Review: When Marnie Was There (2014)

If Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There turns out to be Studio Ghibli’s final feature, it’d be a fitting conclusion for the honoured studio. The film is full of the melancholy of loss, fixating on the need to let go and forgive as well as encouraging people to embrace the new and uncomfortable. It’s a coming-of-age tale told with the sort of character complexity and artistic beauty that we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli. In short, When Marnie Was There is unlike any other animated picture being made in the world today.

The film follows Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), an introverted orphan living with her foster mother, Yoriko (Geena Davis), in Sapporo. After a bad asthma attack, Yoriko sends her to recuperate with some relatives in Kushiro, a rural town on the ocean. The affable Setsu (Grey DeLisle) and Kiyomasa (John C. Reilly) do their best to make Anna feel at home in their gorgeous cottage, but the quiet girl spends most of her time on the shorefront, sketching an old vacation home across the marsh. Until one night a light turns on in the window of the marsh house and a beautiful girl with long blonde hair appears. This is Marnie (Kiernan Shipka). Anna befriends Marnie immediately, and the two of them become each other’s “precious secret,” a friend to help the other through hard times and listen to her inmost thoughts. As Marnie and Anna’s nighttime rendezvouses continue, the reality of their relationship becomes unclear and the question of whether Marnie is a ghost, literal or figurative, remains unanswered. What is clear, however, is each girl’s need for the other, as a confidante and as a source of inspiration in tough times.

When Marnie Was There is not a conventional children’s film. It’s full of narrative twists and hidden backstories, but the film captures a literary feel, avoiding the usual narrative confrontations that drive most animated films. Aside from a stormy adventure to a haunted grain silo, it doesn’t have anything that could be considered action. It’s a quiet film, gentle and melancholy. There’s not much external conflict beyond Anna’s contentious relationships with the people around her. Most of the conflict is internal, Anna struggling with how to define and love herself when she feels abandoned by the world and unloved by her foster mother.

Most protagonists of children’s films aren’t allowed to be as difficult as Anna. She’s quiet and tries to be kind, but her self-hatred often makes her lash out at others. In one scene she calls another girl “a fat pig” and she’s convinced that her foster mother hates her and only keeps her around through economic necessity. We’re aware of Anna’s melancholy from the get-go. When Marnie Was There opens with Anna sitting in the park, sketching some children playing. When a teacher asks to see her sketch, Anna freezes up, embarrassed of her work and unable to tell the teacher why. As the teacher goes to help a hurt child, Anna is overcome with rage and self-loathing. She breaks her pencil and we hear her thoughts in voiceover: “I hate myself.” This is a sad girl and Yonebayashi never shies away from her sadness.

Through her relationship with Marnie and the people in Kushiro, however, Anna learns to grow up. She comes to terms with her foster mother and begins to communicate with people. It’s Marnie who is the catalyst for this change. A free spirit and unending optimist the same way Anna is a shy defeatist, Marnie is everything Anna wishes she were. However, once Anna learns more about Marnie predicament, about her parents’ absence and her cruel nanny, Anna begins to see how there’s more than a little of herself in Marnie too. These two girls are linked in ways both emotional and spiritual. Their relationship is the heart of the film. Yonebayashi takes advantage of their scenes’ heightened reality to play with the animation. Sometimes he draws them with a white haze layering them, as if they’re interacting in a foggy dream state. Other times, their emotions seep into the landscapes around them. When they go to the haunted silo to try to combat Marnie’s fear of the place, Yonebayashi animates the place like something out of a gothic horror picture, a fuel for nightmares. We’re seeing the silo as Marnie imagines it. He even uses the “Vertigo shot,” simultaneously pushing in and zooming out to create a disoriented camera effect, to depict the looming staircases of the silo. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen such a shot used in a hand-drawn animated film, and it speaks to When Marnie Was There’s technical intricacy.

When Marnie Was There is staggeringly beautiful. As it reaches its climax, it also shows itself to be profoundly emotional. The cathartic moment between Marnie and Anna, when Marnie’s true backstory is revealed and her relationship to Anna clarified, will move you to tears. There may be too many narrative convolutions, too much narrative information unnecessarily obscured, but it does little to distract from the film’s power. When Marnie Was There proves that even without Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli is capable of great art. If it proves to be the studio’s last film, it’ll stand as a final testament to their greatness.

8 out of 10

When Marnie Was There (2014, Japan)

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi; written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson; starring the voice talents of Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Ava Acres, Vanessa L. Williams, Catherine O’Hara, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly, Grey DeLisle, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Bates, Raini Rodriguez.