With “When Marnie Was There,” 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.
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.