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A lonely and introverted Japanese tomboy strikes up an unexpected friendship with a vision of blonde curls in When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mani), the second feature of Arriety director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and reportedly the last feature film from Studio Ghibli for the foreseeable future. This adaptation of the eponymous 1967 Joan G. Robinson novel, which successfully substitutes coastal Hokkaido for the Norfolk seaside, is a beautifully animated tale of the growing friendship and occasionally rather cloying emotional travails of two 12-year-old girls, even though the Frozen effect didn’t quite repeat itself when Marnie was released in Japan last July, where it did respectable but not outstanding numbers. A French release in January will kick off the film’s international release schedule.
Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki) is a solitary schoolgirl in the big city whose asthma attacks make her foster mother (Nanako Matsushima) decide to let her spend the summer with her aunt (Susumu Terajima) and uncle (Toshie Negishi), who live in a house overlooking a picturesque bay in rural Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost major island. Anna loves to sketch and is especially drawn to a stunning, if dilapidated, English-style country manor, Marsh House, that can be seen on the other side of the cove. It’s there that she’ll finally meet the mysterious Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), who says she lives there even though the place looks like it hasn’t been inhabited for years.
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The first half-hour leisurely lays the groundwork for the film’s unlikely central friendship between a people-shy and tormented young woman, who states out loud a little too often that she “hates herself,” and the gorgeous vision that is Marnie. It helps that the two girls are almost polar opposites, with Anna a modern gamine with short dark hair and practical but not exactly pretty dungarees, while Marnie, with her long blonde curls and old-fashioned dresses, looks like a girl whose main inspiration for hair and clothes came out of a Fairytale Barbie catalog. Both, however, have blue eyes and childhood traumas that they can bond over.
Like in the other Ghibli features, there are no outright villains, though that doesn’t mean that everyone’s always on their best behavior. There’s also an impressive and scary intermezzo that starts off in Jane Eyre-mode and then morphs into something that can only be described as Ghibli Gothic. The film might have a female protagonist (or two) like many other anime films, such as A Letter to Momo (whose character designer, Masashi Ando, was the animator supervisor and one of the screenwriters on Marnie), but it is in imaginatively staged sequences such as these that suggest that Yonebayashi isn’t a simple Miyazaki clone but someone who’s capable of working within a tradition while also bringing something of his own vision to the table.
It’s unclear in the beginning whether Marnie is an actual human being or a figment of the forlorn girl’s dreams or imagination (Anna’s first words to her future friend are actually: “Are you a real person, you look like a girl from my dreams?”). Yonebayashi underlines this ambiguity by keeping all the human characters in the usual, simplified style of all Ghibli films while depicting some small elements of the always more painterly backdrops — such as the weather-beaten wooden doors of the mansion where Marnie lives; the moss on a felled tree in the forest or the “lens flare” whenever the “camera” catches the sun — in something akin to photorealism. By doing this, the film plays with levels of reality in its visuals as well, further underlining the idea that some things that are imagined could actually feel or look more real than things that are not.
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The narrative acrobatics of the last half-hour, needed to sort out both who Marnie really is and to fill in a lot of (read: too much) backstory that explains her connection to everyone in the story, might be a little much and a little fast for especially younger audiences. And the fact the film has more endings than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King doesn’t help. But some of the feature’s strongest sequences are embedded in this rapidly cascading back-and-forth between the past and the present, the real and the imaginary, including a dramatically staged scene in which Anna, tears streaming down her face, stands in the marshlands as the tide come in, and she has to shout over an upcoming storm to try and get some kind of closure with Marnie, who’s locked herself into her bedroom on Marsh House’s second floor.
The backgrounds that show off the Hokkaido countryside and marshes near the sea are often breathtaking, including on the many moonlit nights that Marnie and Anna secretly meet. Though not as ecology-minded as films such as Ponyo, When Marnie Was There does contain a positive message about the countryside, away from Anna’s busy native city, Hokkaido’s capital Sapporo, as a healthy and restorative place where the imagination is allowed to run wild and free as asthma attacks subside.
Accompanying all the action is Takatsugi Muramatsu’s glowing orchestral score, which only really oversteps in a generally too on-the-nose sequence in which the two preteen Bechdel test-passing protagonists have a serious heart-to-heart in the forest.
Production companies: Studio Ghibli, Dentsu, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, KDDI, Mitsubishi, Nippon Television Network, Toho, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Japan
Cast: Kasumi Arimura, Sara Takatsuki, Hitomi Kuroki, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Nanako Matsushima, Susumu Terajima, Toshie Negishi
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenplay: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, screenplay based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson
Producers: Toshio Suzuki, Yoshiaki Nishimura
Animation supervisor: Masashi Ando
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Music: Takatsugi Muramatsu
No rating, 103 minutes
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