Neither a Borrower nor a Lender Be: Arrietty and Disney Humans by Proxy

Scale of Significance

Our family went to the latest Studio Ghibli release this past weekend, The Secret World of Arrietty.  This is not directed by Hayao Miyazaki but he is credited with the screenplay, adapting this from the 1952 children’s novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton.

The synopsis off of IMDB:

14-year-old Arrietty and the rest of the Clock family live in peaceful anonymity as they make their own home from items that they borrow from the house’s human inhabitants. However, life changes for the Clocks when a human boy discovers Arrietty.

The boy is in failing health having some kind of heart disorder and he is convalescing in preparation for a corrective, life-saving operation, though he does not believe it will be successful.

The “Borrowers” are small people who are human in appearance and language and general occupation–they live human lives but smaller in cracks and crevices where one sugar cube will supply them for the month.

But the Borrowers call the normal humans “beans” as if they were not the same kind of creature.

When the bean sees you, you’ve got to move or likely be exterminated as if a pest or treated as if a curio.

It seems we might simply see the borrowers as an imagined world for the bean.  The sick boy (Shawn in this movie) reads and dreams.  What can he do but imagine while he lay in bed or in a field of wild grass?

But this concept seems to me a reductive theft of the realm of Faery.  The Faery is unknown to human–though much is shared the “minds” are not at all sympathetic.  As humans are stuck in a single dimension and have yet understood the truths of time, they are unable to begin to understand the Faery world.

The Borrowers are just little people scrounging among the breadcrumbs (though interestingly there is a “savage” borrower depicted as well).

They are commonplace; but there is an attempt at “revision”–scale revises significance and import, meaning.  Small confinements reveal mysteries of unseen spaces.

We can see that the human mind imagining little humans and little human things is only a mind wishing the world different though much the same.  In essence, wishing we were a different or better self.

We are trapped in our boxes, our minds, our houses.  We cannot imagine the world of difference (we cannot be “other”)

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There is a real truth here.  We can observe and interact with the world’s othernesses–animals, insects, fish, but also geography in our mountains, rivers and trees–but we cannot know them and all imagination about them is simply human mind projected.

We might be persuaded to believe in “hope” if we believe there are expansive and sympathetic minds like Shawn’s (and Arrietty’s)–but as always, these beans are depicted as a miniscule minority among the overwhelmingly exterminator-friendly population of humans.

A stark example of this poverty was offered prior to the film during the 10 minutes of previews and commercials and instructions: Disney and The Jane Goodall Institute have made a movie about chimpanzees that in its preview presentation offers the protagonists as simply beings acting out another “human” drama–or rather acting out the only kinds of stories there are, human ones.  It is narrated in its trailer as if it were indeed just another Disney story–with a Disney soundtrack.

We see close-ups of human/chimpanzee eyes and actions and we project…they really are “just like us.”

We can go further as the similarities between these two species are such that much research has been done to show a kind of actual “reflecting mind” much like our own.  The ramifications for species dominance and eradication of a fully “aware” being is what’s at play here and likely in this movie.

Killing directly or killing by deforestation and resource depletion is morally equivalent to killing humans in the same manner.

I am struck by the mind that imagines human caring about chimpanzees when there is no care for one’s own suffering species.  I’m certainly not saying don’t care, rather do; I am simply noting the irony that Homo Sapiens has murdered its own without cessation over millenia.  Why would we care about the “lesser” beings over which we have a Bible-sanctioned Dominion?

I’m sure I’d prefer a world filled with Shawns rather than Disney filmmakers pretending to narrate an animal essence.

But as we inhabit a Disney narrowness, instead of Shawn or Arrietty, I’ll take Mononoke any day.

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  1. Ian March 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Beans like Shawn give hope, yep. Sounds about right.

    But did you ‘enjoy’ the movie?

    1. Douglas Storm March 5, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      I wanted more Shawn/Arrietty I s’pose. I wanted more collaboration between worlds so to speak, something like Spirited Away maybe.

      But a Ghibli is always worth the time.

  2. focus March 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    good to know. My children have been resistant to seeing this (even though my daughter has read the Borrowers books)
    I will see if I can change their minds this weekend.
    Good commentary here Doug. Thanks

  3. SS March 6, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    You make some good points here. Obviously the Borrowers represent a fascination with seeing our world differently, and this is how I responded to the movie in terms of its detail to sight and sound (enjoying the perspective from a “little”). The desire to encapsulate the Borrowers in the miniature dollhouse is interesting, though also true to our human nature – confine things in our world.

    I found the relationship between Shawn and Arietty to be completely undeveloped. We have no real understanding as to why Shawn would be so smitten with Arietty beyond the obvious curiosity of her as a little person, but Shawn projects a lot of seemingly odd affection on Arietty at the end of the movie. If she had remained personal to him, and not made real to any of the other characters, we could have believed that it was his imagination that kept him thriving through his illness and post-surgery. But the fact that the Borrowers are real to all other human beans in the movie confuses Arietty’s effect on Shawn.


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