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When Marnie Was There

aka: Omoide no Mani

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Genre: Fantasy
Company: Studio Ghibli
Format: 1 Movie
Date: 19 July 2014

“I wish for a normal life every day.”

Anna Sasaki is 12, tomboyish, sickly, an outcast and an orphan. After an especially debilitating asthma attack, her aunt (and foster mother) Yoriko sends her from her home in Sapporo to live with relatives in a rural seaside town near Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido. She is intrigued by the dilapidated mansion which sits on the far side of a small cove — and by the fact that another lonely young girl seems to be living there still.

summary by Papa-san

Reviewed: 5/15/2016 by 

Grade: 80%  av-Gendo

Highs: It’s Ghibli; artwork, good sustained mysterious atmosphere

Lows: Ambiguous; pacing; story a bit disjointed

When Marnie Was There is based on a children’s book of the same name by English author Joan G. Robinson, published in 1967, and nominated for that year’s Carnegie Medal for children’s literature. It is the first film from Ghibli which does not credit the names of either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, the studio’s legendary founders. There are murmurs that this may also be the last film from Ghibli.

First of all, it is Ghibli and it is good. It may not be the best which has ever come from Ghibli, but it is still head and shoulders above the bulk of the anime crowd. The story begins with morose and self-hating Anna Sasaki suffering a particularly debilitating asthma attack. Her foster mother, Aunt Yoriko, decides Anna should get out of Sapporo and spend some time with Aunt & Uncle Oiwa, who live in the rural fishing village of Kishiura in eastern Hokkaido. The Oiwas appear to be almost rednecks, kind but rough-looking, driving what appears to be a beat-up Suzuki Sidekick, and living in a spacious but rustic house. Uncle Oiwa is a carpenter or woodworker, with his workshop in the house, and makes all sorts of furniture & knick-knacks from wood. Anna is immediately intrigued by the dilapidated “marsh house” sitting on the other side of the inlet which the village decorates. Intrigued, and troubled by a sense of familiarity.

Anna Sasaki is possibly the most introverted and disturbed young character in anime since Ikari Shinji-kun. Orphaned as an infant, she has discovered that her foster parents receive a government stipend to help care for her, and now thinks that is the main reason for them taking her in. They seem to have little awareness of her sense of isolation, although Yoriko clearly is concerned for her, and says early in the film that “. . . it’s like I don’t even know her (any more).” Her first view of the mysterious marsh house is occasioned by her running away from a possible meeting with strangers in town. She has little desire to make friends, or knack for doing so: she calls one girl, who is trying to be sociable, a “fat pig”. To be fair, she immediately regrets what she has said, and shortly thereafter undergoes some painful insight into herself. Anna’s sole pleasure is drawing. She often has a sketchbook with her, although she remains shy about showing her work to others.

Artwork is outstanding, as may be expected. Background art is crisp and clear, colors are bright and vivid. The dilapidated marsh house is drawn in rich detail, and one can almost feel the paint curled and peeling under the fingers. Characters are unique and distinct, visually, although our protagonist, Anna, bears a passing resemblance to previous Ghibli girls. In contrast to the background art, character art is plain and simple, almost simplistic.

There is a good measure of interesting and detailed action going on around the edges, some just for its own sake, and some possibly for symbolic meaning. On Anna’s train ride, a man in the seat ahead of her is dozing fitfully, head snapping up and down in a realistic manner. Food on a plate wobbles & rolls around as it is served. When she steps into the water of the small bay, a crab skitters away from her feet. As Anna sits home at dinner after first discovering the marsh house — and seeing it improbably illuminated — right behind her a doll house rests against the wall, also illuminated. There is a wonderful side character, Toichi, a fisherman noted for his taciturn manner and rough, bearded appearance — even Anna first thinks of him as a bear or sea lion. Other children of the village call him a “mute”. An important character who turns up later on is little Sayaka, whose family has purchased the marsh house and is renovating it. She adds a welcome and much-needed touch of comic relief. With her prominent ponytails and oversized glasses, Sayaka could almost be visiting from Azumanga Daioh.

There are a few echoes of western fairy tales, not surprising given the story’s European origin: when Anna wants to send a postcard to Aunt Yoriko, and needs to go to the village post office, she takes a “shortcut through the woods” (although no wolf, big, bad, or otherwise delays her); later, she attends a gala ball where she loses a shoe. (Some more on this in a bit.) One of the problems with loading a story up with details is that sometimes they lose purpose. Some things just add a light note or a touch of realism. The shortcut through the woods just noted, though, serves little purpose; it is really nothing but a path from one side of the Oiwa’s curving driveway to the other. Some special significance seems placed on it: Uncle specifically recommends it, and there is even a sign marking it! But there is no apparent reason for any of that. Toichi too seems to serve little purpose, although his constant presence suggests that he is fated to serve some crucial plot point. Perhaps the book gave some deeper significance which the movie format had to gloss over.

Another weakness is plot pace. After more than an hour of inexplicable events with few clues as to what is actually going on, the denouement of the whole story occurs in minutes, and via the relatively clumsy method of verbal exposition: an adult with whom Anna has actually made friends expounds to her (and us) all the missing backstory and exactly who this Marnie is — or was.

Music is pleasant and appropriate, but largely unmemorable. A spooky 5-note motif which we first hear when Anna sees the supposedly long-abandoned mansion with windows brightly lit is reminiscent of one used in the somewhat obscure William Peter Blatty movie, The Ninth Configuration (which is one of my favorites of any genre). The setting of this is also a large dilapidated mansion (well, a castle, really). The closing theme is a very depressing English-language song “Fine On The Outside”, which boasts such lyrics as “I like to eat in school by myself, anyway.”

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Marnie’s king of the world!

 

I shall now issue the customary “spoiler alert” for the following discussion.

It is perhaps too easy to peg this as a ghost story, although even the trailers and promotional pieces point that way. It is difficult to decide what exactly is happening at many different moments. Anna’s first encounters with Marnie clearly are dreams, ending with Anna waking up in bed. This could suggest that all of Marnie is nothing but dreams. On the other hand, the house suddenly appearing as it did decades before, in original condition and owners in residence, is a standard ghost story motif. The sea, too, seems to play a role. At low tide, Anna can walk over the mudflats to the house, but at high tide, a boat is needed. The first time Anna meets Marnie is when Marnie has somehow left her boat where Anna finds it and rows over, with the house changing appearance almost before her eyes. It seems as if high tide is the key or the trigger which makes the girls’ meetings possible, a fact Anna has not missed: at one point, she glances at the sketches she has made of Marnie, then at the clock, and murmurs that there are still two more hours until high tide. It is noteworthy then that Uncle Oiwa remarks early on about tides and the power of the moon, and after the party sequence (see below), Anna receives a postcard from Yoriko which also remarks on the power of the moon and the tides.

Another possible Western mythological element may be quite ominous: first, the boat voyage itself across the inlet is evocative of Charon ferrying souls across the Styx into the land of the dead. At their second meeting, Marnie has prepared a picnic for them. A LOT of folklore involving both the underworld and magical creatures such as fairies warns of the dire consequences of eating with any such beings. Something certainly seems to have the effect of disconnecting Anna from her own reality. After the picnic, Marnie asks what it’s like living with the Oiwas: Anna has almost forgotten them! Anna then has a strange and disturbing mental lapse, and finds herself alone. When Marnie finally reappears, she accuses Anna of vanishing! There is a definite connection between Anna calling to mind her life with the Oiwas and lapsing out of her time with Marnie. At the end of this sequence, she recalls trying to answer Marnie’s question but can’t remember what it was. Some time thereafter at home, Anna finds her sketches of Marnie and realizes she has forgotten about her. Also, I would note that Marnie has many of the characteristics of the Trickster, a common motif in folklore around the world.

All in this same night, Marnie takes Anna to an elegant party at the house (in Great Gatsby era and style), and Anna never so much as asks how it is possible. Finally, when this whole sequence has ended, Anna, abruptly, is found unconscious by the side of the road back in the village, far from the beach, by a passing driver who recognizes her and calls the Oiwas to come get her. The next morning, Anna walks across the mud flats — low tide again! — but of course the house is abandoned and derelict as before. All of this has been against the backdrop of the Tanabata Festival, and I suspected that may have had some particular significance to events, but none that I can make out. Tanabata is related to stars, but nothing to do with the moon.

It is possible that Marnie’s own loneliness is connecting through time with Anna’s, and the girls’ encounters are the touching of two different eras, both girls alive and well, but meeting in a sort of twilight zone. In contrast, Marnie’s exit from an abandoned grain silo towards the end seems to support the idea that she is simply a ghost after all, despite previous ambiguity. Contrary to this notion though is the fact that Marnie seems to hold back some secret knowledge which she doesn’t share with Anna, specifically the precise nature of their connection. Marnie in fact acts in some ways much older than her apparent age.

All of that relates to a rather controversial aspect of the movie: Marnie seems to be MUCH too fond of Anna. Their expressions of love for each other go somewhat beyond what might be expected of two 12 year olds, even in Japan, even in anime. What is truly disturbing though is the fact that, as just noted, Marnie acts much older than her purported age, and she approaches Anna almost as a predator, with repeated vows of secrecy regarding their friendship. In the vernacular, there is a very creepy vibe going on. When we finally learn who Marnie is and what Anna’s connection to her is, some of that seems a bit more explicable and acceptable . . . but only if we’re assuming Marnie herself has all that knowledge too throughout the story.

To conclude, not one of Ghibli’s best offerings, but certainly worth a watch. I am actually looking forward to reading the book, in the hope that some of these more ambiguous patches may be clarified.

 

When Marnie Was There can be downloaded legally in the United States HERE.

 

 

 

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