Movie Review: When Marnie Was There
(Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking)
With the announcement in 2013 that Studio Ghibli’s co-founders Hayao Miyazaki, and Isao Takahata, were releasing their final animated features, many film fans were thrown into turmoil. The same uneasiness was felt when rumor quickly spread that their swansongs, would mean the end of the famed studio as well.
Co-founder Toshio Suzuki (a producer on numerous Ghibli films) quickly put the rumor to rest, claiming the studio would focus on smaller-scale projects instead. While this allowed some to breathe a sigh of relief, this meant sadness for many beyond the realms of Japan. After all, to many of us out there, the films from Studio Ghibli were what reached our shores (most of the time).
Some would have figured that Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya would be the final film released, but it turned out, there was one more left.
In the summer of 2014, Ghibli released their ‘final’ animated feature, When Marnie Was There. Based on the novel by Joan G Robinson (though the setting has been moved to Japan), the film follows 12-year-old Anna Sasaki (Takatsuki Sara). After an asthma attack, her mother Yoriko (Matsushima Nanako) sends her off to stay with her Uncle and Aunt in a small town near the sea, claiming the air will do her good.
After exploring the seaside town, Anna’s attention is drawn to an elaborate structure on the far side of the village, that the locals call The Marsh House. One evening, Anna goes exploring there, and is surprised to run across a blonde-haired girl named Marnie (Kasumi Arimura).
Of the many different main characters explored in Ghibli films regarding children or teenagers, Anna is quite drastic, being very quiet, and somewhat “expressionless.” One assumes that maybe she is this way due to her asthma, but it seems she may have some emotions bottled up inside. Her mother explains to a doctor that Anna used to be very happy, but seems to have become withdrawn, rarely speaking to anyone.
One of Anna’s outlets is her sketchpad, in which she often draws, but seldom shows others. I was rather pleased to see another artistic teenager in a Ghibli film, one of the first since 1995’s Whisper of the Heart. Anna seems to cope better with just drawing, fancying herself an observer on “the outside,” rather than wanting to be someone on “the inside” of life.
Even though those around her largely try to be polite and enthused towards her, Anna seems to rarely give in. This seems a little odd, when she seems willing to give in and meet with Marnie, who seems so lively and boisterous. As well, Marnie at times tends to get pretty ‘close’ to Anna. I saw the film in a theater of only 5 people, and it made me wonder how a larger audience would have reacted to some of these moments.
After the more original stylings of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, it was welcoming to find myself back in the “normal” world of Studio Ghibli. The greenery feels welcoming, and the style of the characters doesn’t differ that far from the styles we know (the characters still cry like they sprung a leak, too). One thing I became entranced by, were single strands of hair that stood out from Marnie’s main mass of hair. It’s a little touch, but it tended to make her seem more ‘lively.’
Marnie as a film, definitely feels ‘different.’ Much like Goro Miyazaki’s film From Up On Poppy Hill, it seems moreso enamored with trying to make the ‘magic’ moments seem more natural, and not as elevated into the realms that Hayao or Isao would have gone to.
This is a film that almost feels like the newer generation attempting to get its feet wet, but I could see how the story could leave some feeling a little ‘flat’ in the end. Anna’s largely ‘blank’ expressions quickly put me in mind of the enigmatic-looking Jiro Horikoshi from Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. Though luckily, Anna doesn’t hold her stoicism as long.
Much like Hayao Miyazaki has his themes, it seems that director Tomomi Mochizuki has his as well. The director of 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty, one can find some story parallels to that film, and this one (an ill young person, sent away to a place where strange encounters may await, for example). With Arrietty, Tomomi had a guiding hand in Miyazak-san, but here, he’s been left largely to his own devices.
One of the highlights of the film, is the wonderful score by Takatsugu Muramatsu. Before I knew it, I was swept up in the melodies that wafted over the seaside town, as Anna and Marnie made a connection. As well, the closing song by Priscilla Ahn encapsulates the film so well. Titled Fine On The Outside, it feels like a song that many would be able to relate to.
In the end, I was surprised to find that while I had fallen in love with the music and visuals of When Marnie Was There, I had not been swept up in the film’s most important part (to me): its story. Even thinking back to films like From Up On Poppy Hill and The Secret World of Arrietty, those films managed to entrance me with their characters, let-alone the stories they were telling.
This film could possibly have been Tomomi Mochizuki’s attempts to steer into new territory for Studio Ghibli, but I think many like myself, feel that you still need to give us some more investment in the characters. As well, the structure of some scenes left me scratching my head a few times.
The feelings I had reminded me of how I felt about the recently-released film, Tomorrowland, in which like Marnie, the visuals and music stuck in my head, but the story just didn’t tug at my heartstrings.
Though I have wondered now, some time after seeing it once, what I’d think of it if I had to watch it again. This could be like some films where the first impression may take on new meanings upon repeat viewings. Even so, my first impression of When Marnie Was There, turned out to fall short of my expectations. There seems to be an emotional sterility with the film much like with The Wind Rises, making me long for the emotionally affective levels that I experienced with Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
Final Grade: B (Final Thoughts: The final ‘film’ from Studio Ghibli, showcases a story without its grand masters. Though skillfully crafted, it often feels too distant to ever let us get close to feel its emotional core. Even so, it shouldn’t be missed for the painterly environments and melodic score, that give us faint hints of a time that may very well be long past)