Book Review: 'The Art of The Secret World of Arrietty'

Fred Patten discusses Studio Ghibli's lush new book detailing the production art of their latest feature film.

Karigurashi no Arrietty (The Secret World of Arrietty) © 2010 GNDHDDTW All rights reserved.

The Art of The Secret World of Arrietty [by Studio Ghibli].  VIZ Media LLC, February 2012, 245 [+3] pages, 978-1-4215-4118-1, $34.99.

In recent years, it has become a tradition to issue coffee-table “The Making of” art books with the release of their theatrical animation feature films.  Although each book has its individual author, they are really joint products of their studio’s publicity departments.  So The Art of The Secret World of Arrietty is probably more honest than most in being officially authored by Studio Ghibli, the Tokyo production studio of The Secret World of Arrietty, released in America on February 17, 2012 by Walt Disney Pictures.  As Kari-gurashi Arrietty (The Borrower Arrietty), it was released in Japan on July 17, 2010, becoming the highest grossing Japanese film for the year 2010.  (For those who want more specific book credits, the final page lists Senior Editorial Director Masumi Washington, with English adaptation by Takami Nieda.)

Studio Ghibli was co-founded in June 1985 by director Hayao Miyazaki.  The studio has made sixteen features in almost thirty years, by several different directors, but all have been approved by Miyazaki and most feature his distinctive art style, which is as recognizable as Chuck Jones’ is for his cartoon works.  In fact, the Amazon.com entry for this book confusedly misidentifies both the film’s director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Miyazaki as the author of this “making of” book. 

The book clearly states what it delivers.  “This collection of concept sketches, concept art, backgrounds, character sketches and designs, and film stills follows the story of Studio Ghibli’s animated film The Secret World of Arrietty.  All concept and rough character sketches are by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi; key art sketches by Hayao Miyazaki; concept art and backgrounds by the art staff supervised by art directors Yoji Takeshige and Noboru Yoshida; and character design by Ai Kagawa and Akihiko Yamashita.  All of the images are stills from the film unless otherwise noted.” (p. 7)

The book follows the art production of the film in Japan; there is nothing about the Disney editing for America (though the American character names are used).  (By contractual agreement, Disney has adapted the film without any editing or cuts.)  The film is based upon the 1952 award-winning British children’s novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton.  Studio Ghibli has a reputation for considerably rewriting the literary sources of its films, but Arrietty is a mostly faithful adaptation of the book.  The major changes are moving the story from the 1950s English countryside to today’s Japanese countryside; giving the nameless Boy a name (Shawn), and writing the Borrower boy Spiller from Norton’s sequel The Borrowers Afloat into the plot.  These changes are described in the Introduction, and in the original brief project design by Miyazaki.  “Our familiar Koganei neighborhood would be fine as its location.” (p. 36). 

The lush, full-color book presents the pre-production and production art in chronological order, ending with the Japanese theatrical poster.  There are extensive quotes from director Yonebayashi, and shorter quotes from art directors Yoji Takeshige and Noboru Yoshida.  The different preliminary character designs of the main character, 14-year-old Arrietty Clock, are especially interesting.  Curiously, although many different looks for Arrietty were considered (including many that were overly similar to Studio Ghibli’s previous young heroines), she ended up looking very much as she does in Beth and Joe Krush’s 1952 illustrations for Norton’s novel.  (So does Arrietty’s mother, Homily.  Her father, Pod, looked very working-class English in the Krushs’ artwork, and looks more “international” in the film.)

The book concludes with the complete 37-page English-language voice-over script, as translated and adapted from the Japanese.

The Borrowers is a well-beloved book translated and published throughout the word, including in Japan.  This high-quality and faithful movie version will not disappoint the novel’s fans.  The profuse pre-production and production art, more extensive here than in many “making of” books, will be especially valuable to students of animated film-making.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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