Title: When Marnie Was There
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Major Players: Voices of Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima
Out Of Five: 3.5
This is the final film – for the time being, anyway – from Japan’s Studio Ghibli while they work out which way they’re going next. It’s also the type of story they do well, aimed at a young audience but resonating far more loudly with adults. And, for those belonging to that exclusive club reserved for only children, it will touch a nerve with them as well.
Teenager Anna is an isolated child, a combination of crippling shyness and preferring her own company. After a bad asthma attack, the doctor prescribes fresh air and a holiday, so she goes to stay with relatives in the country. There she gets more freedom than at home and explores the locality, becoming fascinated by a mansion on the edge of the marsh. Which is where she meets Marnie, who lives there. Or does she?
Contrasts play a major part. The overcrowded town with its pollution damaging Anna’s health, versus the countryside with its clean air, lush colours and room to roam and breathe. Her mother is very protective, too much so, although it’s all for the right reasons, while her relatives in the country are much more relaxed: they look like opposites, auntie eats almost continuously and is fat, while uncle is lanky and thin. Their own children are grown up and have left home, so Anna is welcomed as filling a gap for them. They look after her, but don’t breathe down her neck, which is just what the girl needs.
Anna has short dark hair, is withdrawn and lacking confidence, her new-found friend Marnie long blonde locks, as well as being more extrovert and seemingly self-assured and scared of nothing. Yet look at their faces. Swop the hair and clothes and they’re interchangeable. And underneath they’re more alike than they seem, which points towards how the story will resolve itself.
As the film unfolds, the similarities increase, although it playfully toys with its audience, giving little hints as to how things will develop and then showing them to be red herrings. Look at the younger Anna’s doll with its long blonde hair. We’re all familiar with the idea of children having an imaginary, invisible friend. And this appears to be the film’s direction initially, but it then takes a different tack, coming closer to a ghostly fairy tale, one that teaches Anna some invaluable life lessons.
The film seems to have an instinctive understanding of the solitude that can go with being an only child and nails it perfectly: the preference for your own company, the awkwardness with others. So that when the two girls find friendship with each other, it’s touching to the point of giving you a lump in your throat. But it’s still handled sensitively and is never cloying.
The animation is a return to the well-defined style associated with Ghibli, compared to the delicate brush strokes and watercolour looks of Princess Kaguya. But there are echoes of that in the exquisitely created landscapes with the wind rustling through the long grass and some gorgeous aerial shots. The Japanese countryside has never looked more beautiful, animated or otherwise.
But while the look of the film is everything you would expect of Ghibli, the story is weaker, almost tripping itself up sometimes in an effort to be clever. This isn’t quite the studio at its best, but it certainly helps fill the void left while it decides on its future.
When Marnie Was There is released in cinemas on Friday, 10 June and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 9 June.