Talking Movies: The Floating World of ‘When Marnie Was There’

When Marnie Was There

FilmScene — Opening June 12, times vary

While Studio Ghibli’s famed director Hayao Miyazaki’s has retired from actively making films, it is worth taking time to admire the quality of work in the animation company’s latest feature, When Marnie Was There.

Marnie is directed by long-time Studio Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi in his second effort as a features director. Based on Joan G. Robinson 1967 children’s book of the same name, Marnie tells the story of young Anna, who is sent to live with relatives in a small village in Hokkaido as a treatment for a somewhat mysterious ailment, which is described as asthma, but seems more like some sort of anxiety disorder.

Initially alienated by her relatives’ weird, back-to-nature lifestyle and some tensions with mean girls in her new peer group, Anna eventually becomes obsessed with a mysterious mansion and its main occupant, a ghostly young girl with flowing blonde hair and seemingly supernatural boating skills. This, of course, is Marnie, who immediately befriends Anna and introduces her to a shimmery, fantastical world of night-time boat rides and Gatsby-esque parties hosted by her parents at their spooky mansion across the marsh (strictly an East Egg crowd).

Anna develops a closeness with Marnie that we suspect she hasn’t had with her friends back home. But much of Marnie’s world is transient, and feels constantly in flux. Marnie herself seems to appear and disappear without explanation, with the changes in the tides and almost in response to Anna’s own anxieties. While her friendship is warm and nurturing, it also seems to suffer from the same emotional turbulence and fears that Anna herself feels.

Fans of Ghibli films will be familiar with much of the presentation here: a constant, seamless transitioning from the world of fantasy to reality and back again; the adult world as entirely secondary to the inner turmoil of the child protagonists (and the world of adult males virtually irrelevant); the difficult but intensely necessary process of forming meaningful friendships; and of course the magical and restorative capacity of the natural world that we have seen throughout Studio Ghibli films, perhaps most notably in 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro.

Meanwhile, the particular setting in Marnie gives the animators lots to work with — the flight of startled marsh birds, the tidal pools and waves along the beach, the dozen or so shades of green in the surrounding creek sides and meadows– and is gorgeously portrayed.

Movie-goers shudder to think that When Marnie Was There is potentially Studio Ghibli’s last feature film, the studio having announced their features department would be going on a hiatus following Miyazaki’s announced retirement last year, but even if it is, the studio has done a great job encapsulating the themes in which it has always been interested, showing the amazing artwork for which it is so justifiably renowned and demonstrating a capable transition to a new generation of directors for its future works, even if those are not feature-length projects. FilmScene will be screening both the subtitled Japanese release of When Marie was There, as well as the English language version (featuring Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka) starting this weekend.

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