Studio Ghibli is known for making animated feature films that carry thematic messages about the harmony between nature and humans. In a 2004 article, Roslyn McDonald explained the following about this recurring subject in Ghibli’s films, particularly those directed by Hayao Miyazaki:
Human’s relationship with nature and the gods of nature (kami), continuity and change, the bitter-sweet awareness of the transience of beauty, life and love (mono no aware) and the struggle between and accommodation of old and new, good and bad are recurring themes in Japanese art and literature.
The Borrower Arrietty, which premiered in Japan in July 2010, is the most recent of such films carrying themes around nature–human relationships. It adapts the 1952 children’s book The Borrowers by U.K. author Mary Norton, who won the Carnegie Medal for Literature for its publication. The original book continued with three sequels telling the adventures of a family of miniature people who repurpose items from human households. The film will premiere in the U.K. in August and in the U.S. next February.
Upon exploring the life of Arrietty’s family of Borrowers, viewers immediately wonder if there are other families like hers in the new setting of modern Japan. It is later revealed that while there are other Borrowers, there is little communication among families and individuals. Arrietty’s family comfortably lives under an old home in the western Tokyo suburb of Koganei . However, they should be considered semi-nomadic, settling only where they can live sustainably for a period of time and moving on when conditions become unfavorable.
Sho, the boy who is temporarily residing in the house, tries to befriend Arrietty. In the process, he sees the Borrowers as an “other” group, whose lives have been disturbed by human actions. When Sho describes the Borrowers as a “doomed species”, viewers are immediately made to realize that the Borrower population, through no fault of their own, are slowly declining.
Habitat fragmentation is a common concern among environmentalists studying habitat degradation because it affects biodiversity. Human development projects can alter the landscape of a natural habitat in ways we cannot imagine. Continuous landscapes are broken up into isolated fragments through the clearing of wildlife. In the case of the Borrowers, their community becomes isolated pockets with no means of contacting one another. Only coincidence would allow one group to meet another, such as the case in the film when Arrietty’s family meets Spiller.
The construction of this premise would not have been possible if the setting of the story were not transplanted into Japan, which has many more rural (agrarian) communities than Britain, which entered the industrial age early in the 19th century. Japan’s traditionally rural history is a perfect setting to depict a community being pushed out of its natural habitat. Imagine a time when Japanese homes—originally constructed out of natural materials such as wood and bamboo—could have housed miniature people such as the Borrowers. When their ideal habitat becomes fragmented due to urban development and the construction of concrete roads and buildings, whole communities would be broken apart. Continuing urbanization means shrinking patches of habitat, with each pocket slowly dying out without a way of receiving help from others.
All this would happen without the knowledge of the humans who have not seen them. For those Borrowers who come into contact with humans, they can be misunderstood as “thieves”, equating them to wildlife that encroach upon human habitat when instead we are the ones who encroach upon theirs.
While Ghibli’s previous films often used a spiritual personification of nature to convey a message about the human way of life, The Borrower Arrietty does not. Instead, the community of the miniature Borrowers—albeit fantastical—represents real living beings who must define their relationship with humans. The portrayal of a human story to species extinction makes the film’s message much more profound. Because the Borrowers themselves have human characteristics, one can more easily empathize with their plight. As viewers, we begin to view ourselves as the enemy of nature.