The seemingly final film from legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli is more low-key than many of its predecessors, but sparkles nonetheless with its own quiet brilliance.
When Marnie Was There, as with much of Ghibli’s oeuvre, has the feel of a fairy-tale. Adapted from an English novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There shifts the setting from Norfolk to rural Japan, a manoeuvre pulled off with a surprising deftness. The story centres on Anna, a teenage girl and aspiring sketch artist who has to move from the city to a small seaside town because of her asthma. The product of (admittedly loving) foster care, Anna is unhappy and disillusioned with family. When in the new setting, however, she meets Marnie, a mysterious inhabitant of an old lakeside house, with whom she quickly forges a profound and life-affirming friendship. There is a supernatural element to the story, although anyone expecting the kind of high fantasy of, say, Spirited Away will walk away disappointed. This is fantasy rooted in human drama, finding its pathos in the emotional realities of the situation.
“a maudlin, beautiful goodbye to one of cinema’s most beloved treasures”
The animation is beautiful, with every frame a work of intricate and sensitively rendered art. As is always the case with a Ghibli animation, there is a particular focus on movement; characters, and in particular Anna, are rendered with a keen eye for idiosyncrasy, a capacity for subtlety unrivalled by western animation. Actions like stepping barefoot into water, or even chopping a tomato with a large knife, are depicted with stunning delicacy. Similarly impressive is the depiction of the landscapes – the seaside town itself is a thing of beauty, as rich and evocative an environment as any Ghibli has created. The story is heartfelt and stirring, but it is the animation which elevates When Marnie Was There to true exceptionality.
Perhaps the largest fault to find is the pacing. The slow, meditative pace of the film works, for the most part, extremely well. We are encouraged to simply sit back and absorb the animation, the themes, the emotion. Towards the end, however, as the narrative takes an increasing number of twists and turns, the film has a tendency to drag, albeit for isolated moments. By the closing credits, the film has resolutely won you back, and the enduring effect is one of powerful emotional response.
The music throughout is touching and unintrusive, allowing the images space to breathe. Similarly, the dialogue, while hardly constituting any great poetic achievement, is sparse and effective. The film’s true power lies in the visuals, a fact that is clearly understood by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the director. The film works perfectly as a subtitled piece, but should subtitles prove prohibitive, there is an English language dub with an impressive cast including John C. Reilly, Kathy Bates, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld and Mad Men’s brilliant Kiernan Shipka.
The previous two Ghibli films, The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, saw the world bid farewell to two of the most revered directors of animation of all time, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. That the studio’s final outing is made by Yonebayashi, something of an up-and-comer, can be seen as a passing of the baton. When Marnie Was There inevitably fails to match up to the studio’s best works, fantasies which have quickly become iconic, but it nonetheless thrives as a wonderful standalone tale, a maudlin, beautiful goodbye to one of cinema’s most beloved treasures.
Image: © 2014 GNDHDDTK