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When Marnie Was There
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by Jay Seaver

"A Gothic drama for smart pre-teens, and anyone else who likes animation."
5 stars

Toward the end of "When Marnie Was Here", I found myself feeling a delightfully paradoxical appreciation for how it was put together: It somehow feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable, with the symbolic and the literal overlapping in ways that should not have been deflating but instead strengthened the story. Not bad for a movie about 12-year-olds and in large part made for that age group, though it never feels the need to shout to get their attention.

The first of these girls we meet is Anna Sasaki, who looks at some of her classmates and says that there are people inside a circle and outside, with her among the latter. Soon after that, she has a serious asthma attack, prompting her guardian Yoriko to send her away from Sapporo to spend the summer with Yoriko's aunt and uncle, Setsu & Kiyomasa Oiwa, for clear air in the country. While sketching, Anna is transfixed by a dilapidated mansion across the marsh, once the vacation home of a group of foreigners although it has changed hands several times since then. Sometimes she sees lights in the windows, and one night at high tide she finds a rowboat docked nearby. She needs a bit of help when she reaches the mansion, and that's when she meets Marnie, a blonde girl about her age, who says they must be each other's secret.

That's the start of a gothic story, an odd choice when the main character is an antisocial pre-teen girl. It becomes fascinatingly appropriate, though - Anna, in her youthful way, is as withdrawn and cold as the women typically seduced by ghosts in the grown-up version of these stories; in fact, she's often more direct about her self-loathing than those protagonists. The offer of friendship is as much a temptation for a girl that age as romance would be for one five or ten years older, and in some ways it is even more believable that Anna would keep investing in it, even though she's clearly a smart enough kid to know that she is in the midst of something outside the ordinary.

Anna proves to be a fascinating creation; director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and character designer Masashi Ando (both collaborated on adapting Joan G. Robinson's novel with Keiko Niwa) envision her as sort of androgynous toward the start, a no-nonsense look that lends itself to adventuring and serves as a contrast to the design for Marnie, who is all pink dresses and long hair, although no delicate shut-in flower. As Anna grows over the course of the movie, she becomes more feminine, but it's not the same kind of super-girly look Marnie favors; rather a casual but mature image, and the introduction of a younger character serves to heighten the contrast.

Beyond visual design, Sara Takatsuki is giving an impressively nuanced vocal performance (at least, in the subtitled Japanese version I watched; I'm sure Hailee Steinfeld is fine in the English dub); getting across the numbness and anger that both define Anna early on, as well as the growing confidence and compassion she displays later. Kasumi Arimura gives Marnie a youthful excitement without it feeling exaggerated as it often can in animated features, hiding a sadness but not denying it. Nanako Matsushima shines as the worried guardian (I'm genuinely curious to hear what Geena Davis does in the dub), while Toshie Negishi & Susumu Terajima lighten a lot of scenes as the Oiwas.

There's also a wonderful precision in how Yonebayashi crafts his picture, both in small ways and large. Observe how Anna sharpens her pencils with a sliding blade rather than a contained pencil sharpener or snaps them by pressing too hard; it establishes her as a bit more than sad, even if she is quiet in motion as well as voice. Watch her attempting to step into or row a boat for the first time - it's clumsy in exactly the way it should be for someone inexperienced. Check out how the coloring (an animated film's lighting) subtly shifts between scenes - and not so subtly in others, as we see the same bedroom occupied by two different girls. These are all places where an animated film might cut back, because those small details require a lot of conscious effort, but the attention to detail is appreciated here.

Some of that same precision is available in the writing, although my extremely limited Japanese leaves me wondering how much is translation, and may be different between the subtitles and dubbing script. For instance, the subtitles don't spell out the relationship between Anna and Yoriko initially beyond them not being biologically related - Anna calls Yoriko "Auntie", and Setsu finds that unusual, and I went to step-parent issues. Later, Anna's bluish eyes are noted, and it's hinted that the fact that she has some foreign ancestry might account for why she feels like an outsider, and that blonde-haired Marnie may be a way of helping her accept that about herself. Yonebashi and company don't really go that way in either case, but not only doesn't it feel like a misdirection, but the thoughts a viewer may have along those lines feel useful - they may not figure into the actual plot, but thinking this way allows the audience to understand Anna better, so that when the filmmakers do start connecting their dots, it feels like more than a puzzle being put together.

That feels extraordinary. "When Marnie Was There" already seemed like as exceptional an animated film as one can generally expect from Studio Ghibli, but the way it brings its ideas together while still remaining fairly simple deserves extra praise. Ghibli's future is undecided, but in Yonebashi, it either has an excellent future or a potentially great legacy, at least if his future projects are as good as this one.

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originally posted: 06/07/15 16:31:15
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  22-May-2015 (PG)
  DVD: 06-Oct-2015


  DVD: 06-Oct-2015

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