When Marnie Was There

Twelve year old Anna Sasaki lives in Sapporo, in the northern Japanese island prefecture of Hokkaido. As well as suffering from an acute form of asthma, Anna is an orphan who was fostered while still an infant; she suffers from low self-esteem because she believes that her foster parents adopted her, not for love, but in order to receive the government subsidy paid to people who foster children. One day, after Anna suffers an especially severe asthma attack, she is sent to spend the summer her foster-mother’s relatives in a rural seaside village near the Kushiro wetlands in western Hokkaido, in the belief that the clean seaside air will be good for her health. Anna’s attention is quickly captured by a derelict mansion standing on the opposite side of a salt-march; when she explores the mansion, she encounters a blonde girl about her own age called Marnie. Marnie invites her to a party at the mansion which she says is to be held by her parents; when Anna arrives, she finds it no longer derelict, but beautiful and clean and inhabited by glamorous people. Anna meets Marnie’s parents and witnesses her dancing with a boy named Kazuhiko, of whom Marnie seems fond. Anna and Marnie continue to meet in secret; but when Marnie suddenly disappears and a new family moves into and starts renovating the mansion, this sets in train a series of events in which the truths about both Anna’s and Marnie’s pasts are revealed, and Anna must come to terms with both who she is and where she came from, as well as the fact that her pain may have caused her to unfairly misjudge the very people who care for her most…

Based upon the 1967 novel by Joan G Robinson and produced by Studio Ghibli, “When Marnie Was There” was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and premiered in 2014. Animated in Ghibli’s effective combination of 2D and 3D animation techniques that features both a realistic visual aesthetic and a vivid colour palette, “When Marnie Was There” unfolds in a leisurely, almost languid, manner that never reaches great dramatic highs, even in its denouement. Most of the film is essentially a two-hander played out between Marnie and Anna, and their dialogue is at times clunkily melodramatic – perhaps in a misguided attempt to depict their respective sense of isolation and despair, but perhaps also reflecting the source material and a failure by the producers to effectively update its dialogue. Other characters come and go, mostly for the purpose of background colour; although, in the film’s latter half, they do help push the story along toward its conclusion. Exploring issues of identity, heritage, history, and how to possess a sense of self, “When Marnie Was There” was both critically and commercially successful, even though it doesn’t stand in the front rank of Ghibli films. Nonetheless, it is effective and even affecting at times, and is certainly an unchallenging and easy watch that will help while away the hours on a quiet afternoon. 

Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.