WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE: Best Ghibli film since MONONOKE

24 May

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WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE is a love story, a ghost story and a coming-of-age tale, all rendered in beautiful, painterly, exquisite 2-D animation. It is about Anna, a troubled 12-year-old girl in modern Japan who is sent to visit relatives in Kushiro, on the island of Hokkaido, for the summer so that she can get a break from the stress that is giving her asthma attacks. While exploring the rural region where she is staying, she finds a magnificent old house that’s apparently been abandoned and eventually meets a beautiful girl named Marnie, who supposedly lives there, and embarks on a series of adventures with her in what seems to be some kind of ghostly realm. Revelations gradually ensue, resulting in the kind of emotional spectacle that some of us cherish but encounter too rarely in films these days. That’s all the plot I’m going to give you, since the film will work best if you go in cold, not knowing what to expect.

WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE opened in New York on Friday, May 22, 2015, running in both English-dubbed and Japanese-language/English-subtitled versions at the IFC Center. It’s reputed to be the last production of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio which has given us a regular, if not so steady, stream of animated features by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, among others, since 1985. It was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who has been working as an artist/animator at Ghibli since 1997 (his first credit is PRINCESS MONONOKE), has been key animator on the last three Miyazaki-directed features, and directed one earlier feature, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETY (2010), a film which has some similarities to MARNIE, but lacks the emotional richness.

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I watched the English-dubbed version at the IFC Center because I needed to see an early show and the Japanese-language shows were too late for me. As someone who normally disdains English dubbing of Japanese animation, I have to say that this is one of the best English dub jobs I’ve ever heard. Every actor gets the tone of their character just right. Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT) plays Anna and her voice alternately conveys the yearnings and longings of a lonely, alienated adolescent along with the barely suppressed anger that goes with the territory. Combined with the quality of the drawings capturing the way Anna looks, the way she moves and the bewilderment and embarrassment she often experiences, you really feel everything that’s going on in her soul throughout the film. The day after I saw the film in the theater, I watched the film again on a Japanese DVD in Japanese with English subtitles, so I’ve experienced it both ways. I was pleased to learn that the English subtitles on the DVD pretty closely match the English-dubbed dialogue (which is not always the case with these films). I go against my normal grain when I urge people to see the English-dubbed version, but it’s rare to hear such expert English voice acting on a dubbed anime feature. (But you should also see the Japanese-language version.)

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Anna’s a fascinating character who retreats into the world of her sketchbook (she’s quite a good artist) instead of engaging with other kids her own age. She’s got issues with her well-meaning foster mother, which I won’t go into, but are dealt with sensitively in the course of the film. Despite her dour countenance, she’s actually treated quite well by the adults around her and she does recognize this although she has to remind herself to respond politely in her exchanges with them. During her summer trip, she does in fact engage with two middle-aged adults, both of whom are always alone—a silent fisherman, who takes her out in a boat so she can sketch the house, and a single female artist, who is working on a painting of the house. Anna tries to avoid the kids in town but is pressured to participate in a local festival which ends badly when she calls the leader of the local girls a “fat pig.” (To be fair to this character, Nobuko, she is also well-meaning and didn’t deserve the insult.) Marnie is something different, however, an exotic creature who manages to open up to Anna the world she has discovered (or created?) via her sketchbook. She’s also someone no one else knows about—until somewhat later in the film. Eventually, Anna’s experiences with Marnie open her up to accept herself and her situation and enter the world newly energized and newly confident, able to empathize and forgive.

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The film vividly captures the physical and natural qualities of this remote, wooded seaside town, e.g. the way the tide goes out, allowing Anna to walk to the Marsh House, and then comes back in, forcing her to rely on a rowboat to get back home. There are a couple of rain and storm sequences, including one in an old, supposedly haunted silo, whose roof has rotted away, allowing the rain in, that reminded me a lot of the classic Disney short, “The Old Mill.” We see a lot of aquatic birds. Beautiful shots abound throughout the film.

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The film unfolds at its own pace, rarely departing from its gentle tone. If there is any turbulence in the story, it is in the emotions that Anna and Marnie experience and the love and affection they feel for each other. There is no need for “action” or flashy effects sequences or computer-generated imagery. There are no villains, other than time and its effects and the ever-present spectres of illness, accident, and untimely death.

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There are echoes of other Ghibli films, including MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988), in the way a young girl exploring nature enters a supernatural realm; KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989), in Anna’s friendship with an older female artist; in PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997), in the way a forest holds magical secrets; and especially ONLY YESTERDAY (1991), in the way a Tokyo office worker visits a rural farm region for the summer and rediscovers her childhood self in order to get answers to her adult questions. MARNIE shows what might have happened if the childhood self had made that journey. I also noticed echoes of other anime classics in this film. At one point, Anna is being told some relevant history by the artist and she visualizes herself on the scene inside the flashbacks we are seeing, just like the film MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001), directed by Satoshi Kon, in which a modern-day TV crew interviews a reclusive old film actress and travels back in time with her through the different eras of filmmaking she experienced and even further back into the different eras of characters she has played. Also, when Anna visits the old house and becomes a guest at a ghostly recreation of one of the glamorous parties Marnie’s parents used to throw, it reminded me of the “Magnetic Rose” segment of MEMORIES (1995), written by Satoshi Kon, in which an astronaut visits an old derelict spaceship which used to be the home of a retired opera star and he experiences holographic motion images of parties that the star once held and gradually gets seduced by them.

A scene from MARNIE:

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…plus a scene from “Magnetic Rose”:

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I’ve been a fan of Studio Ghibli since seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s third animated feature, LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986), with my daughter at the Film Forum in Manhattan some 26 years ago. Miyazaki made a string of masterpieces in the 1980s and ’90s—NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND, LAPUTA, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, PORCO ROSSO, PRINCESS MONONOKE—while others at Ghibli made equally profound films, including Miyazaki’s mentor,  Isao Takahata (GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, ONLY YESTERDAY, POM POKO, THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA), as well as Tomomi Mochizuki (OCEAN WAVES) and Yoshifumi Kondo (WHISPER OF THE HEART). Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY (2001) was good, also, but began a turn into more abstract territory that started to give me pause. This became more pronounced with his next two features, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004) and PONYO (2008), the latter of which I found especially off-putting, for various reasons. Finally, THE WIND RISES (2013), which I saw last year and wrote about here on March 3, 2014, disturbed me to no end. Of the other Ghibli features since MONONOKE, the only ones I found particularly noteworthy were FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (pictured below), a historical drama about high school life in Yokohama, 1963, just as Japan is gearing up for the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro, and Takahata’s THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013), a lovingly recreated Japanese folk tale designed to look like a children’s fairy tale book come to animated life.

If WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE turns out to be, as widely predicted, Ghibli’s last animated feature, then at least its swan song will have been worthy of the name. I certainly hope Mr. Yonebayashi directs more features. Between him and Mamoru Hosoda (SUMMER WARS, WOLF CHILDREN), there is continued hope for the 2-D animated feature in the age of CGI.

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(Curiously, the 1967 novel on which MARNIE is based, by English author Joan G. Robinson, is currently out-of-print.)

Finally, I should point out that the end song for the film, heard on both the Japanese and English-language soundtracks, is “Fine on the Outside,” written and performed by American singer Priscilla Ahn and a very lovely piece that expresses some of Anna’s emotions in sharp and poignant lyrics. Here’s a video of it:

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