Review: When Marnie Was There (2014)

Studio Ghibli's latest and possibly last film impresses with its excellent direction, dubbing, writing and music. Were you expecting anything different?

The name Hayao Miyazaki is synonymous with Studio Ghibli. Often, when you ask fans, the first anime film that anyone can name is invariably one of his. But while Miyazaki is one of the biggest names of the studio and the genre as a whole, his oeuvre is not the sum total of the studio’s output. In the past, the studio has released such gems as Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Only Yesterday (1991), both of which were directed by Isao Takahata. And more recently, the studio has had success from Arrietty (2010), based on The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Arrietty was the directorial debut of long-time Ghibli employee Hiromasa Yonebayashi. And while not as famous or celebrated as some of Ghibli’s other films, Arrietty demonstrated a directorial and storytelling maturity that showed great promise. When Marnie Was There is the second film from Yonebayashi, and not only does it deliver on that promise, it exceeds it.

In terms of both directorship and cinematography, When Marnie Was There is absolutely beautiful. It is not hyperbole to say that these are some of the most beautiful scenes that Ghibli has ever done. It retains the rich colour pallet and Romantic-like preoccupation with nature that we have come to expect from Studio Ghibli films. However, while the film owes much to Miyazaki’s vision, Yonebayashi and his team were obviously not afraid to make the film their own. There’s an intense interest in architecture in this film and of the relationship between the sky and the sea. Furthermore, much of the cinematography and framing (done by Atsushi Okuo) is heavily stylized; many of the shots felt evocative of the best work of the Coen Brothers.  I was particularly impressed by the way that the shots always had Anna facing the floor whenever she had an asthma attack. It emphasized both her helplessness and her mental state and showed the level of detail that Okuo was paying attention to.

From what I can tell, the film’s narrative is very similar to the Carnegie Medal winning book that it is based upon. However, the change of setting (from Norfolk to Sapporo and rural Japan) adds another interesting layer to the story and Anna’s “Otherness” to those around her.

In the film, Anna Sasaki is a 12-year-old girl living in Sapporo with her foster family.  One day, due to her asthma, Anna is forced to (temporarily) move to the countryside with her adopted mother’s family. It quickly becomes apparent that Anna is isolated, both due to her illness and because of her blue eyes – a rare trait in Japan and one that marks her as different and (at least somewhat) a foreigner. Anna has internalized this difference and made it the cornerstone of her identity. As a result, she feels abandoned and alone.

In a lesser story that would be that. Anna would be the stereotypical poor orphan, her temporary guardians would be the kind couple that takes her away from the evil foster-mother, and Marnie would be the saviour-friend. But In When Marnie Was There great pains are taken to present the situation as much more nuanced and I would say much more realistic. Sure, things aren’t perfect, but they’re not evil, either; there’s bad in the world, but there’s much more good, and for all the temporary hate, love is eternal. And that’s what I like about Studio Ghibli films; the studio is always ready to tackle serious topics but is never going to let their films become overcome by cynicism.

This is emphasized in Marnie, played by Kasumi Arimura and Kiernan Shikpe depending on whether you’re watching the Japanese or English version. Marnie is a character out of time (in more ways than one), a character who endures a hardship at a young age and a very difficult life, but she lives her life to the fullest and with a smile. And while it’s possible to interpret Marnie and her intentions in a number of different ways, it’s obvious that even when she’s causing mischief, she never does it out of any feelings of malevolence or ill will, especially towards Anna. And that’s why I can forgive When Marnie Was There for its over-reliance on coincidence to get the plot started.

Having watched the English dub version, I can say with all honesty that both leads play their roles very well. Hailee Steinfeld, who I remember best for her excellent performance in True Grit (2010), gives a more subdued performance evocative of someone trying to subdue their emotions. Kiernan Shipke, meanwhile, gives a much more bombastic performance, one that is both nurturing and supportive, strong yet also delicate. Both actresses complement the other, and there is a good chemistry between them.

Another standout cast member in the English dub is John C Reilly, who plays Kiyomasa Oiwa (Anna’s foster mother’s male relative). He’s the everyman just trying to enjoy his life. Though not in the spotlight, Reilly makes the largest impression of the supporting cast.

Tying all of this together is the film’s excellent score. It’s emotive and there, sure, but it also knows when to back off. When it’s there, it’s orchestral and drone-like, and sometimes ethereal. Other times the soundscape is filled with diegetic, situational sounds. like the sounds of cicadas or the wind.

It would be a great shame to talk about When Marnie Was There without mentioning Fine On the Outside by Priscilla Ahn, which serves as the film’s ending theme. Fine On the Outside was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Sam Smith’s Writing On The Wall. It’s a very emotive track, honest and melancholy, that sums up the film beautifully. I have to praise Ahn’s vocals on the track; they are exquisite.

Ultimately, When Marnie Was There very well might be Studio Ghibli’s final film. While that’s sad, I think it’s appropriate that it is that final film; it’s very powerful, very beautiful, and it reminds us that though things and people we love might leave us, as long as we remember that love, we will always have hope for the future. It’s a film that I enjoyed very much and can strongly recommend.

When Marnie Was There will be released in British cinemas on June 10, 2016.

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