The latest Asian movie releases and reissues. Studio Ghibli’s new animated feature is an adaptation of the much-loved children’s classic The Borrowers and arrives in UK cinemas this week.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Japan, 2010
UK theatrical (Optimum)

For nearly three decades, Studio Ghibli has been producing animated films that seem uniquely Japanese, while boasting massive universal appeal. Ghibli founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have frequently filtered their concerns and interests in Japan’s social and ecological affairs through their films – fused with elements of traditional folklore – and yet the worldwide popularity of movies like My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and Graveyard of the Firelies is undeniable. Which makes their latest film, Arrietty, a curious proposition – this is a pretty faithful adaptation of Mary Norton’s classic – and very English – 1950s book The Borrowers. A popular, timeless children’s story to be sure, but not one that necessarily has much in common with the visionary, otherwordly invention of Ghibli’s best stuff.

Arrietty is the 14-year-old daughter of Pod and Homily Clock, tiny Borrowers who live in an old, sprawling countryside manor. The name of their kind comes from their nighttime missions to ‘borrow’ things from the ‘human beans’ they share the house with – items that will never be missed, like pins, sugar lumps and tissue paper. To the house comes a Sho, a teenage boy suffering from a potentially-fatal heart complaint, there to spend a few quiet weeks with his grandma before a decisive operation. Sho spots the miniature Arrietty in the garden on the day he arrives; when Pod and Homily learn that they have been seen by a full-sized human, they realise their time in this home may soon be over.

There’s no denying that Arrietty is a gentler, slower, more whimsical film than much of Ghibli’s other output. This is certainly a fantastical story, but debuting director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (working from a script co-written by Miyazaki, who had been looking to adapt The Borrowers for decades) grounds the film in a way that even its closet thematic cousin – My Neighbour Totoro – did not. The world of the Borrowers seems very real, their lives and the way they intertwine with those of the the humans living in the same building feels established and ancient; they’re not just mystical beings that have suddenly popped up out of nowhere. Sho’s family have lived there for generations, and although his grandmother has never seen any ‘little people’, her parents claim to have done so, to the extent that an incredible doll’s house was built for them to live in.

Arrietty herself is a strong-willed, self-possessed girl, used to living and surviving without the companionship of others her own age. Her eventual friendship with Sho – the very thing that threatens her family’s residence in the house – comes from the sheer fact that she’s a bit lonely (not that she’d ever admit it). Miyazaki’s gift at creating fully-realised, empathetic characters is as strong here as in any of his scripts – it’s a joy to spend time with Arriety, her gruff-but-kind father and kitchen-obsessed mother. There is a wonderful, thrilling sequence early on in the film, when Pod takes Arrietty on her first night-time ‘borrow’, as they creep through the nooks and crannies of the old house, swinging from curtains and abseiling down tables like mini-Indiana Joneses in their quest for useful household items. The house itself is brilliantly realised by Yonebayashi, the Borrowers’ life revealing a hidden world beneath the floorboards and between the walls, where insects and spiders pose a daily threat to our tiny heroes.

But despite the fun and the film’s gentle nature, there is a seam of darkness running through Arrietty that definitely brings it in line with other Ghibli movies. The Borrowers are an endangered species – Pod and his family do not even know how many others of their race still exist, their only contact being a feral survivalist called Spiller who lives nearby. The harsh reality of their situation is brought bluntly home to Arrietty by Sho – who is himself dying – who tells her: “Lots of species are already extinct… it’s sad but that’s what fate has in store for your kind”. And it is once more a testament to the characterisation that the other threat – paranoid housekeeper Haru who is determined to capture the Borrowers – feels very real and potentially quite scary for younger children, even though she is a character mostly played for laughs.

Arrietty certainly isn’t perfect – Cécile Corbel’s lilting folk songs are charming but overplayed, dominating some scenes in a way that isn’t always needed, while young audiences raised on faster-moving American animation may find the pace a bit too lackadaisical. When your back catalogue is so packed with classics as Ghibli’s, it’s easy to view a ‘lesser’ movie like this as a disappointment. But Arrietty really isn’t – it still stands head-and-shoulders above most of its rivals and contains many pleasures, both big and small.