Review: When Marnie Was There
By Floyd Rock
Following famed animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s announced retirement from feature filmmaking last year the Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli, announced they would be taking a hiatus following Miyazaki’s news. Though Miyazaki himself recently directed what could be his final feature film, The Wind Rises, and Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata made his first film in years, the Oscar nominated The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the acclaimed studio’s last movie could possibly be director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson. Working as an animator on many of Ghibli’s films since Princess Mononoke this will be Yonebayashi’s second directorial effort following The Secret World of Arrietty. Yonebayashi’s film follows 12-year-old Anna Sasaki living in Sapporo with her foster parents. Following a strong asthma attack at school her foster mother, Yoriko, sends her to spend the summer with her relatives Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa in Kushiro, a small seaside town, hoping the clear air would be beneficial and help Anna recover. Though the seaside area may help with her health Anna, anxious and shy, still has trouble making friends with the local children. Despite the good intentions of the Oiwas, she feels no less lonely and detached from others than she did in the city. While exploring a nearby marsh Anna discovers an abandoned mansion, a vacation home, in dilapidated shape. When she first investigates the old house she’s stuck by the rising tide and a local fisherman assists her in returning home. As she’s ferried across the water she looks back and miraculously the house appears in good shape with lights shining from upstairs. Intrigued by the phenomenon Anna returns and meets a blond girl named Marnie and she invites Anna to join her family at the mansion for a party. Anna and Marnie begin to develop a unique bond but whether Anna’s encounters with Marnie and the magical home are real or imagined apparitions remain to be seen.
Coincidentally When Marnie Was There shares a couple similarities with Pixar’s huge hit from this year, Inside Out. Both are introspective animated films featuring young girls on the verge of teenhood, uncomfortable with their new surroundings, and in both films memory plays a considerable role, albeit in drastically different ways. Instead of the high concept architecture inside the minds of the characters in Pixar’s Inside Out with their memories defining their personality When Marnie Was There takes a subtler approach to its narrative and characters. Like Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty this is also a calm, melancholy film. It’s a film where memories and events don’t just leave an impact on the minds of individuals but leave physical apparitions, of a building and its inhabitants, of the past. The movie blurs the lines between reality and fantasy consistently keeping Anna uncertain of whether her experiences are dreams, waking fantasies of her own creation, or magical glimpses into a grander interconnection to the past and spirituality of the world at large up until its revealing finale.
Like its protagonist When Marnie Was There is a film that moves at its own pace. Like Yonebayashi’s previous picture this is relatively light on narrative. It’s a film that propels itself more on mood, feeling, and emotional discovery than plot events. Like Pixar’s Inside Out this is a picture essentially about what it’s like to be a young girl with Anna’s anxieties, loneliness, and insecurities serving at its dramatic crux but unlike Pixar’s film When Marnie Was There doesn’t feel the need to fill its narrative with such a boisterous plot within its plot. The film’s most dramatic moments gain some of their tension by their infrequency and their opposing contrast to the delicacy of the rest of the film.
Some may find themselves disappointed by the relatively uneventful nature of a movie like When Marnie Was There, lacking the high concept of something like Pixar’s Inside Out or the relative exhaustive narrative urgency that a lot of big budget American animated movies depict but this may be one of the greatest contributions from an animation studio like Studio Ghibli. The studio’s popularity in the United States beneficially fills a void of animated films, often seen as children’s entertainment, for slower more contemplative pictures. As good as many American animated films are they tend to rely heavily on fast paced high concept work to both justify their expense and to stifle any possibility that viewers may become impatient during their runtime. Even Pixar, America’s most critically acclaimed modern animation studio, is often too concerned with pacing for immediacy rather than contemplation. Slower pacing in general is seen as ill-favored and doubly so in animation but really it should depend on a case-by-case basis and the nature of the film in question should determine what pacing is warranted. With this in mind, as a quiet sensitive film, When Marnie Was There is not just a success in how it evokes readiness to empathize with its anxious lonesome adolescent protagonist but how it encourages one to acknowledge their connection to family, their past, and the world at large. If Studio Ghibli fails to return from their hiatus the world will lose a gifted group of filmmakers that provide thoughtful animated films, films that are able to instruct both the young and old emotionally as well as entertain them.