The Secret World of Arietty

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

-G.M. Hopkins

*****

I finally watched The Secret World of Arietty the other day. It shouldn’t have taken me so long; I loved The Borrowers, like I loved every story about small people in a big world, and at one point may or may not have left surreptitious offerings for them.

 

What really separates Miyazaki from most of the inoffensive bilge that passes for children’s entertainment is not just his technical virtuosity, or his delightful strangeness, although on their own merits they place him several cuts above almost everyone else.

It’s the respect he tenders grief, children’s griefs, the space and time and understated fullness he gives them in his movies that mark him a friend.

I remember a recurring childhood dream in which I’d make a friend. I’d find some beautiful child on an island or in the woods or an alley, and we’d play together and have adventures and love each other, and then suddenly I would realize I was dreaming, that I was about to wake up and my friend would be lost forever and there’d be nothing I could do about it. The grief over leaving my friend, forever, was so strong that I’d wake up sobbing and continue.

I’m still not sure what this dream is about, although I suspect it’s nothing I’d want to reveal on a first date, but I still remember the sharpness of that pain. And Miyazaki is interested in that pain, and in Margaret’s crying over a place that is both losing its summer and “unleaving,” stable, permanent through cycles.

So many children’s classics are of the type usually set in murmuring, stable, lazy, places where nothing much happens except the drama of small griefs–inconsequential and sharp, inchoate and universal, all more or less vaguely felt and quietly expressed. The vagueness and circumspection are deliberate; they allows both protagonist and and reader to feel their way around around the looming ravages of life without either simplification or brutality. These books are sad, safe, and ultimately comforting.

The loud onscreen interpersonal dramas usually sold to children are not. Everything is exposed, aggressive, seething with eagerness to make sure children feel the correct emotion as the film hits each pre-packaged note. The absent parent, the rejecting parent, sometimes a genial idiot of a father (who seems much more a projection of the tolerant forgiveness the filmmakers desperately want from their own children than any realistic depiction of a child’s perception of parental failure) are all neatly dealt with by the 90 minute mark. The correct lesson is picked from a hat and affixed to a pleasant finale–believe in yourself, value differences, family is most important.

None of these lessons are wrong. What is wrong is the idea that children have no internal lives and no need for art that takes them seriously; the idea that pandering and manipulation, rather than the offer of and invitation to empathy, are sufficient for the young.

The experience of loss in The Secret World of Arietty is both agonizing and untroubling; an ache that finds no pat cure, and a natural part of life and growth. For all the full-throated grief in the film’s last scene, the hopeful coda offers more real comfort than any of the manufactured happy endings of its more visible competitors.

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