With When Marnie Was There (opening this weekend in LA and NY from Gkids in an English-language version), Studio Ghibli fittingly concludes its remarkable production run during this hiatus on a mysterious and meditative note. It’s based on Joan G. Robinson’s popular YA novel (one of Miyazaki’s favorites) and explores the magic and melancholy of adolescence with shy, artistic Anna encountering strange, empathetic Marnie in the marshes of a seaside town. The English voicecast includes Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly, and Vanessa Williams. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arriety) discussed his second feature, which is somewhat of a visual departure for Ghibli, via email.
Bill Desowitz: Is “Ghibli Gothic” an accurate description of Marnie, which gives off the aura of a ghost story?
Hiromasa Yonebayashi: I didn’t consciously intend to make it a ghost story, but since I’m a fan of chilling stories, maybe some of that naturally seeped through. But if you watch the entire film, I’m sure you’ll find that it’s a story of love.
BD: After both Miyazaki-san and Suzuki-san recommended the book, you liked it but weren’t convinced it could be captured with animation. Talk about the visual image of Anna and Marnie that lingered in your mind and became the catalyst for your proceeding with the project.
HY: In the book, Anna and Marnie interact quite a bit. As I read it, I was excited by the mysteriousness of these two girls spending time together even though in reality they’re not supposed to be able to be together. And so I wanted to depict through animation the warmth, the smells, and other things that Anna experiences. It proved to be very difficult.
BD: The setting of Hokkaido is important with its marshes and lush beauty and seaside charm. Did it come to you immediately as a location or did it take time?
HY: When I thought of marshes in Japan, the first place that came to mind was East Hokkaido. The key members of the team were assembled in August, and Hokkaido has a short summer, so in order to scout the location as our setting, we needed to make a quick decision. Miyazaki was against it, but we couldn’t lose any time.
BD: The stone mansion is like one of the characters: tell us about bringing it to life.
HY: I asked the production designer, Yohei Taneda, to make the mansion feel like a mother that watches over Anna. It was designed after scouting various locations in Hokkaido and combining elements of various buildings. It’s so meticulously designed that it could be built in real life, and I think that’s helped to create something with real presence.
BD: Take us through the various challenges: story, design and animation and the overall color palette.
HY: In the book, Anna says she likes gray, pearly skies. It’s an important passage that expresses Anna’s heart, so the challenge was to find a way to bring that to life. Typically, Ghibli films have always featured clean, blue skies, but it needed to be different this time. It wasn’t easy to draw cloudy skies and still make the landscape clear and beautiful, but it reflects the tone of the character, and I think it’s resulted in a distinctive mood overall.
BD: Yohei Taneda comes from live-action. But he created an exhibition from Arrietty. Tell us what it was like collaborating with him and what he brought to the movie.
HY: In this film, Marnie is a fantastical presence, so the scenes of Anna’s normal daily life needed to be drawn in a more realistic way. That’s where Taneda’s designs from his live-action sensibilities proved very effective. What was stimulating was that he was even proactive about involving himself with things like the food on the dining table or the diary, which are things that are typically handled by the animators. Sometimes it created more work, but the resulting effect was terrific.
BD: And what was it like collaborating with Masashi Ando as supervising animator and screenwriter? What were his distinctive contributions?
HY: Just as with the background art, the characters needed to move in a realistic way. And the way Ando’s characters carry themselves and think were indispensable to the film. He was a fan of the book, so I asked him to be involved in the screenplay. He has a very logical approach to screenwriting, often impressing me with how things made sense.
BD: What were the most difficult moments to get right?
HY: The film has mystery elements, so we needed to imagine what the audience would be thinking at each step of the story as went along. Setting things up and figuring out exactly how much to do of something was difficult. There are also some double-meanings that reveal themselves only after the audience learns the truth, and making that work was also a challenge.
BD: It’s a very powerful story about adolescent alienation and two girls that become soulmates. It’s interesting that Frozen connected so strongly around the world because of the great bond between two sisters. Similarly, you have a strong connection between Anna and Marnie. Tell us about the physical and psychic bond that they share.
HY: Anna and Elsa have a very clear relationship as sisters, so the story was easy to follow, but in our film, the relationship between Anna and Marnie is quite vague and probably difficult to grasp for viewers. At times, Marnie seems to be a ghost, and other times she’s like an imaginary friend. I think what makes this story interesting is that there’s one more level beyond that. It’s designed so that once you learn the truth, all the dots will be connected.
BD: Tell us what you like about the score and the theme song and how they help underscore the sweetness and melancholy?
HY: The key thing with the music was how closely it can identify with Anna. The composer, Muramatsu, said he bawled when he read the book. At that point, I figured we were more than half way there. And the score he came up with was sweet, tender, and fit the story perfectly.
The theme song, ‘Fine on the Outside,’ is a song that was written by Priscilla Ahn when she was a teenager. But the lyrics captured Anna’s inner thoughts perfectly, so I figured it was fate and chose it for our theme song. I love Priscilla’s voice because it’s wistful and goes straight to the heart, but manages to be cute.
BD: Do you have a favorite moment?
HY: I love the scene in the forest when Anna cries and tells Marnie how she truly feels, and Marnie in turn holds her gently.
BD: How has Marnie made you a better director and filmmaker?
HY: I don’t know if I’ve become a better director, but with Arrietty, I do think we all identified ourselves with the protagonists too much. This time around, we gave ourselves a bit more distance from the characters and made the film from the standpoint of how we wanted Anna to be. I think that aligns us closer to how the audience feels.
BD: Do you know what you will work on next?
HY: I left Studio Ghibli late last year, so I’m no longer a Ghibli employee. I’m a freelancer. But Nishimura (the producer) and I have spoken about how we’d like to make another film together, so we’ve been developing a new project. We’re now at the plotting stage, and once the film is finished, I think it’ll be a fantasy film that should excite both children and adults alike.