SIFF Film Review – When Marnie Was There
When Marnie Was There
Note: This is a review of Japanese-dubbed version
When Marnie Was There (2015) marks what could possibly be Studio Ghibli’s final film. That is incredibly saddening if it turns out to be true. The famed Japanese animation studio – most notable for the work of Hayao Miyazaki – has turned out incredible masterworks for decades. In a time where computer animation has nearly replaced the traditional hand-drawn approach, Studio Ghibli has remained a constant presence. The world would be losing an important cinematic voice if they were to cease production permanently.
Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty, 2010) takes the director’s chair this go around, adapting Joan G. Robinson’s novel with Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando assisting on the screenplay. There are a lot of familiar themes running here that we’ve seen in past Studio Ghibli work. Mystery and magic are once again seen through the perspective of a young person. It’s amazing how this studio can so easily tap into the wonder and awe of young people. Much in the same way that Walt Disney did with his colleagues, we’re able to be transported into the mind of a naïve character and empathize with them as they grow.
The story is somewhat of a mixed bag. Anna (Sara Takatsuki) is a young, deeply emotional girl. She’s very shy and self-conscious around other people – which has contributed to her developing asthma. Her foster mother Yoriko (Nanako Matsushima) believes sending her out to the country to stay with relatives will help her get better. Once there, Anna tries to fit in, but would much rather stay by herself and sketch in her notepad.
It’s not until Anna meets Marnie (Kasumi Arimura) do things start to change. Marnie is a blonde haired, blue-eyed girl who lives in a house across a marsh from where Anna is staying. This foreigner piques Anna’s interest. Marnie doesn’t seem to belong in look or behavior. When Anna meets Marnie’s family, they look like they were transported outside of time and space. And yet, Anna feels open and safe around Marnie. Is it because Anna often sees herself a foreigner as well? Anna and Marnie soon develop a friendship, mostly involving Anna slipping away to visit Marnie on her side of the water.
Who is Marnie? Where does she come from? Is she even real, or a figment of Anna’s imagination? Most of these questions are answered by the end, but never really held in any important regard. Who Marnie is and her relationship with Anna turned out to be one of less interesting things about the film. In fact, a last second reveal is pretty discernable early on, and comes off more contrived than anything else. The links don’t quite fit together perfectly when the whole picture is shown. But how Marnie operates to Anna’s neurosis is far more fascinating. Marnie brings Anna out of her shell, so to speak. Before Anna even realizes it, she’s fallen into this mini-adventure to unravel the mystery of this stranger. She would not have been able to conjure up the courage if it were not for meeting Marnie. Seeing Anna overcome her inhibitions and start to grow up is what really keeps us locked in.
If you’re reading this, then chances are you’re a fan of hand drawn animation. This is no different than anything else we’ve seen from Studio Ghibli in terms of visuals. The look is bright and colorful, more realistic and less impressionistic than last year’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013). What I’ve always found admirable about the studio’s animation is how they include fine details – little bits and pieces that could go unnoticed by the casual observer. When a character accidentally trips over a rock but quickly recovers, or when someone rushes towards a descending staircase but slows down so they won’t fall. In the opening scene, Anna draws something, but isn’t satisfied with one section and decides to erase it. These instances took careful planning and outlining, but they feel so spontaneous, just like real life. I can only imagine what the process was like choosing when a character would perform a meaningless action. But it adds a crucial element a lot of modern animation lacks: texture.
When Marnie Was There is a good, but not quite great outing for Studio Ghibli. The plot was fairly thin, even though it had a strong central character. Anna is a person we can root for, because she encompasses so much that we can attach to. Being young, not yet knowing who you are or what you want to be – these are thoughts we’ve all struggled with at one point in our lives. The biggest thing Yonebayashi and his team accomplished was making Anna a completely normal human being. She doesn’t have superpowers, she isn’t expected to move mountains or save the world. Her journey is personal and intimate, but that’s what makes her so special.