AKA: Omoide no Marnie, Marnie of my memories
Year Released: 2014
Running Time: 102 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Air, From Up on Poppy Hill, Clannad, Only Yesterday, Kanon
-The Japanese language track was used for this review.
-When Marnie Was There is based on a novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson. It was also one of Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite books and one of multiple British books that director Hiromasa Yonebayashi would adapt much like The Borrowers (Arriety) and Mary and the Witch’s Flower to name a few. Speaking of that book and movie…
-Hilarious in Hindsight: During the scene where Anna is at one of Marnie’s family parties, she dons a shawl and carries a bunch of flowers with her. The partygoers call her a witch as a joke, so she has witch’s flowers much like Mary. However, she doesn’t get to fly by night though (forgive my pun).
-When Marnie Was There was the last Studio Ghibli full-length film until they announced the upcoming movie How Do You Live? (or second-to-last if you count their collaborative work on The Red Turtle). This is also Yonebayashi’s last Ghibli film before founding Studio Ponoc.
-American singer/songwriter Priscilla Ahn performs the ending theme.
-Anna’s foster uncle Kiyomasa Oiwa is played by John C. Reilly in the English dub. That’s right, the same guy you know as Dewey Cox and Wreck-It-Ralph played an anime character.
We meet again, Studio Ghibli. Seems like their movies come around to me at some point again and again. This situation is similar to the first time I reviewed anything from Studio Ghibli which would be The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Why is that? Besides who distributed this film, I got a Secret Santa present last Christmas from a co-worker that involved another DVD from that animation studio. Two years in a row, I got a Ghibli movie at work. Be jealous, everyone. Although I didn’t get to watch this one straight away, I thought it would be a good time to review this later movie in their catalog.
Will this be a repeat success or will this have been a gag gift in hindsight?
When Marnie Was There is about a twelve year old girl named Anna Sasaki. She’s from Sapporo, lives with foster parents, and likes drawing things. Despite being a great artists, she despises showing her work to anyone let alone trying to befriend anyone. Anna also suffers from asthma where the big city has hindered some of her breathing. Her foster mom Yoriko sends Anna to live with her relatives the Oiwas in the rural part of Hokkaido near the Kushiro wetlands. Her foster uncle and aunt take her in and try to get her to break out of her shell. Anna also has severe trouble making friends with anyone in this town until she finds a mysterious place called The Marsh House which is filled with superstitious stories, but she also finds a blonde girl named Marnie who somehow understands her. Anna sneaks out to see Marnie at different points of the day despite being told not to. Is this Marnie individual a real person or an imaginary friend that Anna created to help cope with her traumatic life? Anna wants to find out everything about her as she forms this bond with this mysterious girl.
Much like Shinkai films, I get bored talking about the animation quality of Ghibli projects. It’s certainly high-caliber as one would expect from that illustrious studio. Much like my review of From Up on Poppy Hill or even Grave of the Fireflies, it’s not as flashy as some of their more fantastical works, but everything is handled well. The scenery of rural Hokkaido is Arcadian in quality, the coloration works very well with the usage of blues and greens, and there were some creative effects such as the dream sequences or Anna experiencing Marnie’s life and memories. I certainly didn’t complain at all here. The music was also great as it used acoustic and light symphonic numbers that weren’t overbearing. The ending song “Fine on the Outside” works so well with the film as the lyrics fit perfectly with Anna’s introverted and internalized angry personality. After finding out that Priscilla Ahn wrote this song wrote it back in 2005 and writing it about her experiences mirroring Anna’s nearly a decade before this movie was released made the connection all too bittersweet.
The characters in this film also worked. Anna was different than most Ghibli protagonists with how self-loathing she was throughout most of the film. She rarely emotes and is polite, yet she harbors so many destructive feelings against so many people. There are times when those negative emotions come out such as insulting adults, fat shaming one of the girls in the new town, and not wanting to be around other people. It was also great seeing her grow into a character as she learns to share her art with others and to be more forgiving for others. Although one aspect that should be noted is that if Anna was a boy who said or did the same things, everyone would call that character emo (I mean Hawthorn heights and not Sunny Day Real Estate or Rites of Spring). Just saying. Marnie was a great counterpoint to Anna. She certainly looks and acts more ladylike than the tomboyish-looking Anna, but she is totally not as dainty as she looks. Marnie is adepts at rowing boats really fast, pulling pranks on her maids, and enjoys sneaking out. She comes off as fearless with the exception of the local silo and thunderstorms which I won’t spoil because of character development reasons and it’s really sad how she became afraid of them. The discovery of the Marnie character was also fascinating as it plays with how real of a person she is or isn’t and the revelation of how she’s connected to Anna was something I didn’t expect, so major props for working those plot twists.
When Marnie Was There does falter in some aspects. Besides, Anna, Marnie, and even the character Sayaka who shows up in the latter half of the film, there aren’t many other characters who really develop. Sure, you have the aspect with Anna’s relationship as a foster daughter to Yoriko which does change, but I felt that most of the supporting characters didn’t change all that much. The Oiwas are nice people, but they were a bit of one-note characters. There was Mrs. Kadoya who shows up briefly, but the movie looked like she would have a much bigger role at first even though nothing really happened besides her hearing about her daughter Nobuko being insulted by Anna. I also thought the film got way too dark at times given the atmosphere of the film. Yes, I understand the irony of calling a Ghibli movie too dark at points when I highly praised Grave of the Fireflies, but the implications of child abuse for a certain character got me to wince even if it made sense for plotting. One scene that I thought was unintentionally funny for the wrong reasons was Marnie standing at the front of the boat while her arms are out. I don’t need to be reminded of the “king of the world” scene from Titanic let alone having “My Heart Will Go On” playing in my head when that happened. Talk about tonal dissonance. With Anna, there were a couple of times where I thought she acted way too adult for her age. It makes sense how she wanted to be independent and not childish, but I refuse to believe that a twelve year old would use the word “subsidy” correctly in a sentence (spoiler avoided) or acting almost motherly to Marnie during the silo scene. Those were some things that prevented me from giving this film my highest rating.
Yonebayashi’s final film as a Ghibli animator/director was still a great watch nonetheless. The main characters really shine here and I wanted them to improve with their lives. The animation is top-notch and the score was wonderful to listen to. The story itself kept me interested throughout the entire movie. I do wish some of that character development would happen in addition to the main characters or how the dialogue should’ve been more realistic given the characters’ ages. When Marnie Was There was a touching film and it’s definitely one of the better recent Ghibli films made this decade. Definitely recommended.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you like Studio Ghibli movies.
Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer your anime movies to have more fantasy elements.
-Great musical score
-Relatable and likable main characters
-Underdeveloped supporting cast
-Gets way too dark at times
-Dialogue issues with Anna can be unrealistic
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Warning: When Marnie Was There got a PG rating which I believe is fair. There’s drinking and smoking with the adults, but there is one scene where Anna drinks wine when it’s handed to her by one of the adults at the party (she didn’t know it was alcohol until she tasted it and didn’t like it though). The subject matter gets intense with child abuse happening to one character’s backstory and Anna’s worldview can be very depressing especially when she figures out a secret about her foster family that gives her a ton of hidden rage towards them.
All photos used under US “Fair Use” laws. When Marnie Was There is property of Studio Ghibli, GKIDS, and Universal. The movie poster is from movieposter.com and is property of GKIDS and Universal.