When Marnie Was There
Starring Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura
Produced by Studio Ghibli, based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson
IMDB Rating: 7.8
Studio Ghibli’s 20th and potentially last studio film, this adaptation of a classic novel is a touching ode to the legacy of the great Japanese film company.
Based on the 1960’s novel of the same name by English writer Joan Robinson, When Marnie Was There – literally released in Japanese as ‘Marnie of my Memories’ – follows Anna, a young, foster child who is emotionally unattached to the world. Her foster mother, who fondly remembers how full of life Anna was when she was younger, is worried about her, and when Anna suffers an asthma attack at school she sends her to live with relatives in the countryside until she gets better. While out there, Anna comes across a mansion, looking over a marsh. She is drawn to the old building and particularly the young girl that lives there. She eventually meets Marnie – the young, blonde-haired girl who lives in the mansion – and becomes best friends with her. As the story progresses it becomes unclear who Marnie, this incredibly happy and free-spirited girl, actually is, or even is she is real at all.
NOTE: I watched this in Japanese with subtitles. I don’t know what the English version of this story is like, or if the voice acting was any good, but I’m sure it could make a difference to the quality of the film, so I’m pointing it out here!
While I have seen pieces of other Studio Ghibli works – I distinctly remember seeing part of Castle in the Sky many years ago – this is the first time I’ve intently watched a whole Ghibli movie. The first thing to say is that I can’t think of any word more appropriate for this film than the word delicate. When Marnie Was There, from the very beginning to the concluding credits, treads a very light step.
The story is a prime example of that. Showing immense levels of patience, the story is allowed to build at a pace that is in keeping with the general feel of the movie. While it did at times feel like it was treading that line of patience turning into boredom, the film had enough character to keep you interested enough in what was actually being said. On said character, this is a film that shows the finer details in ordinary moments in a way that I’ve seen very few films do before. Again I use that word delicate here because When Marnie Was There takes its time to set up scenes to the point where it’s very easy to lose the whole idea behind that moment. A lot of the time you see something happen, then as the scene changes – knowing the movie will give you time – you reflect on what just happened, finding the little nuances and meanings in between the words.
While there is an underlying message in this film, for large parts of this film it flew way over my head. It was a movie that was touching and heartfelt, and incredibly natural and realistic given the subject and plot, but the important message was lost for the most part. That could have been somewhat intentional, or an unavoidable occurrence due to source material or the complexity of the idea, but it ended up with a situation where the last ten minutes were basically a ‘here is what this all meant’ situation, with almost just one character explaining exactly who Marnie is and why she is more than important to Anna. This does make the storytelling come across as rather childish, but given the feel of the whole film this isn’t necessarily the worst thing to happen to the film. When that underlying message is revealed, and the whole meaning of the adventure hits home, When Marnie Was There was actually a surprisingly emotional story. While it doesn’t throw it in your face at any point, it slowly prods at you to the point where you do genuinely feel something real when the story is concluded.
And now my favourite subject, the drawings.
As you’re probably aware, I watch and review a lot of Japanese anime series here on The Culture Cove now. I am hooked by the limitless imagination that the medium gives you, along with that childish joy it creates in the people who make it and those who enjoy it. However, what I love about Studio Ghibli’s animation is that they are not necessarily interested in making use of the advantages the medium of anime can give you over conventional film. Most of the success of anime is its ability to create out of this world moments, but in When Marnie Was There I see a film that is so incredibly grounded. The drawing is so fine, so measured, so delicate that it brings out all the minute details in a scene like nothing I’ve never seen before.
There’s a moment early on in the film that keeps replaying in my head as I write this: as Anna makes her trip into the marsh towards the old house she dips her bare foot into the water. Not only do you get the beautiful rippling reflection of the water, but you see a little water crab just to the right of her bare foot quickly, smoothly scurry away into the sand. Anna moves on unaware, and in all truth there’s no reason for the audience to be aware too. There’s no relevance to it, there’s no real reason for the water crab to be in the shot at all. But they put it there as just another cute detail in their beautiful picture that’s bursting with natural life. That, is what I saw throughout When Marnie Was Here.
As I said, I haven’t got any other major experience with Ghibli films, so I don’t have anything to compare it to in that regard, but taking this film on its own merits there can be no denying that this is one of the pretties movies I’ve ever seen.
Overall, this is a very beautiful film with a quiet but poignant tale. While I can imagine many people would find this film very slow, if you can have patience with it and take in all the little details then you will definitely enjoy what is an incredibly natural portrait of life and its forgiveness.