Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers: Masashi Ando, Keiko Niwa, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Ava Acres, Vanessa William, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly, Grey Griffin, and Catherine O’Hara
Studio Ghibli’s 2014 drama When Marnie Was There is based on the 1967 children’s novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson. The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who had previously directed Ghibli’s Arrietty, as well as working on animation for various films for the studio. It’s an understated coming-of-age story told through the lens of a supernatural mystery, where you’re kept in the dark for most of the film.
Anna Sasaki (Voiced by Hailee Steinfeld for the English dub) feels completely isolated from everyone around her. She’s living with a foster family and doesn’t feel like she fits in. After having an asthma attack at school a doctor advises that Anna goes to live in the country where the air is cleaner and Anna goes to live with the Oiwas in a remote town where everyone knows everyone.
The story follows Anna as she tries to fit in to the new town over the summer break. The Oiwas try to give her as much freedom as possible, letting her go out and sketch whenever she wants and they only really try to integrate her into the village once, with a poor outcome. The family that takes Anna in are very bubbly and friendly, clashing with Anna’s more withdrawn personality, but never in a confrontational way. Anna is a very relatable character, lashing out at others out of fear. There’s constant moments where attention is diverted from her to something else, leaving her feeling unimportant and furthering the divide between her and everyone else. For the longest time when arriving at the village Anna’s only friend is an old fisherman Toichi, who is similar in his quietness and being withdrawn from the rest of the village. They spend time together on his boat, Toichi fishing, while Anna sketches the mansion on the other side of the salt marsh.
Right from the start you know this is a Studio Ghibli film, with its understated narration and beautiful animation. Yet again Ghibli whisks you away on a fantasy adventure. For the first part of the film this feels like a slice of life anime with a little bit of magical realism such as with Whispers of the Heart, but as the film continues it becomes a lot more rooted in the mystery of Marnie (Kiernan Shipka), a girl who lives in the mansion across the marsh, even though the mansion seems to be unoccpupied and Anna is told that no one has lived there for years. Anna and Marnie become quick friends, going on adventures and getting up to mischief, but there’s something unusual about it all and Anna can’t quite understand it. Slowly you start to get a sense of what’s going on and the whole thing is revealed in the last act of the film. Because of the reveal, there’s a really strange relationship between Anna and Marnie that leaves you with a few more questions than the film is going to answer. It’s impossible to talk about without spoiling, but you’ll understand completely if you watch it. Despite that, it’s still a lovely tale about friendship.
Studio Ghibli rarely put a foot wrong, and When Marnie Was There is a very great addition to their filmography. It’s magical and completely captivating. An emotional story about growing up and gaining confidence.
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