Review: When Marnie Was There (2014)

Directed by:

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Studio Ghibli’s latest animated feature, When Marnie Was There, is released in cinemas across Australia on the 14th of May, 2015. See cinema websites for screening details.

Animator and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi came to prominence in 2010 when he directed Arrietty for Studio Ghibli, becoming (at 37) the youngest director of a Ghibli feature film. He’s worked with Ghibli for a lot longer though: Wikipedia lists him as an animator on Princess Mononoke in 1997 and a host of other titles since then.

When Marnie Was There, Yonebayashi’s second film as director, is rumoured to be the legendary studio’s last, given the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki from filmmaking and Ghibli’s current suspension of film production while they consider the future. And it’s not a bad swansong: the lush, painterly visuals and keenly observed details that make Ghibli productions so distinctive are present and correct, and the story (adapted from Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 YA novel of the same name) is engaging, though much more grounded in reality than some of the studio’s earlier flights of whimsy.

The film follows Anna, a twelve-year-old girl who lives with her foster parents in Sapporo. When it’s discovered that she suffers from asthma, she is sent on doctors’ orders to stay with the Oiwas, relatives of her foster mother’s, in a seaside town where the air is cleaner. Anna wanders around, exploring the town where she’s to spend the summer and discovers a grand old mansion on the other side of the marsh, which she wades across to have a closer look at. Trapped there by the rising tide, she’s rescued by Toichi, a local fisherman — and as she looks back over her shoulder at the empty marsh house, she sees lights shining in the windows.

Anna’s dreams — and soon her days — are filled with visions of the marsh house, and of a blonde girl who lives there, visible behind an upstairs window. One evening, rowing over to the marsh house in a boat, Anna meets her: she says her name is Marnie, and she lives in the house sometimes with her parents. The two girls rapidly cement an intense friendship, and Anna begins to spend every evening rowing over to see Marnie.

That’s all I’m going to say here about the plot; suffice it to say that the story isn’t as simple as it sounds, and that When Marnie Was There is more about Anna’s place in the world — her loneliness and her relationships — than anything else. She’s an older, more troubled protagonist than any I can remember from Ghibli’s earlier films, more moody, defiant teenager than happy-go-lucky child. The film treads a fine line on her character development, too, as it swings between confident curiosity, to rebellious resentment at being shuffled around by the adults around her, to awkward intensity as she grows more and more fascinated by Marnie and her world.

Although it looks every inch a Ghibli picture, particularly given the rural seaside setting, director Yonebayahi has his own signature, and this film (much more than Arrietty did) makes use of a bunch of techniques to evoke Anna’s turbulent internal state. Some of it reminded me of Satoshi Kon’s brilliant Perfect Blue — the ambiguity and transitions between dreaming and waking states, the shifts between first-person and third-person points of view. Some of the editing and sound work are reminiscent of horror or thriller cinema, while some of the scenes between Anna and Marnie as they develop their relationship feel like they veer into romantic territory, such is their intensity. (This latter point may be a quirk of the English dub that I saw, though — I’d be curious to know if audiences who see the Japanese version feel the same way.)

When Marnie Was There is an interesting picture, straying quite a bit from the whimsy and magic of the classical Ghibli canon into the twilit marshland of teenage rebellion and angst. Some of Anna’s story relies quite a lot on exposition, which rather telegraphs what’s going to happen later on, but it’s still compelling to watch and I suspect will resonate more with teenage audiences than with this writer, cynical as I am.

7.5 rowboat trips to the marsh house out of 10.
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