When Marnie Was There

In 2014, Studio Ghibli, the animation house responsible for classics like Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies, announced that it’d be ceasing film production in favour of managing and reorganizing its current assets. For a studio that’d been at the forefront of animation in Japan since the mid-80’s, this came as a big shock. Nevertheless, the studio decided to make its final hurrah with When Marnie Was There. Helmed by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, responsible for 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty, and writer Keiko Niwa, whose last screenplay for the studio was 2011’s From Up on Poppy Hill, the movie looks to close out the House of Totoro’s legacy with a respectable curtain bow. Unfortunately, despite it being a worthwhile entry, When Marnie Was There falls a tad short of the legacy it attempts to close off.



The movie follows twelve year-old Anna, a shy, tomboyish introvert with a penchant for drawing. Anna suffers from depression and asthma, and, after a near-fatal attack in the schoolyard, her foster mother sends her to live with her aunt and uncle in Hokkaido under the pretext that “the clean air will do some good”. While there, she discovers an old, abandoned marsh house that comes to life at high tide. It appears as though a young girl around her age, named Marnie, has been seeking her too, so, after a fateful encounter during the Lantern Festival, the two quickly becomes friends. Except that Marnie may not be real, leaving the viewer to wonder if Anna made her up to cope with her anxiety.

When Marnie Was There is the twenty-first entry in Studio Ghibli’s library. By this point in a production house’s repertoire, exhaustion begins to mar quality, but not here; in fact, the studio has almost consistently delivered during its history. This movie is no exception, as it boasts top-tier animation, a beautiful score and all-around fantastic direction. And its screenplay, written by three-time veteran Keiko Niwa, is rich with depth, even taking its time to explore the world in which Anna inhabits. Studio Ghibli has always been a breath of fresh air amidst the fast-paced, zany antics of the West, and this is no exception.

The biggest draw is its characters. Niwa has always excelled at character writing, and When Marnie Was There succeeds there too. Anna is fascinating as an introverted pre-teen suffering from asthma and mental illness. She’s insecure, shy and places herself outside the “invisible magic circle” that everyone else is inside of. We find out that she’s an orphan, her parents having died long ago, and harbours deep resentment toward her adoptive mother for receiving subsidies. And she’s incredibly modest about her talents. My only complaint is that there’s little to indicate her tomboyish nature outside of clothing, but that’s minor for an otherwise fantastically written character.

Anna is both offset and complimented by Marnie, a rich girl with troubles of her own. She plays compassion and confidence to hide scars of abuse, no doubt a result of her rich lifestyle. She wishes be with her often-absent parents, and takes a strong liking to Anna as an outlet for her frustrations. Through their relationship, we see the potential for love. Or is it really love? That’s left up in the air.

Of course, Anna and Marnie are brought to life by their dub voices, as is everyone else. Anna is voiced by Academy Award-nominee Hailee Steinfeld, who matches her demeanour with an often-quiet voice. Conversely, fans of Mad Men will no doubt recognize Sally Draper’s Kiernan Shipka as the upperclass Marnie. Other voices include Disney sitcom alumnus Raini Rodriguez, as well as John C. Reily and voice actress Grey DeLeslie, as three of the many side-characters. But this is Steinfeld and Shipka’s show to steal, and they do so with ease.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from a glaring flaw, that being Keiko Niwa’s inability to sufficiently follow-through on her story ideas. This was apparent in both The Secret World of Arrietty and From Up on Poppy Hill (and, to a larger extent, Tales from Earthsea,) but it’s especially noticeable here. In my review of The Secret World of Arrietty on ScrewAttack, I mentioned that the story didn’t go as deep as it could’ve with its premise. Here, however, the story goes too deep and veers off of its more interesting track into sentimentality. It doesn’t help that it introduces two characters, both of whom feel like plot elements, to drive home said sentimentality, leading to an end-result that reeks of “Well, that’s convenient!” as opposed to genuine sincerity.

Which is frustrating, as When Marnie Was There had real potential as a gothic horror story for kids. And it’s not like Studio Ghibli is averse to being risqué. They’re not Disney, a company tied to an audience that limits what they can do with their storytelling potential, they’ve demonstrated with films like Princess Mononoke and The Tale of Princess Kaguya that disturbing is something they excel in. So why cheapen out here? What could’ve hurt the movie if it’d tackled Anna’s psyche full-on?

The other problem that arises is the hokeyness of Anna and Marnie’s relationship. The two initially give off a subtle vibe of romantic chemistry, but as the movie progresses that transforms into clear transparency. It doesn’t help that Marnie’s relationship with Anna hints of someone else, a fact that makes their relationship even more ridiculous on re-watch. I’ll forever attest that Jiro and Nahoko’s relationship in The Wind Rises was quite schmaltzy, but that might as well be restrained compared to Anna and Marnie, particularly during their final exchange.

That said, I’d be lying if I claimed I didn’t enjoy When Marnie Was There immensely. Is it one of Studio Ghibli’s best? No, but it’s far from their worst. There’s plenty to love, even amidst its goofiness, and that more than compensates for its flaws and missed opportunities. It also leaves me torn, as this is clearly a better movie than From Up on Poppy Hill, yet a weaker one than The Secret World of Arrietty. It makes me wish Infinite Rainy Day’s rating system had a halfway point between numbers, but since it doesn’t I’ll have to make due with the next best option.

Bottom line: it's not a masterpiece, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Comments

  1. I saw the film this past Saturday, and I wouldn't say that it cheapened out on anything. It just didn't go in the direction you seem to have wanted it to go. It wasn't a ghost/horror story, and it wasn't trying to be a ghost/horror story- it was a psychological/emotional drama and one that rang very true as far as I'm concerned. Its probably one of the more emotionally realistic films I've seen in the theater in a while [and I have my own personal reasons for saying that], with the sentimentality you speak of actually feeling earned in a way that Arrietty's didn't fully. The only major issue I had with it was that a fair bit of Marnie's dialogue was kind of hammy and melodramatic- and even there, when I thought about it again in light of the final implicit explanation as to why Anna was "seeing" Marnie, it was actually kind of/sort of justified [although they still went overboard].

    When I first walked out of the theater, I might have been inclined to agree with your 7/10 rating. But the more I think about "When Marnie Was There", the more I find myself admiring it. Frankly, its a much stronger film than "The Secret World of Arrietty", and one that makes me excited to see what Yonebayashi will do next in a way that his first movie didn't.

    With respect, I don't see any missed opportunities here- just a different story than the one you thought you were going to get. I'd give this one an 8.5/10.

    Oh by the way, I have now seen The Wind Rises. While not bad, its definitely not Miyazaki's best. I'll probably have to give it another viewing to before I can offer any more complete thoughts what works and what doesn't in the movie as a whole. That being said, I will briefly comment on the romance. I believe you exaggerated the level of schmaltz it brought to the table- and trust me, I've read/watched some stuff that was truly schmaltzy [eg. The Regent's Daughter, which reaaaaally wasn't Alexandre Dumas' finest hour]. This had schmaltz, but it could easily have been a lot worse. That said, I do agree that it was much too rushed, and that the final shot symbolizing Nahoko's death was too ambiguous. I figured it out quickly, but I can easily see how a lot of people might be confused. I'd have gone with a shot of her fading away as she walks away, or something like that.




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    1. Keep in mind that I still enjoyed this movie immensely, and that it's really more of an 7.5/10. I only gave it a 7/10 because this site doesn't use decimals with its rating system.

      I also still hold that it's a little on the problematic side. Deep or not, far too often I was going "Well, that's convenient!" as plot threads were developing. Especially with that huge exposition dump in the third act that explained who Marnie was, which left me wondering how the person giving the dialogue knew every last detail about Marnie's life (even if, on even further reflection, Anna might've been a sit-in for her.) Regardless of how it can be justified, it feels reeks of convenience.

      As for Jiro and Nahoko, while it's true that the romance isn't the schmaltziest out there, it still feels like a different movie each and every time it gets brought up (it doesn't help that the music goes all sentimental on you each time they converse.) And I'm glad we agree on Nahoko's death, that was pretty weirdly written and executed...

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    2. I did keep that in mind. I just don't agree that some of the things you mention are as problematic as you believe- assuming they're problems at all. The fact that the encounters with Marnie are ultimately Anna's own pain colliding within her mind with suppressed memories of her grandmother's stories, and not an actual encounter with a ghost [at least, not until the final appearance of Marnie, maybe] made it feel as though the film really *did* delve into Anna's psyche to a great degree. I honestly don't understand your complaint in your review that the screenwriter didn't follow through on her story ideas here. I might be wrong, but you seemed to be implying that you thought her idea was to have Marnie be unambiguously a ghost rather than a visual manifestation of Anna working through her emotional difficulties, when the latter was the actual idea- one which was most certainly followed through on. Also, its a complaint that seems to contradict your later complaint that the film goes too deep, at least from the perspective of me reading the review and not being inside your head where I could more properly understand what you mean.

      "wondering how the person giving the dialogue knew every last detail about Marnie's life"
      If you mean the artist, its established that she was a very close friend of Marnie. Its hardly a leap of logic to assume that Marnie intrusted her with a lot of personal information, and brought her up to speed once they met again after many years. They may very well have met again not long before Marnie died, too. And don't underestimate people's abilities to pick up more opaque information from other people [you know, town gossip?] about the people they know and then put two and two together using what they know that their informants don't.

      Also, maybe its just that I've learned that life itself really can sometimes be oddly convenient in ways that make you think "what were the chances of *that* happening?", but I was able to roll with the way the pieces came together, not least because once the movie was done and I started to think about it, it all actually made sense. Your position doesn't strike me as an objective complaint, but rather a subjective one. The ability to justify something within the context of a particular narrative makes a huge difference in quality. Going from your logic, I could criticize just about any plot twist I don't like as overly convenient even if it actually works, is justified by the narrative, is thematically relevant, etc. For instance, let's assume for the sake of argument that I didn't like Chihiro being able to suddenly remember Haku's real name -and his real identity as a river spirit [I was fine with it in reality, but that's neither here nor there]. By your logic, that whole bit was incredibly convenient. But it was built up to carefully, it was thematically relevant in the context of the story, and the film justified it. I can grant that the real-world setting of "Marnie" might make such a convenient twist a little harder to swallow. But again, I've been truly surprised by convenient occurrences outside of the realm of fiction before now. As such, I'm probably inclined to be a little more forgiving than you.

      So we both definitely enjoyed "When Marnie Was There" a lot; I understood that much. Its just that, setting my enjoyment of it aside and putting on my critic's cap, I honestly find the movie to be even better than your review indicates.

      [Continued below]

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    3. "it still feels like a different movie each and every time it gets brought up"
      After reading about the inspirations for the film, I think I know why. The inspiration for Nahoko's character was a character from a somewhat sentimental Japanese novel about a woman who dies of tuberculosis [Jiro's real-life wife lived quite a while longer, bore him children. and died a more prosaic death from old age]. The rest of the movie was inspired by Jiro Horikoshi's autobiography. The resulting film is thus a mash-up of two very different sources. I can see what they were going for with her her inclusion in the film. But in hindsight, they probably didn't need to take that level of artistic license with the facts in order to show Jiro's more tender side. Simply fleshing out the little we know about his actual wife would have been just fine [from what I've read, we don't know a lot about their relationship, so there's room for some embellishment]. The novel in question could have been saved for an adaptation all its own, rather than mashed up with Jiro's story.

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    4. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I'm not sure what else to say...

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    5. Well, I can live with that :-) As I've mentioned before, when it comes to your Ghibli reviews at least, I don't always agree. I'm the man who loves Porco Rosso from beginning to end and considers it one of Miyazaki's best films, who thinks Ponyo's second half didn't work [my issues with it didn't go away on second viewing, alas], who has no issue with counting Totoro as a masterpiece, and who likes Nausicaa a lot but still considers it overrated. And I still maintain that Kiki's initial rudeness around Tombo was narratively and thematically justified, with its unpleasantness being a part of the intended point in the first place [though I otherwise agree with you that its a very good film]. On the other hand, I either mostly or completely agree with your support for Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies, &c. You get the idea.

      At any rate, I am glad you liked Marnie as much as you did, even if you didn't like it quite as much as I did.

      I do enjoy your editorials a lot, by the way, so I'll keep reading.

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