In my review of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya I detailed the state of Studio Ghibli and its decision to suspend all production on animated features. It was a sobering bit of news and remains so as the studio certainly seems to possess enough talent following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki to press on and a film like When Marnie Was There only reinforces that thought.
When Marnie Was There is based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson. I had never heard of it nor read it so my experience with the story is entirely via the Studio Ghibli film. The film is written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi in his second go-around as director for a Studio Ghibli film, the first being the very good The Secret World of Arrietty. Even though this is only his second turn as director, Yonebayashi has been with the company for over a decade working on several other animated films in various roles. Takatsuga Muramatsu handles the music for the film making the film feel like a promotion of the studio’s younger talent. The film is wonderfully animated and visually resembles very strongly another recent work by the studio, The Wind Rises. Like that tale, When Marnie Was There is a mostly grounded film from a visual sense and lacks some of the studio’s more wildly imaginative settings and characters.
The film follows Anna, a young girl of about thirteen who has a hard time fitting in. The film never explicitly states it, but she’s quite obviously depressed at the start of the film and is paralyzed by a social anxiety order that seems to manifest itself in the form of severe asthma. As the film progresses, we learn the root cause of most of her issues is her sense of abandonment as she lost her parents and grandmother at a young age and has been in foster care with the same family for most of her life. She is having a particularly hard time coping with a recent discovery about her foster parents that lessens her sense of self worth. She states that she hates herself, and following another asthma attack early in the film, her foster mother decides it may be good for her health to visit some relatives in the countryside.
It’s in the countryside where the film’s plot gets rolling along. Anna stays with the Oiwas, relatives of her foster parents, in a seaside town located somewhere near Kushiro and Nemuro. It’s a small, quiet town located on the coast. Her family tries to get her involved with the local girls her age but Anna struggles to make friends. She soon finds herself drawn to an old, rundown mansion on the coast that she enjoys drawing from the shore. It’s there she encounters Marnie, a lonely young girl about the same age as Anna. Marie tells Anna she dreamed of her and the two form a fast friendship. Marnie is the child of wealthy socialite parents who are rarely home leaving Marnie in the care of an abusive nanny and two maids. Anna and Marnie have an instant connection and the two are free to express their love for one another. It’s a sisterly kind of love, but when Marnie invites Anna to a party her parents are throwing and dances with a young man, Anna is seen as jealous and possessive of her new friend. It becomes obvious to the viewer that Anna has never had a real friend before, and it’s touching to see Marnie wordlessly pick up on this and tenderly sooth her friend.
What the film doesn’t obviously address for a long time is the nature of Marnie’s existence. During the day, the old mansion where she lives is run-down and abandoned, but at night, time seems to rewind around the old house and restore it to its former beauty. As the viewer, we’re left to wonder if Marnie and the people in the mansion are ghosts or if everything is a product of Anna’s imagination. Anna seems to think Marnie is an imaginary friend, as she’s confronted later in the film by a young girl who’s family has purchased Marnie’s mansion and is renovating it. The girl, Sayaka, notices Anna staring up at her room and mistakes her for Marnie. She knows that name because she found an old diary by a girl of that same name when her parents bought the mansion. Anna and Sayaka soon become determined to unravel the mystery of Marnie. I do not wish to spoil anything further, but I’ll say it’s a very satisfying tale and the film answers all of the questions it poses which helps give it a sense of closure. Repeated viewings are also satisfying because knowing the end adds added context to a lot of what happens during the film.
The film may contain a mystery as part of its central plot, but it’s really secondary to the story of friendship between Anna and Marnie. Both characters possess tragedy about them and both are instantly likable even though both also possess obvious flaws. Anna’s inability to communicate with others is a frustrating flaw for the viewer, but also a heartbreaking one. Meanwhile, Marnie is so clearly neglected that it’s sad to see just how happy she is when she’s able to sneak outside at night knowing what awaits her when she eventually returns home. The film’s reluctance to really address how Marnie is able to exist allows it to focus on the growing friendship, and all of the trials and tribulations a new friendship creates. Once Anna becomes so attached to Marnie an anxiety brews. When Marnie disappears for a few days Anna immediately assumes it’s because of something she did to anger her friend. The film makes it easy to think back on one’s own adolescence and recall similar feelings.
The film moves at a comfortable pace and the english dub is well done, even if the film was not picked up by Disney for release outside of Japan. Universal handled it, which also handled the release for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and the english cast features some notable names such as Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hare, and John C. Reilly. Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka voice Anna and Marnie, respectively, and both do an admiral job giving a voice to these characters. It is especially important that the english dub be of a high quality because it would be a true shame to mar the visual presentation of such a film with subtitles. The look is so vibrant and colorful that I often found myself delighted by even the most simple of shots. This is one of the studio’s finest productions and it’s a joy to see it was not wasted on an inferior story.
When Marnie Was There is the kind of film that you either connect with or you don’t. I suppose for those where the film’s characters and plot do not resonate they’ll see it as a perfectly fine little film about friendship. For those able to connect with it on a more personal level will find something truly captivating and beautiful. I do not know why the film made such an impact on me, it’s not as if I could truly relate to any of the characters because of a personal experience, but I think it’s because the film was able to tastefully portray Anna’s struggles without being heavy-handed that it made everything to follow so believable. The score is impressive and there isn’t a scene in the film where the music isn’t perfectly suited. Even the closing track, “Fine on the Outside,” is utilized at just the right moment and feels wonderfully suited to close out the picture. When Marnie Was There possesses the heart and magic that has made Studio Ghibli one of the premiere production houses in the world when it comes to animation. It is my sincere hope that it is not the final feature from the studio, but if it turns out to be, it’s a wonderful way to cap an unprecedented run.