'When Marnie Was There' Director Talks "Mysterious Tone" of New Studio Ghibli Film

GKIDS will release the film, based on the British novel of the same name, on May 22 in the U.S.
Courtesy of FLOWER Eyewear
'When Marnie Was There'

Indie distributor GKIDS crashed the animated-feature Oscar race in a big way last season, when two of its movies — The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea — earned nominations, edging out presumed frontrunner The Lego Movie. Now, GKIDS is back with its newest release, Studio Ghibli’s moving When Marnie Was There. An English-language version of the film — featuring the voices of Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka and Geena Davis — opens May 22 in the U.S.

Like Kaguya, Marnie was created by Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio founded by the iconic Hayao Miyazaki, who won a 2003 Oscar in the animated-feature category for his film Spirited Away and who received an Honorary Oscar last year, a rare feat that in the animation world that has been reserved for the likes of Walt Disney.

Miyazaki, 74, has stated that Marnie would be the final feature-length film made by his respected studio. It's based on a British novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson (which is on Miyazaki’s list of recommended books) and is made with the studio’s dreamy, hand-drawn animation style — making it hard to imagine that animation-branch voters won’t be giving this film a serious look.

When Marnie Was There follows Anna, an anguished 12-year-old who befriends Marnie, a girl who lives in a mysterious stone mansion. "The protagonist, Anna, is an ordinary girl like you would find anywhere. Of all Ghibli protagonists, she’s arguably the most introverted, with a low self-esteem, and deeply hurt," director Hiromasa Yonebayashi told The Hollywood Reporter. "But through her interactions with Marnie and the other characters, her heart begins to heal, and by the end of the story, she’s enveloped in a great love. My hope is that viewers will be able to find their own Marnie in their lives".

He added, "For all the Annas and Marnies who will come to the theaters to see this film, I hope to make a movie that feels like a soulmate — one who might sit next to them and just be by their side." 

The book is set in the marshes of England, but for the film, the story's setting was moved to the eastern tip of Hokkaido, Japan. "It would be easier for the story if Marnie was also Japanese, but I decided to make her blond-haired and blue-eyed. It creates more mystery that way, and I figured it would draw the viewer’s eye more. I don’t think Miyazaki is a fan of it, though," the director added with a chuckle.

"The area is often shrouded in fog, and it’s always cloudy. I felt that this suits the mysterious tone of the film, and more than anything, the sky feels like Anna’s heart itself, which made this the perfect setting," he continued. "At Ghibli, we had never drawn beautiful yet cloudy skies, so it was difficult. Yet the hard work paid off, as I think we ended up with a film that feels different from any we’ve made."

He went on, "We had the participation of Yohei Taneda, who is a world-renowned production designer who typically works in live-action. The Marsh House is the result of his tremendous knowledge, scouting trips to Hokkaido, and combining elements of various buildings. I asked him to draw the Marsh House as if it were another character who watches over Anna. Thanks to his live-action expertise in production design, I think we were able to create a mansion with real presence."

This is the second feature for Yonebayashi, following the Studio Ghibli 2010 release The Secret World of Arrietty, which he directed following years as an animator on films including Spirited Away. It was executive producer Toshio Suzuki who encouraged Yonebayashi to develop the Marnie novel into a feature. "With my last film, Arrietty, I was strongly aware of making a Ghibli film, so this time I decide to think only of the audience when making the film," the director said. "First and foremost, I was drawn to the inner world of Anna and Marnie and their interactions, and how painfully real and fascinating they were. And the mystery elements in the second half were also interesting. The story may be modest, but with the refined art department and animators at Studio Ghibli working on it, I figured we could create something quite beautiful."