When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mânî)
Japan (2014) Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi
They say all good things come to an end and if the reports are true, this film could possibly mark the end for celebrated Japanese animation giants Studio Ghibli. The official word was they are on “hiatus” in the wake of the retirement of founder members Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki but as of yet, no news has been forthcoming.
So, after thirty plus years of delivering seminal and Oscar winning films this adaptation of the 1967 novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson currently stands as this great studio’s swan song. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has previous form in adapting British novels with 2010’s Arietty as well as being a key animator on many Ghibli classics, so this possible valedictory effort is in safe hands.
In Sapporo our protagonist, 12 year-old Anna, is an introverted child suffering from asthma whose foster parents send her to stay with her aunt in the rural seaside locale of Kushiro, under the recommendation of her doctor. Just like back home Anna finds it hard to fit in with the other kids, standing out because of her short hair and blue eyes.
A keen artist, Anna finds inspiration in an abandoned, dilapidated mansion across a huge marshy pool, and later dreams of a blonde girl having her hair brushed in an upstairs room. After an awkward evening at the Tanabata Festival Anna runs away to the marsh, where she takes a rowboat out to get a better look at the mansion. She almost runs aground until helped to safety by the blonde haired girl in her dreams.
Robinson’s original novel was set in Norfolk but the relocation to the rural landscapes of Kushiro is a relatively smooth one in terms of losing none of the essence of the fish-out-of-water premise between the city and the countryside. However there are a few visual issues this moves begets, such as Marnie’s mansion being completely atypical of the other architecture in the area.
Then there is the small matter of a blonde-haired blue-eyed girl being a local resident in a Japanese setting, not to mention an important plot development late in the second act involving a silo – a European style Silo – which you don’t normally see in rural Japan. But we are already in the grip of a whimsical fantasy adventure via Anna’s oneiric visions of Marnie so Yonebayashi gets a pass on that front.
At the heart of the story are two issues which, without spoiling anything, initially seem to run separately but eventually converge into an emotionally driven denouement. First there is Anna’s hang up about being foster child, feeling like a piece of property when she discovers one day that her foster parents receive a subsidy for bringing Anna up. I don’t know if this is in the original novel or not but it seems like a modern gripe for a child to have.
Secondly there is Marnie herself. She seems to be well known around the community yet no-one speaks of her that often or in the present tense. Plus Anna is apparently the only one who is able of seeing Marnie suggesting she is an apparition or possibly a figment of Anna’s imagination. Yet their meetings are tactile – Marnie is very much a physical presence and Anna even joins Marnie and her family during one of their dinner parties.
As alluded to above I can’t comment on the excised or amended elements from the original novel but this is quite a yarn being spun here. It is part drama, part mystery and part ghost story which recalls such diverse influences as Hitchcock’s Rebecca as crazy as that might seem. Yet, rather than being a hideous clash of styles, Yonebayashi successfully translates Robinson’s text to the screen, weaving a delicate tapestry telling a coherent story that ebbs and flows during this magical and dramatic journey.
If this truly is the last Studio Ghibli film then Yonebayashi has slipped in a few little nods in tribute to prior Ghibli glories, at least that is this writer’s inference. For example, the mansion being a deserted and derelict building by day yet a plush and living entity by night recalls the ghost town in Spirited Away while a new character introduced in the second act, Sayaka, resembles an older bespectacled Mei from My Neighbour Totoro.
Or it could be simply down to the unmistakable Ghibli aesthetic (as established by Miyazaki, Takahata tends to do his own thing) and cell drawn animation style being fully implemented here, from the character designs to the gorgeously rendered artwork and authentic, natural sound effects. As ever there are no flaws to be found in the 2D presentation, a welcome respite from the clinical sheen of CGI animation.
From the onset you know this is a Ghibli film, this sense of familiarity helping to ease us into this new world. However it is not a Miyazaki film and, for better or worse, his works will always be the benchmark and standard bearer of the Ghibli name. To that end, having Yonebayashi be the one to close this chapter of the studio’s career is a huge onus and as fine a film as this is, it doesn’t end things with a rousing climax.
In other words, this is a fine film that ticks all the boxes required to showcase what Studio Ghibli is all about, but without that intangible and bespoke alchemy that occurs whenever Miyazaki – and to some extent Takahata – leads a project, it is unlikely to be joining the illustrious classics in the Ghibli catalogue any time soon.
Maybe in a few years time, if it is confirmed When Marnie Was There is Ghibli’s farewell, it will take on a deeper poignancy, but for now it stands as a confident and delightful slice of artistic whimsy with touching, non-patronising storytelling.
If the current “hiatus” does lead to the end, I’ll close by simply saying “Arigatou Studio Ghibli”!
Rating – ****
Man In Black