Arrietty (U)

Studio Ghibli doesn't need to keep up with the Pixars.

Mary Norton's 1952 novel The Borrowers, about a tiny family that lives largely unobserved in the nooks and crannies of our homes, has been borrowed from with uncommon frequency. The BBC squeezed two series out of the book and its sequels in the early 1990s and is making another, and a jolly film adaptation appeared in 1997. As well as spectacularly unbalancing our sense of scale, the concept returns us to that infant state in which the disadvantages of being small and powerless are offset by the perks of near-invisibility.

Now, Japan's Studio Ghibli has made an animated version. Arrietty is named after a teenage borrower (voiced in the English-language print by Saoirse Ronan) whose curiosity leads her to defy orders not to converse with "human beans". Shinning down the stem of a flower, she is spotted by Sho (Tom Holland), a 12-year-old boy staying at his aunt's home in Tokyo. That night, Arrietty finds her way to his bedside table while on a borrowing mission - "borrowing" being the imperceptible creaming-off of human supplies (a safety pin here, a sugar cube there). Boy and girl become friends, despite the risks posed by normal youthful shenanigans. Just imagine, for instance, the mess if Sho were to high-five her.

While the boy is the physically greater presence, it is Arrietty who has the more stable emotional life, even given the risk that her home could be hoovered up or flattened at any moment. She is supported by an appreciative mother (Olivia Colman) and a gruff, practical father (Mark Strong) who could pass for any dad, until you notice that he is dwarfed by a pair of scissors in his workshop.

Sho, on the other hand, is distressed by his parents' divorce. He never sees his father and his mother has gone on a business trip just days before he is due to have a heart operation. The message for young audiences is that strength is relative. Sho saves Arrietty from a crow attack of such intensity that Alfred Hitchcock would have snipped it out of The Birds to lessen that film's horrors - but it is she who provides the companionship missing from the boy's life.

He repays her by lavishing on her family a brand new kitchen, taken from his mother's doll's house. It's a beautiful gift that could only have been improved if Sho had notified Arrietty's mother that it was coming. Even the shoddiest renovators tend to give you a rough idea of when they will arrive, rather than tearing off the roof of your house while you're standing at the stove. The film's director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, excels at these frightening set pieces but he is also subtle enough to let us register at our own speed the film's magical disparities - such as the grey, segmented orb in Arrietty's hands that is not an old-fashioned football but a curled-up woodlouse, preparing to ping into shape and scurry away.

The movie, co-scripted by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli's co-founder, is at pains not to let us non-borrowers in the audience feel superior about our size. Yonebaya­shi will often locate the larger characters within wide shots that dwarf them artificially. When Sho says to Arrietty, "So many beautiful species have died out as the environment changes - maybe that's what fate has in store for the borrowers," she cuts him down to size on the matter of man­kind's destructiveness. "Fate, you say?" she fumes. "It's you!" I spy a Studio Ghibli fan wise to the environmental lessons of Pom Poko and Princess Mononoke.

It will be a sad day if Studio Ghibli ever feels the need to keep up with the Pixars. For now, its animation style is classical and nothing like as antsy as the computerised equivalent. What is so bewitching about the mostly static backgrounds in Arrietty is that they can be oxygenated at will by the smallest instance of judiciously placed movement, such as a single fluttering ladybird or a pair of jaunty butterflies in the foreground.
The score has that familiar blend of the peaceful and the rousingly lyrical, even if it is prone to Celtic leanings representative of the film-makers' desire either to whip up some Titanic goosebumps or to pay tribute to Tokyo's hitherto unsung Irish folk scene.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis