Ghost of an Idea: When Marnie Was There Review

For the next installment in my Studio Ghibli retrospective, I look at When Marnie Was There.

During his time at Studio Ghibli, Hiromasa Yonebayashi carved out an interesting niche for himself. He directed two movies, both based on children’s books by British female authors: The Secret World of Arrietty, an adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, and When Marnie Was There (2014), an adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s novel of the same name.

Each movie could also be considered something of an homage to Ghibli’s founding auteurs. Arrietty, with its fantastical creatures and setting, plucky young heroine, and adventure-oriented story could be considered a pastiche of a Hayao Miyazaki movie. Marnie, which has relatively more realistic characters and situations, a leisurely pace, and overall somber tone resembles an Isao Takahata feature. In its broad outlines, the latter movie shares much in common with Takahata’s Only Yesterday: a discontented young woman travels to the Japanese countryside for a vacation with relatives and goes on a personal odyssey steeped in memories of the past.    

In this case, the protagonist is Anna, a shy, introverted 12-year-old with a knack for sketching. An asthmatic, she is sent on a summer vacation to the country to recover her health after a schoolyard asthma attack—although based on what we are shown, the attack seems less a result of respiratory difficulties than acute social anxiety.

Aside from her asthma and social unease, Anna has other problems. Having been raised by foster parents for much of her life, the young woman has a strained relationship with her foster mother and unresolved feelings about the loss of her biological parents.

For her vacation, she stays in a seaside country village with Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa, an older married couple related to her foster mother. She has plenty of time to wander the countryside and draw pictures.

In her wanderings, Anna becomes fixated on the Marsh House, a boarded-up old mansion on the other side of a cove that is accessible by foot during low tide but requires a boat at high tide. The mansion (which, rather like the source material, seems to have been transplanted to Japan from the English moors) is supposedly abandoned, yet Anna finds it inhabited at night.

At the Marsh House, she meets Marnie, a girl her own age who is welcoming and anxious to become friends. Yet the ominous Marsh House, Marnie’s mysterious appearances, and her vaguely early 20th-century wardrobe indicates there is clearly more to Marnie than meets the eye.

Co-written by Yonebayashi, Masashi Ando, and Keiko Niwa, When Marnie Was There has much to recommend it. The movie has a sympathetic, interesting protagonist; good supporting characters; intriguing and powerful themes; and, of course, beautifully detailed animation. However, the movie has a major weakness, one that unfortunately lies at the heart of the story. This weakness prevents the movie from entirely working.

The early scenes are very strong. The filmmakers portray Anna and her surroundings with sensitivity and nuance. The girl’s morose loneliness is deeply affecting and her discomfort at being in unfamiliar places and social situations is relatable. The scene where she quietly rides with Setsu and Kiyomasa, in their cramped old car, as they blithely chatter away at her inspires instant sympathy.

Anna finds herself in a similarly awkward situation when she is pushed into going to the village’s Tanabata Festival with some local girls. The girls boisterously gossip and have a good time while Anna walks along, nervous and unhappy.

While we are invited to sympathize with Anna, the filmmakers are smart enough not to caricature the people around her. We see the other characters not just as they appear in Anna’s eyes but as human beings in their own right.

Yoriko, Anna’s foster mother, clearly cares about her deeply and is distressed by the girl’s unhappiness. Setsu and Kiyomasa, who come across as akin to an aging hippie couple, are laid-back, unfailingly kind, and solicitous of Anna’s needs. These are good people, but they do not know how to reach this particular young woman (and Setsu and Kiyomasa’s ebullience is paradoxically jarring to someone with Anna’s sensibility).

This thoughtful characterization extends to a character who in a different kind of movie would be an easy target for lampooning. A local whom Anna encounters is Nobuko, a bossy, large-bodied girl who seems to be the dominant personality among the village’s kids. Nobuko leads the detachment of girls at the Tanabata Festival and annoys Anna with her nosy, overbearing behavior. Yet when Anna finally loses her temper and snaps at Nobuko, insulting her weight, Anna is clearly the one who has crossed a line and is at fault. Also, the writers give Nobuko a refreshing reaction to the insult: in a matter-of-fact way, she insults Anna back and then lets her know she is still welcome to hang out with Nobuko and the other girls the following week.

In contrast, Anna warms to a few people in the village who are more suited to her temperament. One is Hisako, an older woman who is also an artist and paints the seashore from a vantage point Anna uses.

Another is Toichi, a sphinx-like fisherman who rows Anna across the cove. I appreciated the moment when Anna contemplates the weathered Toichi and thinks about how he resembles a bear, or perhaps a sea lion—a nice little touch that shows her imaginative side.

Anna also eventually befriends Sayaka, a precocious little girl with enormous glasses (who is a charming enough character to obscure the plot contrivances surrounding her).

The central relationship Anna forms, though, is with Marnie—and here we come to the movie’s main stumbling block. During their various night-time and day-time encounters, Anna and Marnie variously share details about their lives, attend a party thrown by Marnie’s socialite parents, evade the Marsh House’s strict housekeeper, dance together, and talk about their family backgrounds, each of which is troubled in its own way. We are given to understand they form a deep emotional bond.

Much about Anna and Marnie’s relationship is ambiguous. Are they becoming friends? Are they falling in love? Is something else unfolding between them? Also, who is Marnie, really? Is she a ghost? Some kind of otherworldly being? Just a figment of Anna’s imagination?

The movie eventually provides some explanation for the Mystery of Marnie. The explanation (kind of) makes sense and even contains a nice, poignant twist. No plot-level explanation, though, can solve the problem that Anna and Marnie’s evolving relationship, as portrayed in their scenes together, is just not very believable or interesting.

I cannot figure out what draws Anna to Marnie. Given that Anna is so closed-in that she has near-panic attacks in social encounters, it hardly is plausible that she would open up so quickly to a complete stranger appearing under spectral circumstances. Perhaps if she and Marnie had similar interests or personalities this could be made believable, but that is not the case. Marnie has no apparent artistic inclinations and seems quite the social butterfly, which makes her an improbable soulmate for Anna.

Is this a case of opposites attracting? Well, maybe. But Marnie is also about as pushy as Noboku, dragging Anna to the party and making her the center of attention. Her dancing with Anna also seems pretty forward. Why does Anna not react as negatively to Marnie as she does to Noboku?

I suppose the answer to such questions is meant to be that Anna and Marnie do not have a normal human bond. Instead, they share some kind of mystical connection that draws them to each other and renders unnecessary such pedestrian requirements as believable relationship building. At risk of sounding pedestrian, though, I would have liked to have seen the screenplay meet such requirements.

In addition to being badly underwritten, the ultimate significance of the two central characters’ relationship is rather confused. Anna clearly changes over the course of the movie because of her relationship with Marnie. Precisely how or why she changes is unclear, though.

At one point, it seems as though the example of Marnie’s unhappy family life will give Anna a new appreciation of the loving foster parents she has. At another point, it seems as though helping Marnie will give Anna the motivation she needs to break out of her withdrawn emotional state. At still another point, it seems as though her relationship with Marnie is going to teach Anna about the value of forgiving those who have disappointed her. Each of these possible character arcs is gestured at but none comes to clear fruition. As a result, I do not understand why Anna reaches the point she does psychologically at the movie’s conclusion.

I wish When Marnie Was There did not have these flaws, because the movie contains so much else to like. I have already mentioned some of the other strong points, and I will add that the animators here give us some of the best animated children’s body language since My Neighbor Totoro.

I loved the energetic way one of the girls at the Tanabata Festival moves, especially her reaction to Anna’s insult of Noboku; the way Sayaka flops down onto her bed in frustration; or the half-shrugging swing of her arms that Anna does in a scene with Hisako. Anna’s animated “acting” is generally very well done: watch for the almost imperceptible gleam of pleasure in her eyes when Setsu pays her a compliment.

Aside from the human characters, the seaside village setting is also well rendered. The village is beautiful but sufficiently seedy, with its overgrown thickets and run-down buildings, that it does not come across as impossibly idyllic.

The English dub is good. Hailee Steinfeld (the voice of Gwen Stacy in Into the Spider-Verse) is sincere and unaffected as Anna. Even better is Kiernan Shipka as Marnie; Shipka finds an odd cadence that suggests the character’s otherworldly quality without being distracting.

The soundtrack also boasts Priscilla Ahn’s heart-breaking lament “Fine on the Outside,” which conveys a lifetime of repressed sadness in a few minutes.

My choice for favorite image in the movie would be either one of the shots of sunlight reflected in the cove’s waters or an eerie long shot of Anna and Marnie framed by an expanse of green woods around them.

My choice for favorite humanizing detail is yet another example of Ghibli’s beautiful rendering of how kids move. In a brief early scene of some village boys playing around on some sloping ground, one of the boys loses his footing and falls over. None of the boys are significant characters; it is a complete throwaway moment. Such gratuitous details are a crucial part of what makes Ghibli movies fun.

The basic concept of When Marnie Was There is admirable. Anna is the sort of protagonist I intuitively like and want to find happiness. A movie that explored her growth and complicated feelings about her family situation in a thoughtful way would have been marvelous. The finished product did not live up to the filmmakers’ ambitions, though, and I would judge it more an interesting experiment than a successful movie.

Nevertheless, When Marnie Was There has a significant place in Ghibli’s history. The 2010s were a time of endings at the studio. The Wind Rises in 2013 was the last movie Miyazaki has directed to date. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, released the same year, was the last movie Takahata would direct before his death a few years later. Ghibli co-founder and longtime producer Toshio Suzuki retired in 2014. In keeping with this pattern, When Marnie Was There was the last movie Yonebayashi directed for Ghibli: he subsequently moved on to join a new animation house, Studio Ponoc. (His first movie for Ponoc was Mary and the Witch’s Flower, yet another adaptation of a book by a British female author.)

Moreover, as of this writing When Marnie Was There is the last largely hand-drawn animated movie Ghibli has produced in-house. Will the studio produce another such movie in the future? Time will tell.

Published by Cameraman_21C

I am an inveterate movie lover, to whom talking and writing about the movies is an activity second only to watching them.

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