As the beloved Studio Ghibli loses acclaimed director/writer Hayao Miyazaki and its future of making feature films was uncertain, Hiromasa Yonebayashi stepped out of the animation department to direct his first film ever. Has working on some of Ghibli’s most successful films helped him understand what makes a good film or is this just another disappointment on the coattails of The Wind Rises?
Let’s take a look at When Marnies Was There.
When Marnie Was There is about Anna, a young asthmatic foster child who is sent to a rural seaside town for her health. However, Anna is portrayed as one of the most disgruntled and generally unlikeable character — she’s rude, brusque, secretive, mean-spirited, and all this by her own admission. She meets a mysterious young blonde girl named Marnie, who lives in a hauntingly gorgeous mansion…that is definitely haunted by ghosts. However, Marnie is able to bring Anna back to the world and helps her work through her issues, that go far beyond her health.
As with any foreign film, there’s always going to be lost in translation when watched by a non-cultural insider. Thus, I have to question what stigma foster families have in Japan, because it is central to the film. In the U.S. it’s a fairly popular narrative plot point, either being in foster care or being a foster parent, but I have never seen it in a piece of Japanese media. I assumed because either it wasn’t something you mentioned publicly or there was just a focus on birth-children. One of the big plot points is that Anna is upset when she finds out her foster parents have been receiving money because of them taking her, and my first thought was “of course, that’s how the system works.” Perhaps there’s a stigma to receiving money in that way? Or that she’s convinced they only want her for the money? Another issue that might come up for international watchers which might be confusing is the stigma that part of Anna’s heritage, and some of her features, is European, though it doesn’t play the biggest role in the plot.
I don’t usually enjoy films where the lead is made intentionally unlikeable, but Anna is the rare exception. Perhaps its because she’s unlikeable in a realistic way that doesn’t turn her into a monster nor does it feel like the script is trying too hard to make her rude or over-the-top. She’s a bratty teenager — still respectful when she needs to be, lonely and moody, and all around believable as a character. Marnie, on the other hand, sometimes feels a little manic-pixie-dream-girl though its clear there’s also a loneliness there. That’s what makes the movie: all the characters are realistic human beings with conflicting emotions, not perfect angels or gritty fighters.
The plot isn’t exactly hard to figure out, since it is aimed at a younger audience, like Kiki’s Delivery Service. If you aren’t worried about spoilers then the basic gist is a lonely girl with asthma meets a ghost and said ghost helps her with her emotional issues and, ultimately, helps her make friends and bring her back. The ghost, of course, is connected to Anna in more than just loneliness but I will let you watch the movie to figure that part out…or wait for them to straight up tell you, as it does at the end in case you missed it.
The version I saw was a subbed version, so I can’t make any comments on the dubbed edition. The Japanese language track was, in my opinion, was well put together. The young women sound age appropriate, the uncle and aunt are cheerful and warm in tone, and even the nervous mother sounds more anxious than an outright mess, which is typically how its cast. From the trailer, Anna and Marnie sound just a touch too adult and Anna whispers really awkwardly, so take that into account when deciding which one to pick.
In terms of the animation, like most Studio Ghibli features, is done with a loving art style. No short cuts on this movie – every detail is drawn in and moves with fluidity. The sweeping landscapes of the Japanese countryside are as gorgeous as you would imagine they would be. I have to say, while the music is beautiful, it doesn’t leave as much of an impression as the soundtracks from Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle did — perhaps because there’s not much need for a sweltering score in the same way, but it does change the overall effect of the film for me.
Overall, this is an strong showing of just what made Studio Ghibli great, even if it doesn’t soar to the creative heights of films like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. If this does happen to be the last of the feature length animated films they produce, then it’s a fine piece to hang their hat up at the end of what has been a successful run.
– Strong story and characters.
– Good Japanese voice acting.
– Fantastic animation.
– Spells out the plot twist a little too much.
– English dub sounds a little off.