghibli film can be relied upon to provide the one scene that stands out as having the most fun character animation. There were certainly nice enough other moments of animation, like the crow scene, but the exuberant animation felt wasted on a scene that didn't have any dramatic impact, that felt like it was just hitting a milestone in the Ghibli template of necessary pacing tempo shifts.

The whole didn't gel into a compelling world. That is Miyazaki's unique genius. He effortlessly elides elements in a way that doesn't leave you wondering. I came away from Arrietty wondering why this and that had been brought up without any followup. The pacing feels halting and the atmosphere curiously empty, whereas even throwaway scenes in Miyazaki's films always have something to pull you in and carry you along with the flow. I don't think it's unfair to compare the film to Miyazaki, because that's clearly exactly what they set out to achieve. Plus he planned and co-wrote the film.

Speaking of the crow, he was one of the threads that led nowhere. He seemed poised to be such an interesting character, with that great window attack scene (which actually dragged on a bit too long), but then he disappears without a trace. The cat was a jumble too. While hardly original, he could have been a fun character, but his character wasn't consistent at all. Why was he lunging with bloodthirsty eyes at Arrietty one moment only to suddenly turn into Lassie at the end. Also, in that close-up shot of him near the end, he was drawn as this big benevolent furry blob that bore an uncanny resemblance to Totoro. The Jimsy-like Spiller who was introduced as the Arrietty love interest never did much of anything. It's too little too late having him give Arrietty a berry during the credit sequence.

My favorite thing about the film was the backgrounds. They clearly put a tremendous amount of effort into the backgrounds. The backgrounds carry the film. They're what keep the audience interested. More than any previous Ghibli film, Arrietty seems reliant on the background art to create atmosphere and convey information about the world inhabited by the protagonists. The problem is that the backgrounds communicate more than the script and the animation, and as a result, the film feels somewhat static. Throughout the duration of the film, I found that most of my time was spent with my eyes wandering around the screen absorbing the details in the backgrounds.

But I feel like the Grinch saying all this. Believe it or not, I actually liked Arrietty. It's a hard film to dislike, unlike Earthsea. Everyone in the theater seemed rather pleased by the film. It's not bad or unpleasant at all. It's just harmless. It probably set out to be low key, and its slow pace sets it apart from the other Ghibli films in a good way; it has its own atmosphere without striving too much for the fantasy affect of Miyazaki. Perhaps that is the direction to go to eventually discover a new Ghibli voice. In tone it's perhaps closest to Kiki, but less fluffy and sentimental.

What is the right answer to the question of whether Ghibli should continue copying the Miyazaki template, or strike out in a different direction and potentially wind up doing something that nobody wants to see from Ghibli? In all fairness, the former seems like the only possible answer.

One last thing: I was disappointed by the credit sequence. They did the same thing they did in Ponyo, alphabetizing the names. Where's the progress? I expected the letters of every staff member's name to be randomly scrambled and placed into a large block of text. It's so vain of them to list the names of the people who worked on the film.



braves133 [Member]

Oh, so that scene was done by Otsuka. For whatever reason, I thought it was done by Kiyotaka Oshiyama. But going back and seeing the breakdown on sakuga wiki, I see Oshiyama did a later scene. Yeah, I totally agree that Otsuka’s part was the most interesting animation of the film.

I agree that the film was good, but nothing terribly memorable. I’m glad Ghibli is at least still trying to let other people not named Miyazaki or Takahata direct. Like a lot of people, I’d like to see Ghibli try their hand at something new. Though I believe that they’ve been so effective at setting up expectations for what you can expect in their movies that it might be hard for them to do so without alienating general audiences, regardless of how it turns out.

lol yeah. I’m not sure what Ghibli is trying to go for with those credits, but it’s much more frustrating than anything else.

03/10/12 @ 17:34
daniel thomas macinnes

I have to say that I agree with you. It’s interesting that you point out the one scene in Arrietty that really grabbed me (the mother’s kidnapping). The animation in that scene was funny in a Chaplin sort of way. Most of Arrietty felt like a student project, but I suspect Miyazaki wanted Yonebayashi to not become overwhelmed, like Goro-san was overwhelmed by Earthsea (ugh).

Mark Arm of Mudhoney had this one really great line from “My Brother the Cow” - “Made his myth, now he’s trapped.” That really does describe Ghibli perfectly. The studio is trying to decide whether or not to continue churning out movies after Miyazaki finally retires, and so the expectation is to find directors who follow the established formula.

I would prefer someone like Momosa, whose Capsule videos were just fantastic. There’s an artist with a unique vision apart from the Takahata/Miyazaki realm. I’d much rather see something different and modern, instead of the umpteenth retelling of Heidi. But the Japanese public may not support such a move; do they want safe, predictable hits?

That said, of course, Arrietty is a very good movie. It’s nice to see a movie at the multiplex that is quiet, reflective, not obsessed with hurling everything at the audience as quickly and loudly as possible. But it’s still a truffle of a movie, and a minor entry into the Ghibli canon.

03/10/12 @ 22:39
Adrian [Visitor]

Don’t forget Mamoru Hosoda, who was directing Howl’s Moving Castle before he had a spat with Miyazaki and quit to begin a great career of his own.

Goro made progress with Up From Poppy Hill, from the terrible Earthsea to something akin to Arrietty. (Which might mostly be due to his father’s involvement).

But I’d like to see Ghibli sticking to someone for a change and giving them some space to grow. Of course no one is going to catch up easily to Hayao with his 40+ years of directing experience. If Goro is up to this daunting task that no one seems to be willing to bear for more than one film, I’m all for giving him some chances.

03/11/12 @ 03:28
redfish [Visitor]

I read the book I Can Hear the Sea is based on (same title, by Saeko Himuro) before I saw the movie and I’d say it would have needed quite an auteur to make a radically better movie out of it, particularly as viewed by Western audiences.

It’s not a bad book, but all of its significances seem to be tied up with the experience of Japanese high-school life and nostalgia for it. Yes, it could be translated for the screen better, but I don’t see Totoro-esque universal appeal coming out of it even in the best of cases.

As with Earthsea, you might chalk it up to throwing excessively difficult material at a beginning director.

03/11/12 @ 05:08
Andrew Osmond
Andrew Osmond [Visitor]

I like Arrietty much more than you did, though I have big problems with the last act. (I’ve seen the subbed and dubbed versions released in Britain.) For me, Hara with her low-cunning goblin face and the manic crow were the high points of the character animation, which was mostly undistinguished by Ghibli’s standards.

Whether intended or not, I thought the story cohered well as a piece exploring the contrasts between characters: e.g. Sho with his romantic views of extinction, Arrietty angrily determined to survive. (The conversation between them in the garden echoes a scene in the Nausicaa manga, book 4, p85.)

Spiller may only appear briefly, but I like the way Arrietty is set between these very contrasting males, one gentle and ‘feminine,’ and the other extremely masculine. And for me, one of the most interesting things about the film is how it focuses on, frankly, Arrietty’s subjective sexual awakening – her reaction to being seen by Sho, both immediately and in the scenes which follow. That’s quite new territory for Ghibli, I think.

Re the cat; well, it just appears that it likes Sho, and so when Sho scolds it for attacking Arrietty, that’s enough to turn into ‘Lassie.’ Though I agree the Totoro visual reference was unwise.

Everything I’ve read, plus the interviews on the British Arrietty DVD, suggest that Yonebayashi was very much a workman director, trying his best to follow the Ghibli style. The film’s success in Japan (roughly twice Cat Returns, half Spirited Away – that’s still a BIG hit) suggests the studio may do the same in the future.

As a Hosoda fan, I certainly see a film like Summer Wars as extending the Ghibli tradition (as Pixar did with the classic Disney tradition). In the last few years, we’ve had quite a few other Ghibli film pretenders, including Mai Mai Miracle and Production I.G’s Letter to Momo. I’ve seen both, but neither impressed me as much as Summer Wars…

03/11/12 @ 14:54
Ben [Member]  

Braves -

Glad someone agrees with me about the credits, I thought I was the only one who finds it completely crazy. To anyone who wants to know anything about who was responsible for making such a beautiful movie, and to give credit where credit is due,the credits to me are like a slap in the face. It’s ironic to me that the big staff get proper credits at the beginning, but all the underlings don’t.

Daniel -

Good to hear you of all people feel the same way about the movie… I don’t want to knock Yonebayashi’s impressive job of mimicking Miyazaki, but in the end that’s all it is. Mimicry is not what made Miyazaki a household name. Do people want to watch a pale imitation? I doubt it. Miyazaki became a legend because he had a unique voice, not because he found some kind of secret formula for winning audiences over that can be codified and mass-produced by anyone with the proper instructions.

I would also much prefer they go with someone like Momose, but I don’t think audiences are very progressive… they want to see Miyazaki-style films, and there’s no guarantee people would take to whatever Momose or anyone else might do. I personally think Ghibli started going down the wrong path when they sidelined Takahata because they deemed Yamadas to have been a flop. They should never have gone down that road of thinking. They were better than that.

Adrian -

Good to hear Poppy is an improvement, I’d like to see that, though in the end I think it’s completely arbitrary whether they chose Goro or a random person off the street. He got chosen not because of experience in animation and talent but because of his name, which meant he has a stake in the studio that nobody else has and will therefore be willing to see things through to the end.

redfish -

Point taken about I Can Hear the Sea. Perhaps the limitations were from the material. I enjoyed the film and Mochizuki probably did as good an adaptation as is possible of the book. Maybe part of my problem with Arrietty stems from the material. I felt like if Miyazaki were doing it he would have taken more liberties and made it more his own, and the director should have done that. Takahata took quite a few liberties with Only Yesterday.

Andrew -

Great to hear your take… Good points all. Very interesting about the dual feminine/masculine male lead roles that play off Arrietty. Hara had the most character animation, but she had no personality, so I felt the animation was wasted and merely so much clowning around. Some of the animation was even overdone. Perhaps her animation lost its delicate balance in the dub. The father’s neanderthal grunts certainly felt forced in an English context. And I thought the dub was good.

I’ve been a Hosoda fan for years, which is why I was devastated by Summer Wars. I had high hopes that film would cement him as the #1 pretender to the Ghibli throne, but instead it showed IMO that he might not be up to the task of an original full-length feature on the level of even Ghibli B game. I think he should continue trying. I also found Mai Mai Miracle nigh unwatchable, a real disappointment. Letter to Momo I have yet to see.

03/11/12 @ 22:33
pete [Member]

not a coincidence that the best films still remain the pre-2001 ones, before the studio became famous.

I wish I could have seen the movie on cinema as well, even without liking it. Last Ghibili film screened here was Howl’s Moving Castle for which I had mixed emotions.

I’d also consider Masayuki Kojima as one of the great directors able to undertake a Ghibili film, even though he has his own style and he is not that young. the characters in the features he directed were mostly memorable. Particularly the series Hanada Shonen-shi and the movies Piano no Mori and Tibetan Dog, share some things in common and have some great moments of their own.

But this remains wishfull thinking.

03/12/12 @ 16:28
LLJ [Visitor]

I actually liked Ponyo quite a bit better than a few of Miyazaki’s pre-2001 films. So for me I wouldn’t say their best films remain the pre-2001 ones. In fact, I’ve greatly enjoyed Ghibli’s post-Earthsea output in general, Arrietty included.

I also agree with Ben that Hosoda doesn’t seem to have displayed the weight of a true feature length film director yet. His films are likeable enough affairs, but at times one can’t help but feel that they’re more like your typical anime with a slightly bigger budget. For all the backlash Ghibli seems to have gotten in recent years, at least their films still feel like actual films, in terms of pacing, dialogue, compositions, and the way scenes are staged.

03/23/12 @ 09:52