When Marnie Was There is the latest film from Studio Ghibli, and the second feature film by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. After the recent retirement of Miyazaki and Takahata, Yonebayashi represents the next generation of Studio Ghibli filmmakers. The film adapts Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 classic ghost story of the same name, telling the tale of twelve-year-old Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki), and the equally enigmatic as charming Marnie (Kasumi Arimura).
Anna is a foster-child and tomboy who feels outcast from the world. She spends much of her time alone, drawing and alienated from her peers. Her foster mother, referred to as “auntie,” is concerned for her wellbeing and so sends her to a dozy town in rural Hokkaido – to fresh sea air and new surroundings. Anna spends her days in the marshes, dreaming away her time and adjusting to the settings. The point of focus for Anna in her stay is a large abandoned English-style country manor. One night Anna runs away to it and meets Marnie. The two girls quickly become close and Anna sets out to discover the story behind her new friend’s secrecy. Their relationship vacillates between dream and reality; the viewer can never fully understand the dynamic of their friendship as it is depicted primarily from Anna’s perspective.
Marnie seems perfect and happy – a polar opposite to the troubled Anna. Yet as the film proceeds, it becomes clear that she has sorrows within her; the two girls have more in common than initially thought. Playing on the power of youthful imagination, the film is best approached with a gentle and open mind, as the way it is weaved together is delicate yet nuanced. It captures Anna’s coming-of-age: a girl who feels outcast from the world finds her place within it. Some may regard the pacing as slow, but it complements the nature of the storyline. The film’s unique use of time and history holds an emotional weight in its ability to tie together ideas of intergenerationality and family.
When Marnie Was There has everything a good Studio Ghibli film has: mystery, magic, depth, values – and an air of whimsy. Then there’s the beautiful animation, and substantiated, unique characters. The film is pressed along in its delicate nature through the uplifting score of pianist Takatsugu Muramatsu. The setting and animation is poignantly imaged in the handcrafted, Studio Ghibli style. The hardest part about viewing it stems from not speaking Japanese (it does have English subtitles – as well as an English version). Though this in itself isn’t a decisive issue; the film could stand-alone on a visual level.
Ultimately, the film showcases the power of family, friendship and kindness. It’s a must-see for families, teenagers, and college students – learners of Japanese, or fans of the Japanese culture.