The World Ends with You: On The Secret World of Arrietty

Walt Disney Pictures

The heartbeat tick of a grandfather clock disguises Arrietty’s footfalls as she and her father, Pod—a pair of mouse-sized people known as “Borrowers”—sneak into a bedroom. It belongs to a human boy named Sho, whom they’ve overheard is ill and confined to frequent bed rest. At this dark hour, he’s surely asleep; if the Borrowers are careful, they can make off with whatever they need. The prize they’re after looms in the middle distance: a brass tissue box, with a loose sheet ready for pilfering. They approach in the shadows of colossal dolls and lamps, winding their way to a ledge of wainscoting. Inch by cautious inch, they shuffle toward the nightstand where the tissue awaits. Pod motions for Arrietty to take hold of the tissue’s far corner. She climbs atop the box to where he’s indicated, ready to pull. Together, they struggle with the unwieldy paper, Arrietty pantomiming laughter at the ridiculous effort.

Then, she gasps—because Sho, eyes soft with dreamy serenity, is silently watching her.

For an instant, all goes quiet as Arrietty stifles her breath. An extreme close-up frames her startled face. It’s the nearest that the film allows us to draw to her; no other composition dares such intimacy. The entire film coheres around the knot of emotions expressed in this single, unguarded glimpse.

There’s always a temptation to dismiss emotion as mere melodramatic ornament, waving it away with Stoic skepticism. The Stoics, writes philosopher Dirk Baltzly, held that “emotions like fear or envy (or impassioned sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever) either were, or arose from, false judgements”—in other words, that emotions are fundamentally at odds with truth. But the Stoic assessment has never struck me as wholly accurate. If you know how to interpret them, emotions provide powerful conduits for understanding oneself and one’s conception of the world. They’re what happens when your intuition outpaces your intellect—when something stirs the values and beliefs that thread the deepest parts of you, such that your entire being reacts before your reasoning can catch up. Emotions therefore reveal you at your most honest, exposing how you read and relate to the world you’ve received in that moment, shorn of affect or second-guessing or pretension.

Here, then, is the one face that Arrietty has had no time to prepare. (Such unpreparedness is foreign territory for her; earlier scenes of hiding herself from human eyes and studiously selecting her expeditionary clothing suggest that she’s accustomed to shaping what others see.) Perhaps we’d expect to find terror in her gaze. Her parents have warned of the dangers humans pose, of the casual cruelty that’s even sharper in their young. We can only imagine how many times Arrietty has heard this refrain, internalizing the warranted fears of preyed-upon creatures. You could easily believe that Arrietty’s slouch as she pulls the tissue over herself like a security blanket is the helpless reflex of a deep-rooted fright.

But fear isn’t known to blush. And the most elemental defensive reflex is to shield the skull and eyes first. (If I can’t see you, the lizard brain reasons, then you can’t see me.) Yet Arrietty leaves her face exposed. She attempts a shy duck of the head, an aversion of the gaze. Then, she lifts the tissue to conceal herself below the neck, like a bather overcome with modesty. These aren’t the movements of someone afraid for her life; they’re the motions of a girl suddenly conscious of a desirous gaze. Whatever she’s feeling, it’s not terror. Rather, it’s the activation of a yearning long suppressed. In the flush of her cheeks and the frustration liquefying in her eyes, there is the smoldering disbelief of a being that has fruitlessly wanted—and, until this instant, could not conceive of being wanted back.

In some respects, Arrietty’s resignation channels your typical teenage despair. A yawning loneliness circumscribes that interminable period between the end of childhood and the onset of independence. It’s a time when one’s tiny world is tinier than ever: still bound by parental authority and logistical constraint—how will you go anywhere else without money or transportation?—but exhausted of wonder and surprise after a lifetime’s worth of exploration. Nothing new remains to be discovered in its overly familiar confines. And since it’s all one has ever known, there follows a persistent belief that it’s all one will ever know—that life will offer nothing, and no one, beyond what’s in one’s immediate milieu. So echoes the refrain in the recurring theme “Arrietty’s Song,” with the ghostly inflection of questions involuntarily thought: “Is there someone out there for me?” No ache compares to that uniquely adolescent sadness, the inescapable feeling that you’ll be alone forever because your beloved wasn’t found by the time that you explored your insular world to its limits.

For Arrietty, though, that pain runs deeper than the standard teenage insecurities. Hers is crueler and more existential. Other teens merely reach the end of their world, but Arrietty faces the prospect that her world ends when she does. For she might be the last generation of her kind, if not the last of her kind entirely. Arrietty is one of only four Borrowers shown; her two parents and benign barbarian Spiller make up the rest. (Spiller claims to have seen “this many” others after an elaborate display of counting on the fingers of one hand, but it’s unclear whether he struggles to calculate small sums, or whether Borrower numerals use a different base than ours.) Accordingly, the potential extinction of Arrietty’s diminutive species colors—or bleaches—her minute joys. “Sometimes I think we’re the last Borrowers in the world,” confesses her mother, Homily, right before opening a sugar bowl that she didn’t realize was empty. The disappointing visual captures Arrietty’s condition in miniature: a present that loses savor as the future keeps leaking promise, while all signs forecast bitter days ahead.

Atop all this, the constellation of isolating images surrounding Arrietty compounds her appearance of singularity and solitude. The local fauna frequently occur in pairs; the rats beneath the floorboards, the grasshoppers patrolling the cellar, and the pill bugs outside her front door all telegraph that having a mate is the natural order (and that nature denies Arrietty this pleasure). Sweeping vistas of empty space (the fathomless abysses behind residential walls, the dizzying expanses of human living environments, the heights glimpsed from vines and rooftops) frame Arrietty as precarious, vulnerable—and alone. The one human artifact sized for her (a dollhouse with working amenities, perfectly proportioned for Arrietty’s ilk) invites still greater desolation, as we learn that the previous homeowner built it to welcome the house’s Borrowers, who instead fled the premises for fear that they’d been sighted. Each visual externalizes Arrietty’s dispiriting wait for companionship that never arrives.

Even her parents, who make every effort to support their daughter, exacerbate her loneliness despite themselves. They’re depicted in a way that heightens her isolation. Arrietty bears no resemblance to her parents whatsoever. There’s no hint of Pod’s or Homily’s protuberant nose on Arrietty’s face. Their motions and mannerisms are wholly unlike hers. Their coloring also diverges dramatically: Arrietty blazes with vibrant, vital reds; her parents sport the muted palettes of lives in decline. These estranging details hint that Arrietty’s family isn’t companionship enough. They’re too dissimilar to her, and given all that her parents have in common with one another, Arrietty ends up looking like a third wheel, more single and self-conscious than ever.

Yet Arrietty does have a visual rhyme in Sho. They share the willowy build of bodies underutilized or underserved, the pale complexions of fugitives forced too long into hiding. On both of their faces, the eyes stand out most prominently, grown large and searching from years of being forced to look without touching—Arrietty because of the Borrower’s unending need for concealment, Sho because his heart condition prohibits excessive stimulation. Despite their immense difference in size, their likeness establishes between them a physical (if not carnal) connection, which each apprehends the instant their gazes meet.

The intensity of that connection is due in no small part to how Sho’s fate mirrors Arrietty’s. They operate on the same wavelength because they’ve been dealt similar hands. For Sho is also heartsick—in more than one sense. He doesn’t shoulder the extinction of his kind, but his world threatens to end with him, too. He’s staring down a particularly invasive cardiac surgery with an uncertain success rate; he’s been installed at his aunt’s country house (where Arrietty happens to reside) in hopes that the pastoral air will strengthen his heart enough to survive the procedure. But the treatment might be worse than the disease. “Excitement’s the worst thing in the world for his heart,” his aunt remarks, laying bare Sho’s strain of existential malaise: he’s allowed to exist, not to live. There’s no seizing the day for Sho. Forbidden anything that might make his heart race, he’s denied pains and pleasures alike. Left unspoken—but deeply felt—is the fact that romantic partnerships, which could fatally quicken his pulse, remain out of the question.

Like the lovelorn Arrietty, Sho is surrounded by lonely, pining motifs. His main companions are his aunt and her maid—adults who, despite good intentions, provide care but not comfort. He drifts between his bedroom and a field of flowers, settings whose unrealized (and unrealizable) potential for amorous encounters only heightens his solitude. He’s occasionally spotted reading Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, a work famous for elaborate tortures, themes of lovers waiting beyond mortal reach, and a heaven shaped like that most sexually suggestive of blooms, the rose. Small wonder, then, why Arrietty materializing by his bedside tissue box (another loaded image for anyone who’s ever been or known a teenage boy) leaves him riveted. And why, awestruck upon seeing Arrietty unconcealed for the first time, he feels compelled to tell her that she’s beautiful.

In this light, their interactions ring of amorousness and courtship. The first time that Sho speaks to Arrietty, the frame shows only the sensuous movements of his lips, then cuts to Arrietty’s flustered expression; her fixation is less the words than what’s forming them. When Sho delivers Arrietty the sugar cube that she fumbled during her failed scavenging expedition, he includes a handwritten note reading, “You forgot something.” Arrietty treats the message as furtively as a private love letter (which it basically is). After Sho shields her from an attacking crow—whose aggression he tendentiously blames on “nesting season”—she flees the scene, dropping the leaf she had used for cover. Sho drapes it over his face as one might a crush’s clothing. The coding verges on Victorian in its propriety, but the subtext is conspicuous. Arrietty and Sho are smitten, badly.

Alas, Arrietty is a Borrower, a race whose name doubles as descriptor and sentence. She’s doomed to grasp for things that will never truly belong to her. Sho is no exception. Arrietty’s initial reaction to him shows that she intuits this from the outset; her restrained tears foretell the agony of their impossible, star-crossed pairing. Souls may find their mates, but they’re stuck piloting bodies that dictate their own set of terms; for Arrietty and Sho, this material reality painfully intervenes. Their time together is bound to be brief (Sho’s frequent perspiration and chest-clutching temper his assurances that Arrietty has given him the will to survive his surgery) or—let’s admit it—sexually unsatisfying. The logistical frustration is most apparent in their only moment of physical affection: Arrietty touches her forehead to Sho’s fingertip and tries to hug it, but her arms can’t encircle even this smallest part of him. An unbearable sadness underscores the gesture. They might be perfect for each other, but they aren’t made for each other. They want and cannot have; they are wanted and cannot be had.

Arrietty games out this entire trajectory the instant that she and Sho lock eyes for the first time. Her face reveals a mind toying with a future it must discard, a tangle of feelings that maps neither to hope nor despair. At its center remains a question that she’s asked many times before: Is there someone out there for me?