Ghibli movies have never been afraid to explore the darker sides of our hearts through its whimsical storytelling and spellbinding animation. Perhaps that is what makes them so memorable. After all, we’ve all felt pain at some point in our lives, haven’t we? So often see Ghibli’s characters transform from light to dark, to light again. But with Marnie we start straight from the deep end. At the opening scene, we hear the inner cry of a young girl: "I hate myself!"
The young girl is named Anna, a quiet twelve year old foster child who likes to draw, with short brown hair and blue eyes. Anna’s eyes look as deep as the ocean, seemingly matching her complex loneliness that we’re introduced to so early on. Her guardian Yoriko, notices Anna becoming increasingly unwell. After a check-up with the doctors, it’s recommended she spends some time in the country where the air is cleaner.
So we’re taken from the grey concrete streets of Sapporo, to the green marshes of Hokkaido. There she stays with her Yoriko’s relatives, the laid back couple Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa. Anna doesn’t really remember them, but they have watched Anna grow up through photos mailed to them over the years. They take in Anna as one of their own.
Anna grabs her sketchbook and heads to the nearby lake. There she notices a beautiful, old detached house that immediately resonates with her soul, as if from a memory or dream. At first glance, it’s as if it was cut from any British village postcard and Photoshopped carefully into the Japanese countryside. But only for a moment. After all, this is Studio Ghibli, who have taken European inspirations across many of their films. This film is also based on the book by British author Joan G. Robinson. As Anna approaches the house, she finds it empty and abandoned. But that doesn’t stop her from being so drawn to this picturesque house. She even imagines the lights coming on and dreams of a girl living there.
Meanwhile, Anna has trouble making new friends in this country town. Anna goes to the Yukata Festival with a neighbour’s daughter, an outgoing girl named Nobuko. Nobuko notices something different about Anna. Anna being an introverted girl, hates the attention. She insults Nobuko and runs back home upset. Anna stops and notices a rowing boat left by the lake, a candle burning by its seat. It feels as if it had been waiting there for her. Anna clumsily rows to that beautiful marsh house across the lake. There she is noticed by a blonde girl who saves her from crashing the boat. This smiling, spirited girl introduces herself as Marnie. Anna recognises this girl from her dreams. Marnie tells Anna that she has been waiting for her to arrive. From this point on the girls become whisked away in an unlikely friendship. Suddenly, it feels as though Anna can finally feel happiness.
It isn’t just Anna that goes through highs and lows. Even Marnie isn’t as perfect as she comes across, and learns how to conquer her fears with Anna’s help. For Anna, being a foster child, she slowly learns the true meaning of "family". What unfolds is a tale of friendship and the strength it can give.
I watched the English dub for this, and I have to say I am impressed. Gone are the days of half-arsed voice-acting! We are blessed to have anime as popular as it is today, which opens it up to some extremely talented voice work. Anna is played by Hailee Steinfield (Ender’s Game, True Grit) who does a great job with everything, from the dull notes of Anna’s depressed mood, to the high notes of when she finally begins to feel happy. Marnie’s joyous, adventurous spirit is mirrored well by Kiernan Shipka (The Legend of Korra) too. Actually, Shipka has moments where she comes off almost emotionless to me, but this actually works. Marnie comes across as airy fairy with a lust for life, but it’s later revealed that she has her own problems too. I got the feeling that this emotionlessness of her voice could also be seen as a kind of mask, where Marnie is blocking out her true feelings. Then there’s Ava Acres (Adventure Time, Frozen) who plays an energetic and determined Sayaka, a girl who Anna meets later on. There’s also John C. Reilly (Talladega Nights, Wreck it Ralph) as the laid back Kiyomasa Oiwa, and Kathy Bates (Titanic, American Horror Story) as Nobuko’s stern mother. Upon watching the Special Features, there are some good interviews with these actors, all who found this animation an emotional endeavour. Bates in particular cries during a small part of her interview as she finds a connection with the film, which I found touching.
With Anna being a foster child, family is indeed a big subject with When Marnie Was There. But as the story goes on, Anna comes to realise that "love" comes in many forms and that "family" doesn’t necessarily have to be linked by blood. As Anna overcomes these feats of self, she grows stronger and it is a beautiful thing to watch.
What really underlines that transformation is the music. This time it isn’t by Joe Hisaishi but by Takatsugu Muramatsu. Usually working with live action films, this is Muramatsu’s first time working with animation. He has created a fittingly sad but beautiful score for this film, I felt like I was with Anna’s heart throughout the movie! The film’s end theme is also a favourite for me, featuring the husky, heartfelt "Fine on the Outside" by Priscilla Ahn, whose lyrics capture Anna’s mood perfectly.
Lastly, the production itself looks a masterpiece. I absolutely have to applaud the freshly appointed director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, this being his first movie without Hayao Miyazaki in the credits. I am happy that there’s still the unique Ghibli quality of capturing that English suburban atmosphere, and then some more. For example, there are these beautifully painted, morphing clouds and skies where the sun seeps through sometimes. For me, they seem to perfectly depict Anna’s conflicting heart. And even though Hisaishi isn’t involved with the music here, I think Yonebayashi made a great choice with Murumatsu’s melancholic tinkerings on piano.
This being a double disc DVD purchase, I should mention that there’s a wealth of bonus content for the fans. In addition to the interviews and Making Of, there’s the original storyboard art to watch along with the movie audio. My favourite is ‘ Yohei Takada Creates the Art of When Marnie Was There’, where we’re taken through a small, gorgeous museum displaying the film’s artwork and scale models, with narration from Sara Takatsuki (Anna’s Japanese voice actress) who retells the story to us. It felt like a 3D bedtime story.
To sum everything up, When Marnie Was There is a gorgeous, emotional film where a girl learns how to find peace within her heart. But it’s also a mystery. Who is Marnie and how did she know of Anna? Why does Anna feel so drawn to that marsh house? Why is Anna so unhappy? How is it these two girls become so close so quickly, that if they were just a few years older, it’d be a surefire lesbian romance? These are the questions that riddled my mind throughout, but I loved that. Spoilers aside, it is Anna’s closed and tainted heart which will slowly reveal itself to us, and thus, so will the story. And even though it’s not really clear why Anna and Marnie’s "precious secret" must be what it is, it will keep those patient enough guessing to the very end.
Overall, Marnie is a beautifully told tale of love and pain that will ask to be watched again and again. Yonebayashi has brought us something no doubt Miyazaki will be proud of, and I’m excited for what he’ll bring us next!