The supposedly final animated feature from Studio Ghibli is an understated delight.
When Marnie Was There tells a story of Anna Sasaki, a 12-year old girl that doesn’t quite connect with the world. She is emotionally void towards her aunt and friends, and doesn’t want to share her experiences or art sketches with anybody else. But after an asthma attack at school, her aunt sends Anna away to her relatives in a rural town between Kushiro and Nemuro. There, she meets a mysterious girl Marnie who appears to live in a strangely familiar abandoned mansion across the marsh. The two girls form a secret bond that helps them learn things about their past and how their destinies are tied together.
This latest Studio Ghibli feature is an adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s book of the same title but moves the setting from England to Japan. It might sound like a strange thing to do but it only serves to refresh familiar, and perhaps bit tired, tropes. By doing that, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi actually manages to merge the unique qualities of Japanese animation with a tradition of British Gothic literature and the results are surprisingly good.
The character of Anna is very difficult to pull off in an animated setting. She’s quiet, doesn’t really like to speak a lot, her facial expression are muted and understated. And yet we get a sense that there is a lot happening underneath. She doesn’t show her emotion to the outside world but her internal struggle is real and it very much drives the plot. Having said that, it’s not the type of character audiences can like or identify with right off the bat. We get to know her gradually, in a slow pace, as we learn about her past and psychological issues. She remains a mystery for much of the film’s running time and even the ghostly Marnie pales in comparison (pardon the pun). Along with many revelations, there is a danger of descending into complete sentimentality but that is thankfully avoided by balancing out the character material with a slight touch of mystery. But even that remains tastefully understated.
It’s one of the more low-key Studio Ghibli films, pretty much completely devoid of any outrageous fantastical elements and following The Wind Rises’ lead in its deliberate and sombre tone. While it may be suitable for children, their adult companions more will get more out out of this experience. There is a sense of loss and melancholy all the way throughout that is absolutely nothing like its Western counterparts. The film, while revolving around children, is very much about dealing with past, accepting change and growing up. And while it might not reach the same type of excitement as many previous Studio Ghibli features, it seems like a strangely fitting swan song. So that is why, perhaps, When Marnie Was There receives only a limited release in the United Kingdom. Despite its relatively lighthearted approach, it is very much an adult film for mature audiences.
The animation is absolutely gorgeous, as expected, but what makes it stand out in this particular feature (as it did in The Wind Rises) is how it portrays the mundane everyday life. The small town setting is very basic in its scope and there is very little to explore geographically – it might take place primarily in three or four locations.. And yet that is exactly what makes When Marnie Was There so appealing visually. One has to marvel at the detail of the animation – children’s playground, Marnie’s house party. It’s during those simplest action that we notice animator’s skill the most: how they portray gestures, simple everyday activities, weather conditions… It almost makes us stop thinking we’re actually watching an animated film and that is a huge testament of Studio Ghibli’s artistry.
When Marnie Was There might never become a true popular success like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, or form as poignant of an artistic coda to Studio Ghibli’s legacy as both The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. But it nevertheless offers a heartfelt and moving little story that explores its character’s inner life with charm, sensitivity and refreshing restraint. Given the animated medium’s frequent tendencies to show off its possibilities in dazzling displays of colour and energy, this might be as big of an achievement as any. Melancholic and chamber-like, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s film comes highly recommended.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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