Mark Reviews Movies

When Marnie Was There


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Cast: The voices of Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Toshie Negishi, Susumu Terajima, Nanako Matsushima, Ryôko Moriyama, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Hitomi Kuroki

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and smoking)

Running Time: 1:43

Release Date: 5/22/15 (limited); 5/29/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 29, 2015

There's comfort in knowing one's origin—a person's family, the stories of the past, one's roots. It's one of those things people take for granted, because it's impossible to know what that absence feels like unless one has experienced it. The girl at the center of When Marnie Was There knows that feeling, and worse, she doesn't trust anyone enough to communicate it. After all, the people to whom she would express herself are absent, and the only reason she feels the way she does is because of that absence. It's a vicious cycle.

She takes those feelings out on herself. She lives in the city, where children play in a park while she sits alone on a bench, sketching the scene of normal human interaction in her notebook. That's what she wants more than anything else: a normal life. It eludes her, and she doesn't know how to cope.

She retreats inside her drawings, and when a teacher wants to look at her sketch, she hesitates and slowly moves the book toward his waiting hands. The sound of a child crying is a relief. It means the teacher won't look at it. It means she won't have to show that part of herself to someone else and risk the person's judging eyes. She runs, lest the opportunity presents itself again. Anna runs away a lot—from potential friends, uncomfortable situations, or any challenge to isolation, really.

She's certain she's terrible at drawing because she's convinced that there's something missing from herself. She hates herself, and she says so repeatedly in her head. She's convinced that she is ugly and unpleasant—that no one would want to be around her if she were willing to be a part of anyone's life anyway. The doctor says she has asthma attacks, but we suspect that they're something else. Whatever her life is now, it is too much for her to take.

This is not the sort of heroine one would expect from an animated film that eventually delves into a world of dreams, imagination, friendly ghosts, magic, and/or whatever it is that Anna (voice of Sara Takatsuki) comes to experience when she discovers an old mansion at the other end of a marsh in the seaside village. She's there because of the "asthma attacks." Her foster mother Yoriko (voice of Nanako Matsushima), whom Anna refers to as "Auntie," is worried about the teenage girl's health, and she believes a summer in the village with her sister Setsu (voice of Toshie Negishi) and her sister's husband Kiyomasa (voice of Susumu Terajima) will do the girl some good.

Anna knows Yoriko has good intentions in sending her to the village, but she also "knows" that it's just another moment in her life when someone who was supposed to love her abandoned her instead. Her parents were killed in a car crash when she was a toddler. Her grandmother, who was raising her, died a few years later. At the orphanage, she sat in the corner while potential foster parents ignored her. She's fully aware that none of these people really "abandoned" her, but it certainly feels that way. It's enough.

The film centers on two mysteries. The first is why these feelings of abandonment and rejection have taken over Anna's life. The second involves that mansion—the Marsh House, as the village locals call it—or, more to the point, how a young girl around the same age as Anna seems to be living in a house that has been abandoned for years. The girl's name is Marnie (voice of Kasumi Arimura). She has pale skin, blonde hair, and bright blue eyes. She doesn't seem to be a part of this area, this country, or, for that matter, even this world. She and Anna strike up a friendship. Marnie genuinely wants to get to know Anna, and Anna lets down her well-established guard for once.

This is an understated affair, but the screenplay Keiko Niwa, Massahi Ando, and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson) understands Anna's dilemma and communicates it with clarity. She, as a character, is far more interesting than the mystery of Marnie, which is a bit of a foregone conclusion in almost every respect (One key answer arrives when a character tells the girl's story, but the screenplay gives it to us again, as if the revelation hadn't come just minutes ago).

There are long stretches of the film in which the lingering question of Marnie takes priority. Anna dreams of her (There's the suggestion that everything that happens with Marnie is simply in Anna's dreams, since she is prone to falling asleep without warning), draws her, and waits on the beach for her. There are moments of unbridled happiness between the two girls—boat rides and dances in the moonlight (It's a given that the animation is splendid, since this is a Studio Ghibli production—possibly the animation house's last). We eventually learn the sad story of who Marnie is/was, but it's the connection of this story to Anna's own that makes an impact.

Since the film is so subdued in unraveling Anna's fears and seems more intrigued by Marnie, that impact sneaks up on us (Just the way Anna uses a single word near the end of the film is poignant). It's perhaps a too-simple resolution to Anna's predicament, but it comes with the same shades of melancholy as the rest of the film. By the end of When Marnie Was There, Marnie isn't an answer for Anna, but she does provide a start to some form of comfort despite the absences in Anna's life.

Note: I saw the film with its original Japanese soundtrack. It will be released in the United States with an English-language dub.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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