If indeed Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There turns out to be the final film to come from Studio Ghibli — as has been claimed — it would be hard to imagine a more elegant or appropriate farewell. No, it’s not as big or elaborate or fantasticated as Hayao Miyazaki’s best known films like Spirited Away (2001) or Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). It isn’t even as expansive as Miyazaki’s last film, The Wind Rises (2013). This is something altogether different — a small scale, intimate film that takes place in a version of rural Japan that feels more closely related in look and topography to the film’s source novel by English writer Joan G. Robinson with its Norfolk coast setting in the east of England. Intentionally or otherwise, the film gives off a distinct vibe of farewell — as well as the sense of something from another age. Its handcrafted, watercolor look, of course, is automatically out of step with the brightly colored — almost Day-Glo — computer animation we’re used to today. But it goes deeper. Marnie gives off the feeling of an old, somewhat faded, long-forgotten book found at the back of a drawer — like something only dimly remembered.
I don’t wish to give the impression that the film is in any way depressing. It isn’t that, but it carries that special emotional sense common to stories with an end-of-an-era atmosphere. It is — I’m finding — a difficult film to write about. It’s difficult to even peg exactly what it is. On its simplest level — and this is hardly a spoiler, though some may find it so — Marnie is a ghost story. I say that’s not a spoiler because you have to be pretty thick not to figure that much out early on, but it’s the least significant aspect of the story. For a story that ultimately seems fairly simple, the film manages to touch on a surprisingly broad range of deeper issues — including child abuse, the problems of being a foster child and, most surprisingly, the undercurrent of racism that exists where mixed-race children are concerned. That last — though not stressed — is perhaps the driving force behind the film’s main theme, which is the loneliness of childhood.
The story follows Anna Sasaki (Sara Takatsuki), a withdrawn, artistic girl of about 12. Following a severe asthma attack, her foster mother, Yoriko (Kasumi Arimura), parcels her off to an aunt (Toshie Negishi) and uncle (Susumu Terajima) on the coast of rural Japan — ostensibly for the fresh air. But Yoriko also is at a loss about what to do for the introverted child, and she’s nursing a guilty secret (at least she thinks it’s a secret) concerning receiving a government subsidy for keeping Anna. No sooner is Anna in these new surroundings than she becomes fascinated by a deserted mansion that’s only accessible at high tide. It quickly becomes apparent that the mansion may not be deserted after all, and not long after that she meets Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), who becomes her first friend — and a secret one at that. What follows this unravels the mystery of Marnie and much more. It in fact gives Anna a life.
My only reservation about the film is that it’s probably too measured and sophisticated for most children, but I don’t think Marnie is so much for children as it’s about them. It’s really a film for adults. I suspect the more you’ve seen of life, the more its magic will work on you and the more resonant its individual moments will be. This is a special little film that will pay greater rewards than might at first seem probable. I should note that this review is based on seeing the original Japanese language film with subtitles. There is also a dubbed (well, all animated films are dubbed) English version. I don’t know which version will be shown, or if it will be handled the way The Wind Rises was — with different versions at different times. Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking.