Review of When Marnie Was There (2014)

Moving picture, 103 minutes

Yonebayashi Hiromasa (director), Suzuki Toshio (producer), Niwa Keiko (writer).

Seen in 2018.

12-year-old Anna is sullen and withdrawn in Sapporo until she gets to spend a summer with her adoptive mother’s relatives in a more rural part of Hokkaido.

Children’s ghost story, and a drama with a bit of Sturm und Drang.

There are only tiny problems with the execution. In the head-on shots, the train driver doesn’t move at all, and some shots look too much like rotoscoping to evoke the old Ghibli magic. The inside of the granary looks decidedly impractical. The foley and water work seem a tiny bit off. More problematically, the script imports the book’s Norfolk plot to Japan in a most peculiar way, even more so than From Up on Poppy Hill (2011). I can’t figure out why Marnie’s wealthy foreign family is living in an estuary in rural Hokkaido, not to mention the parties full of other foreigners. One woman at the party looks stereotypically Chinese. A few others—a minority—could easily be Japanese, perhaps half with assumptions of mukokuseki. They never speak a word of English. What are they all supposed to be doing there?

Let’s suppose the main plot takes place in 2014, which would explain the smartphones. Anna would then be born ca. 2002. Emily was quite young then, let’s say 20. Marnie was probably a little older when she had Emily and is 13 at the party. This puts the party somewhere around 1965–1971, late enough for major foreign business interests to have developed on Honshū, but that time frame doesn’t make sense with the Victorian-style maids’ outfits and Marnie’s apparently advanced age when she’s with Anna. These are more suggestive of the party somehow happening in the reconstruction period or even the interwar years, suggesting the parents might be diplomats. Robinson’s book was published in 1967; I haven’t read it but I assume it flashes back to around the time of Robinson’s own interwar childhood.

The lack of apparent grounding for the family’s situation would sit better if Anna were, as she herself believes, imagining it, but she isn’t. Her Marnie doll is a red herring. The uchronian scenes at the Marsh House are supposed to be Marnie’s memories with Anna somehow interpolated or time-slipped into them, at least primarily. Because I can’t make sense of Marnie’s family, I have to assume it is somehow an end in itself for the family to be foreign and for Marnie to look like Princess Peach. Her pink gown is hardly something a 13-year-old would want to wear post-Beatlemania. You could argue that Marnie’s forced isolation has sheltered her from such trends, but no matter how I look at it, it seems to me that Marnie’s thick blond tresses and blue eyes are supposed to make her attractive by way of her race, at the cost of basic believability.

It’s as if the revelation that breaks Anna’s funk and cures her asthma were “Your great grandparents were handsome, rich and white,” rather than the more reasonable “Your grandmother was kind and did the best she could under difficult circumstances.” Either way, it has nothing to do with Anna’s false assumption, based on an intuited theory of motivation crowding, that her adoptive mother is taking care of her for the money. The whole development of her character is therefore disjointed, which puts a crack in the plot.

The talent at Ghibli could have made something much better out of the Hokkaido setting and Anna’s laid-back aunt and uncle. The way his carpentry shapes their house is really nicely done and the character designs are top notch. Sayaka looks and acts like an older Mei from My Neighbor Totoro (1988). I would have preferred a summer of making new friends—and enemies—and finding out more about the adoptive mother’s background, with the nice incidental characters of Tōichi and Hisako, all complicated by the asthma and a lot more estuary bugs and Internet for realism, but the film, as it exists, is still very good.

Anna’s self-hatred is particularly moving, mainly because it is so fully realized, being presented in her rude, destructive behaviour, with the prime motivator added quite late. The misfortune of her family situation—beyond the problem of nationality—is improbable, but such things do happen. My own grandfather, Gillis Eikman, similarly lost both of his parents as a child, then came into the care of his grandmother, whereupon even she died, leaving him without any close family. I don’t know whether he would have appreciated this sort of fantasy, but it’s not just a stylized fairy tale.

References here: Ghibli movie titles.

moving picture Ghibli animation Japanese production fiction