Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement last year, after his beautiful final film The Wind Rises, seemed to signal changes to come at Studio Ghibli. But this newest film from Miyazaki’s former studio bears the same earmarks of beauty and wonder that made his films so impressive. This may be the last film we see from them for a while, as Ghibli has put production on hiatus to reorganize their work following Miyazaki’s retirement. This is a shame, since director Hiromasa Yonebayashi shows that while he may lack some of Miyazaki’s narrative whimsy, he can make a beautiful, emotional film from a very spare plot.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Producer: Yoshiaki Noshimura
Writers: Joan G. Robinson (novel), Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, David Freedman
Music: Takatsugu Muramatsu
Cast: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima, Susumu Terajima, Toshie Negishi
Premiere: January 28, 2015 – International Film Festival Rotterdam
US Theatrical Release: May 22, 2015
US Distributor: Gkids
When Marnie Was There follows Anna, a teenage girl who moves from Sapporo—where she lives with her adopted mother Yoriko—to stay with friends in the country because the fresh country air may help with her asthma and crippling social anxiety. Anna is a shy, quiet girl and an aspiring artist who draws intricate impressionistic images with colored pencils and spends a lot of time in quiet contemplation. As she wanders through the small town that has become her summer home, sketchbook in hand and avoiding any social interaction, she becomes obsessed with an old, familiar Victorian mansion that fronts on a salt marsh.
The narrative is jumbled and chaotic, confusingly dreamlike with both time and sensibility shifting perceptibly and deliberately. From moment to moment Anna’s interest in this house may manifest as anything from gentle curiosity to dangerous obsession. But like in dreams, locations and images take on almost mythic proportions. This mansion—Anna refers to it as “The Marsh House”—and a spooky abandoned silo on the outside of town become central places in her visions, her drawings, and her life. Soon she begins to dream of a blonde, blue eyed girl who lives in that fabulous mansion, and then, as if appearing from nowhere, Anna befriends this girl, named Marnie. The two become close quickly, like two people falling in love, and their confused friendship (are they lovers or friends?) wiggles along with the narrative. Anna and Marnie pop in and out of each others’ lives in a way that seems like it should be disconcerting yet feels appropriate, and they seem to pass through time as well, going to parties that look like they belong in a Renoir movie.
Like all of Studio Ghibli’s films, When Marnie Was There has an elegance to its animation. It feels at once delicate and encompassing, painterly and comfortably realist. Marnie’s drawings, images that operate as drawings-within-drawings in this animated world, are beautiful too, and demonstrate a fully different style: something like impressionism as imagined by someone living in the Ghibli universe. There is mystery and some suspense as well, especially involving Marnie’s lost journal and a highly Hitchcockian moment in the abandoned silo (could Marnie’s name be an homage to Marnie?), but the beauty of the countryside as drawn by Ghibli’s animators is the most overwhelming sensation.
What is perhaps most impressive about When Marnie was There is the way it portrays the intensity of adolescent emotion. Each word of dialogue between Marnie and Anna seems loaded with portent and meaning. Anna’s own angst, mostly derived from being adopted, has a believable intensity, and her anxiety in social situations feels overwhelming. Yonebayashi has an impressive grasp on the emotional life of the teenage mind and that lends this film deep resonance. While the meandering plot’s culmination feels predictable and juvenile, it doesn’t make it any less heartfelt. It seems unfair to grade Yonebayashi’s sophomore directorial effort (he also helmed The Secret World of Arietty) against the whole canon of Miyazaki’s films. While When Marnie Was There lacks the ambition of films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, it achieves nearly everything it sets out to and does so with an elegant and melancholy beauty all its own.