The Survival Instinct in The Borrower Arrietty

[spoilers in this post]

I watched The Borrower Arrietty yesterday. While it isn’t a Miyazaki film, I still found it worthy of the Studio Ghibli name, and much more relevant than Ponyo.

Refreshingly enough, it lacks the strong environmentalist tone that other Ghibli works espoused. There are no real villains in the film, even if it has an antagonist of sorts. The human family wasn’t demonized or treated sufficiently evil (Homily’s admonishment to Arrietty was that human children are much more savage than adults, but not outright malevolent).

One thing I noticed is that you can approach both sides (human and Borrower) with both human and non-human perspectives. In the Borrowers’ perspective, the humans are untameable, dangerous forces, closer to natural disasters than the rational beings that they themselves think they are. They depend solely on the humans’ ignorance of their existence to keep on living in a human house, and deem their home uninhabitable once they are discovered. No effort is wasted on parlaying or even resisting the humans.

In the humans’ (especially Haru’s) perspective, however, the Borrowers are pests, little thieves that must be caught and dealt with. The little people are much less of a threat to her than vice versa, but Haru deems their existence in the house to be utterly undesirable. She has the power to erase them, and she acts on it. Would you live in a house knowing that someone would steal your things and assume that you wouldn’t miss them? Didn’t think so.

But both sides are only trying to live. I couldn’t blame the maid for trying to take care of “pests”, since that’s actually part of her job. It’s this very conflict of interest that makes Arrietty worth watching.

There is also the duality between Eros and Thanatos as represented by Arrietty and Shou, respectively. Arrietty embodies the Borrowers’ stubborn desire for survival. Even if they’ve lost their comfortable lifestyle, they resolve to start anew in another habitat. Refusal to do so would only mean death. Shou, however, has this weary air to him, in his speaking voice and languid walking gait. His illness is seen subtly throughout the film (without the horrendous bloody cough that is a big anime trope), but the revelation of his immediate mortality is nonetheless shocking to Arrietty.

He talks about the Borrowers’ impending extinction, comparing them to a multitude of species that have died out because they failed to adapt. When Arrietty asserts their desire to live on, Shou reveals his heart illness, explaining that his attachment to the Borrowers is because he sees his own fading existence in them.

But in her successful attempt at rescuing her mother, Arrietty inspires Shou, who realizes and forms his own will to live. I was prepared not to like this film for its slow first half, but the second half is very thrilling, and the ending is emotionally satisfying. Shou transcends his illness, helps Arrietty save Homily from Haru’s scheme, and changes his outlook in life. Shou, the lonely kid who, before the events of the film, had nothing to live for. Just marvelous.

The film doesn’t expound on the fates of both Arrietty and Shou beyond their life crossroads, but I, for one, know that they are both going to survive. Without a doubt.

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2 Responses to The Survival Instinct in The Borrower Arrietty

  1. I have just finished watching almost all the Ghibli films I haven’t seen before (the last 2 are Earthsea, and My Neighbors the Yamadas), in a massive marathon over 3 days, and here’s the order how I watched them:

    1, The Borrower Arrietty
    2. Whisper of the Heart
    3. The Cat Returns
    4. Only Yesterday
    5. Heisei Tanuki Wars Pom Poko

    Here’s how I’d rank them:

    1. Whisper of the Heart
    5. The Borrower Arrietty
    7. Only Yesterday
    8. The Cat Returns & Heisei Tanuki Wars Pom Poko

    To rank my Ghibli Experience

    1. I Can Hear The Sea (Ocean Waves) & Whisper of the Heart
    2. Mononoke Hime & Spirited Away
    3. Kiki’s Delivery Service & Porco Rosso
    4. Laputa: Castle in the Sky & Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
    5. The Borrower Arrietty, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo
    6. Lupin: The Castle of Cagliostro
    7. Only Yesterday
    8. The Cat Returns & Heisei Tanuki Wars Pom Poko
    9. Grave of the Fireflies

    I’m with you re the ambiguity of the fates of the protagonists. It matters less, or, it’s up to us to project our desires upon the characters… the way I projected lots of babies for Ashitaka & San at the end of Mononoke Hime.

    • schneider says:

      For me:

      1. Whisper of the Heart
      2. Porco Rosso
      3. The Borrower Arrietty
      4. Ocean Waves, Kiki, Mononoke Hime
      5. Nausicaa, Spirited Away
      6. Heisei Tanuki Wars Pom Poko (lol), Ponyo
      ###. Grave of the Fireflies (seriously fuck this film)

      I’ll get around to watching more.

      Also, with the subject of Arrietty, I read up about its composer Cécile Corbel, who is an ascended fangirl of sorts. She’s awesome.

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