Remember when I complained about how due to the restricted choice of films screened at Cineworld cinemas, despite watching 42 films on the Unlimited card last year, I saw a meagre 2 foreign films? Well, I’ve already seen half that number of foreign movies on my Odeon Limitless card, at Panton Street Odeon, where I saw When Marnie Was There.
Ever since she was young, 12-year-old Anna Sasaki has been an outsider. She doesn’t fit in with the children in her year at school, feels disconnected from her foster parents and her social awkwardness is compounded by a deleterious breathing problem, which rears its head when she feels upset or stressed.
Deciding the key to Anna’s breathing attacks, and hence, her timidity, is clean air, her foster mother Yoriko (whom Anna refers to as ‘Auntie’) sends her to spend the summer with Yoriko’s relatives, in a coastal town. A few days after arrival, Anna spots a blonde girl in the window of a seemingly deserted mansion across the shore. The enigmatic girl introduces herself as Marnie, and a bond is immediately formed between the two girls.
Based on British author Joan G. Robinson’s novel of the same title, writers Masashi Andō, Keiko Niwa and Hiromasa Yonebayashi altered the location in the original story from Norfolk to the Japanese town Hokkaido. Graciously, nothing has been lost in translation. The story is simple, but told cleanly and elegantly, and the themes of bereavement and isolation, tackled with immense sensitivity.
As she embarks on her personal journey, audience members will recognise elements of themselves in the protagonist Anna, who is crippled with self-doubt, feeling she had never been loved due to her parents and grandparents having died when she was a baby. But behind those fragile Anime eyes, still waters run deep. She’s surprisingly intense for her age. The question of whether or not Marnie truly exists, or is just a figment of Anna’s imagination is soon broached. But you get so lost in the budding friendship between the two girls that it is only of secondary importance.
From the outside, Marnie seems to have an enviable life, living in a huge house with extravagant parties thrown by her parents. But inwardly, the two girls are just as alone and unhappy as each other. It is because of this similarity that Anna lets down her walls around Marnie, and we come to learn why it is that she feels so badly about herself. It is sad that a 12-year-old could feel so bad about themselves, but this just makes her blossoming friendship with Marnie ever the more rewarding. Throughout When Marnie Was There, the two characters embrace quite a few times, and it is refreshing that a film can capture the innocence behind such a sweet act.
As with all Studio Ghibli films, the film is exquisitely rendered. One shot, which taps into audience’s doubt of whether Marnie is real or of Anna is Fight Clubing us, is cleverly done without being so over-stylistic as to detract from the story. Unlike recent Disney and Pixar movies, which, for better or for worse, always feature a message, When Marnie Was There concerns itself with straightforward, unpretentious storytelling. The film is entirely about Anna, Marnie and their connection, and if anything about their relationship spoke to me, it was in an organic way, rather than feeling corny or heavy-handed. And finally, although it is by all intents and purposes a harmless U-rated film, it is not just the title that evokes memories of Hitchcock: there is a distinctly suspenseful undertone running throughout.
When Marnie Was There doesn’t reach the imaginative, pulse-racing highs of Spirited Away or the heart-shattering pathos of Grave of the Fireflies, but it is a delightful experience all the same, one which doesn't allow itself to get bogged down in the sadness to celebrate some of the richnesses of life: friendship, family and the power of memories. The hand-drawn animation is beautiful; I lost count of the number of beautiful visuals in it. At the film’s big reveal, I sobbed with abandon. Crying can be cathartic sometimes!
When Marnie Was There is said to be Studio Ghibli’s final film, although whether this is true proves to be seen. I sincerely hope that’s not the case: no-one tells delivers moving story like Studio Ghibli.