In 2013, when I first heard Studio Ghibli was going to be animating the book by the same title by Joan G. Robinson, I picked up the book and read it. I hadn’t heard of it before and I was pleasantly surprised by how fresh it was. While the film When Marnie Was There doesn’t follow the book exactly (and what good film really does?), it definitely captures the spirit of the book.
Anna goes to the countryside of Hokkaido from the big city of Sapporo in order to see if it will help her asthma. Anna has become withdrawn and introverted since finding out her aunt and uncle, who have raised her since she was very young, receive money each month from the government for her support. She takes this to mean they are only doing it for the money and that they don’t really love her.
After arriving in the countryside to live with her foster mother’s relatives, she notices a crumbling house across the marsh from where she is staying. She is drawn to the house, but isn’t sure why. She later sees it again, only this time it looks new and cared for, and she meets a mysterious girl name Marnie. There is a slight fantasy element to the film, but it is central to the plot so I won’t give it away.
And that’s really what When Marnie Was There is all about: friendship and forgiveness. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously directed The Secret of Arrietty, really emphasized the mindset of Anna and how it changed over the course of the film. He especially used the sky in showing this (so watch the sky when you see it). He also did an excellent of showing the gradual change through her facial expressions, something very hard to do with animation.
Almost all of the main and secondary characters in the film are female, which is not unusual for Studio Ghibli. Each of them is unique, strong in different ways, and brings a reality to this film—something which does not often happen in animated films. While there is a brief mention of romance, it is not central to When Marnie Was There (well, not directly, anyway), and the beautiful friendship which develops between Anna and Marnie is delightful.
I loved the music by Takatsugu Muramatsu. He did an excellent job capturing the subtle emotions that Anna showed, as well as the turmoil she kept hidden from everyone. The theme, “Fine on the Outside” by Priscilla Ahn, conveyed the loneliness of Anna perfectly, and was apparently a very personal creation by Ahn. That definitely showed through in the sincerity of the theme.
The only real drawback to When Marnie Was There was how they had to leave parts of the book out due to time constraints. Having read the book, I was able to fill in the parts that seemed missing, so I think that enhanced my enjoyment of this film. I think this might make it harder for those who haven’t read the book, but I think the film is strong enough to really make an impression on viewers who haven’t read it.
I really enjoyed this film. It was not my favorite Studio Ghibli film (that title belongs to Ocean Waves, which hasn’t yet seen a U.S. release), but it was still very enjoyable. Fans of classical romance—not romantic—works will truly enjoy the themes of true friendship and growth found in When Marnie Was There. I really hope this isn’t the last film we see from Studio Ghibli.
Release Date: July 19, 2014 (Japan)
MPAA Rating: PG
Original Title: 思い出のマーニー (Omoide no Mānī)
Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (brief social drinking and smoking)
Violence: 1 (incidental, brief)