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Review: Wondrous ‘When Marnie Was There’ is One of Ghibli’s Most Profoundly Moving Works

Review: Wondrous 'When Marnie Was There' is One of Ghibli's Most Profoundly Moving Works

“So I sit in my room /After hours with the moon/ And think
of who knows my name” sings Priscilla Ahn during the closing credits in an emotionally
stirring theme song that graciously concludes one of the most profoundly moving
cinematic experiences to be had this year. In her lyrics, Ahn flawlessly
captures the resilient spirit and tragic melancholy that pervade Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s animated adaption of British writer Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel
When Marnie Was There.” Notably current while still unequivocally timeless,
Studio Ghibli’s latest film was confected with equal doses of heart-rending
drama and life-affirming beauty.

Replacing England with Hokkaido, Japan, a logical move to
fully embed the narrative with Ghibli’s magical allure, Yonebayashi fittingly
fabricated a small town surrounded by marshes that could accentuate the fluctuating
emotional distance between the two protagonists and their worlds. Following a
frightening asthma attack, Anna (Sara Takatsuki/Hailee Steinfeld), a quiet young girl from Sapporo, is sent to
spend the summer with relatives in a picturesque seaside community. Yoriko (Nanako Matsushima/Geena Davis),
Anna’s foster parent, makes the decision in an effort not only to improve her
health, but also her interpersonal skills. Soon we discover that beneath Anna’s
silence there is painful resentment towards Yoriko, who she refers to as
“auntie” instead of mom.

As with a great number of the famed studio’s legendary
masterworks, their ability to observe childhood and adolescence with a delicate
maturity and truthfulness is present here – a quality that’s often lacking in
American fiction aimed at this demographic. Anna can be moody, dismissive, and
mean at times, yet Yonebayashi treats these occasional outbursts not as flaws
but as valuable nuances that deeply inform our perception of the character.
Unlike Miyazaki’s Chihiro who transforms from a spoiled child into a caring
daughter or even Takahata’s Kaguya and her journey between freedom and
confinement, Anna’s core conflict is an issue of identity much less concerned
with the otherworldly circumstances surrounding her than the other heroines.
Anna is uncertain about the sincerity of Yoriko’s love, and that translates
into troubling insecurities. That’s where the eponymous Marnie (Kasumi Arimura/Kiernan Shipka) comes in.

Settled into her temporary home with her nonchalant and affectionate adoptive aunt and uncle, Anna spends her days sketching and exploring nature. She avoids other kids her age and has learned to be comfortable by herself. But when she comes across an isolated old mansion beyond the marshes, an overwhelming need to know more about it takes over her. This imposing Marsh House has a hypnotizing pull, and up close, at least in Anna’s eyes, it doesn’t seem to be abandoned – a beautiful blond girl can be seen from a window. Enticed by the mysterious aura of the place Anna can’t help but return and this time she meets the vibrantly gorgeous and welcoming Marnie, who appears to be around the same age but exudes an enchanting glow from another time. 

Immediately, the girls become inseparable and establish a secret friendship. Under the moonlight they share each other’s secrets with the trust of old confidants. Anna finds in Marnie the companionship she was missing,  but there is a magical spark between them that will prove to be more than a coincidence. Still, even as comforting as spending time with her new friend is, Anna suspects that she has tapped into something beyond reality. Expertly structured to reveal itself with cautious pace, Yonebayashi’s magnificent tale of unconditional love and forgiveness confronts the viewer with a number of plot twists and measured revelations that never blatantly point to its tempestuous conclusion. Marnie could simply be a coping mechanism for Anna to battle loneliness, a vision from a different era, or a tangible memory. 

It’s the heartwarming and intensely depicted bond between these longing souls that renders the film utterly devastating. They are connected through the shared pain of loss and their unfortunate destinies. Intelligently, the affecting topics discerned in “Marnie” are not toned down or simplified but affronted through the characters’ conviction to overcome, and it’s absolutely touching. Adoption, neglect, and even despair appear on screen as situations that are unquestionably rough but never unbeatable. Hope is another color Yonebayashi’s uses to paint his frames. 

Radiant landscapes, as luminous as masterful watercolors, are the backdrop for Ghibli’s eternally detailed and uniquely stylized animation. Although “Marnie” doesn’t exist in a fully fantastical realm as Yonebayashi’s debut film “The Secret World of Arrietty” – which is the highest grossing Ghibli release in North America – this follow up uses those elements subtly and in a way that is cohesive with the subject at hand. It’s a distinct form of fantasy that’s derived not from an alternate reality, but from the vivid memories of past disillusionment sipping into the present to be be rectified. Needless to say the quality of the craft employed is reminiscent of the studio’s best work, yet “Marnie” is destined to become a classic on its own merits.

Elegantly scored by renowned composer Takatsugu Muramatsu, this intimate film is a pleasure to watch because its emotive powers are fueled by every element at work, up to the last note on Ahn’s poignant song “Fine on the Outside.” More than just a visually delightful tearjerker, “When Marnie Was There” is an animated lullaby that reassures our broken hearts will eventually heal, even from the most indomitable tricks of fate. 

“When Marnie Was There” opens today at the Nuart in L.A  and in NYC at IFC Center

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