Perhaps the final effort from Studio Ghibli, When Marnie was There is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi whom some had seen as a potential successor to the company though it seems he too has now left Ghibli’s employ! Like Yonebayashi’s previous film The Secret World of Arriety, Marnie is also based on a vintage British children’s book – this time by Joan G. Robinson, though When Marnie Was There hasn’t enjoyed the same level on ongoing popularity as The Borrowers (maybe because it hasn’t received the same kind of televisual treatment as Mary Norton’s novels). Nevertheless, Marnie has been successfully shifted to modern day Japan whilst still managing to feel quite like ’60s England.
Anna is a solitary 12 year old orphaned girl living with her adoptive parents in Sapporo. A constant worry to her fretting mother, Anna suffers from severe asthma and has received complaints at school regarding her aloofness and seeming inability to make friends. Part blaming herself and her often absent husband, Anna’s mother decides to send her to the country for a while over the summer, hoping both that the clean air will be good for her lungs and a change of scene might help bring her out of herself. After arriving at a small seaside town to stay with some relatives of her mother’s, Anna hears tell of a mysterious grain silo which the local children think is haunted and also becomes strangely drawn to an apparently empty Western style mansion. Anna starts to dream about the house and eventually ends up meeting a mysterious and cheerful blonde girl there dressed in a distinctly old fashioned style. Though opposites in many ways the two have more than you might expect in common and quickly become firm friends. However, why can’t Marnie go very far from the mansion and why doesn’t anyone else seem to know about her? Only through solving the mystery of Marnie can Anna unlock the secrets that have been causing her pain in her own life.
Perhaps oddly, there are a lot of similarly themed children’s books from this period – enough to form a small genre all of their own though there are certainly much more well known examples than When Marnie was There. They are in fact so well known that to name any one of them might accidentally spoil the story but any British adult over 30 who grew up reading this kind of material or watching the numerous television adaptations has probably already figured out where this is going. Having said that, the film at least deviates from the norm in that the country relatives are actually nice if content to let Anna figure herself out while she’s there rather than the stern guardians you often see which necessitate the children getting out of the house to go on their adventures. Likewise, generally the stories focus on the accidental friendships developed by (oftentimes originally mismatched) children as they investigate whatever mystery has arisen – though Marnie has this, it leaves it as a nice, subtle detail that actually pays off in the end. Thankfully, though the resulting story is sad, there’s nothing really malevolent lurking and the resolution is such that it allows the central characters to close the loop on a traumatic event with their memories returned to them so they can move on with their lives.
By and large, the animation is just as impressive as any other Ghibli movie (though perhaps unremarkable by their very high standards). The pacing is, at times, strange – particularly the last segment in which the revelation is played as one long narrated tale, but Yonebayashi has been able to imbue this little seaside village with plenty of character full of tiny details and a fully realised life of its own. Though it’s a little more obviously sentimental than many of Ghibli’s other works and eschews some their more usual concerns, When Marnie was There stays true to the emphasis on the importance of friendship, loyalty and decency that has long been a mainstay in Ghibli movies. Unlike The Wind Rises or Princess Kaguya, this one is firmly aimed at girls of around the protagonist’s age and may have a little less to offer to those outside of it but its tale of adolescent connection still rings true.
Some might claim it’s second tier Ghibli, and they might be right, but even second tier Ghibli is still a ways ahead of most other animation. An old fashioned children’s mystery melodrama with friendship at its heart, When Marnie was There doesn’t exactly break any new ground but it does offer an intriguing tale told with characteristic warmth and intelligence by the promising young director Yonebayashi.