Released in Japan in 2014, this animated drama has since been adapted into a dubbed English-language version, which will have limited theatrical release in the UK this year.
Studio Ghibli, which has produced such favourites as Spirited Away, The Wind Rises, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, has gained as much of a following among adult admirers of the genre as among the children the films seem to be made for. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the studio’s well-respected animator, began directing his own animated films in 2010. When Marnie Was There (originally “Omoide no Mani”) is his second feature as director and co-writer.
As director, Yonebayashi left the animation and production design in other hands, but as may be expected, he maintained the high artistic standards that fans would naturally expect. In fact, the beautiful and haunting appearance of this film is a large part of its appeal. The background scenes of forest, marsh, and seaside, as well as the beautifully detailed interiors, are particularly charming, giving the impression that the film’s action is taking place inside a watercolour painting.
The story is that of Anna, a twelve-year-old girl who is depressed, withdrawn, and friendless. She feels abandoned partly because she is a foster child who pines for “real” family. Sent to spend the summer with an elderly couple at a seaside cottage, Anna continues to spiral into sadness and self-loathing, until she encounters a fine house on the edge of a marsh, which seems oddly familiar to her. The house seems to be deserted, but one day a young girl with long blonde hair appears at its window – a girl Anna recognises from her dreams. The girl, Marnie, and Anna become close friends, although Anna recognises that Marnie must be either imaginary, or a ghost. As they share a series of adventures, the warm relationship with Marnie allows Anna to work through her own feelings, and discovering the truth about Marnie’s identity finally helps her to accept and be happy in her own foster family.
The “personal journey” aspect of the story is not belaboured; instead, it is presented primarily as a story of life-changing friendship and as a mystery, with enough drama and danger to keep young audiences interested, but with the frightening scenes modified enough for fairly young children to tolerate. The characters are extremely well rounded and lifelike, including a wide range of interesting, mostly female characters of all ages – something worth noting, as it is less common in live action films generally. The personalities and emotions of the characters, however dark, are not played down or made cartoonish, and children of Anna’s age will certainly find the two main characters sympathetic.
The English language production features careful, flawlessly synced dubbing, and excellent vocals from well established actors, including Kathy Bates, Geena Davis, Ellen Burstyn, and Hailee Steinfeld as the voice of Anna. The quality of the vocals almost rivals that of the film’s artwork.
When Marnia Was There is an excellent addition to the output of Studio Ghibli, with all the qualities that have come to be expected from the studio, and the beautiful artwork long associated with Yonebayashi. Children in general, and adult anime fans of every ilk, will certainly love it.