by Elizabeth Stoddard
When Marnie Was There is the latest film produced by Studio Ghibli, the former home of award-winning filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro). Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Secret World of Arrietty) directs this animated adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s young-adult novel about two girls who become fast friends one summer.
Anna is a 12-year-old from Sapporo. She constantly feels like an outsider; she’s uncomfortable in most social situations and impassive with her foster mother Yoriko. Anna suffers a serious asthma attack at school, which worries Yoriko enough to send the girl to spend time with family in calmer surroundings.
Wandering on her own around the port town of Kushiro, Anna discovers the grand, neglected Marsh House, and meets Marnie, the blonde girl who lives therein. The girls strike up an immediate — and intense — friendship, although mysterious occurrences and flickers of memory have Anna questioning the reality of their connection.
Memory is a large theme of When Marnie Was There. We are shown moments of Anna’s earlier childhood and have to puzzle out what led to her current insecurities and how Marnie fits into it all. The film is part ghost story, part mystery, and part family drama. As the tale carefully unfolds, Anna learns more about herself and what home means for her. Her time with Marnie helps Anna recognize her self-worth and gain courage.
The hand-drawn animation perfectly complements the dreamlike, fantastic elements of the plot. While Marnie and Anna divulge their family secrets in a wooded area, light and shadow play across their hair and faces. Marnie’s yellow curls appear almost tactile, especially in comparison to Anna’s shorter haircut.
There is an obvious contrast in the styles and personalities of the girls, shown in their dress and conversations with each other. Their deep connection seems rushed… until you learn the truth of their relationship.
When Marnie Was There starts off slowly, but this beautiful family film draws the viewer in through its storytelling and complicated young characters. Be sure to watch with tissues handy; it made me cry (twice).
Note: The English dubbed version features the voices of Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, Pitch Perfect 2) and Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), among others. I watched the original Japanese version with subtitles (which is my preference, anyway).
When Marnie Was There opens in Austin on 6/5 at The Regal Arbor at Great Hills, which will play the dubbed film for the daytime/matinee screenings, and the original, subtitled film in the evenings.