Gorgeous to look at, gentle and enchanting, When Marnie Was There is balm for the stressed-out soul, though children – its target audience – might find it ponderous and slow in places.
What makes When Marnie Was There special is the sheer, gobsmacking gorgeousness of the painted backgrounds. While the animated characters are sketchily drawn, the landscapes and interiors are ravishingly beautiful. We can luxuriate in woods and sunsets, in the contrasted opulence/ruin of an old house, whose abandoned rusty garden chairs are rendered in exquisite detail. Melons and ripe tomatoes look good enough to eat. The toys and books in Marnie’s bedroom recall Disney’s Pinocchio in their richness.
The last feature film produced by Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli before a ‘brief pause’ to re-evaluate and restructure in the wake of founder Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, When Marnie Was There encapsulates both the strengths and weaknesses of Ghibli’s recent output: ravishingly beautiful artwork, haunting music, quirky characters and humour, but also slow narrative pace and a fondness for adapting worthy children’s classics from the 1950s and 60s that might feel ‘old-fashioned’ to kids today.
When Marnie Was There is adapted from the 1967 novel by English author Joan G. Robinson, transposing its Norfolk setting to Japan, and it shares a similar ‘old house, imaginary friend, and family secrets’ plot with another of Miyazaki’s ‘Top 50’ children’s books, Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958).
During the summer holidays asthmatic 12 year-old Anna is sent to the seaside to stay with her aunt and uncle. A foster child, she feels like an outsider and wants to be ‘normal’, but is tormented by unresolved issues with her birth parents. Anna is drawn to Marsh House, a dilapidated house across the shore, home to the mysterious Marnie, who appears in her dreams – a girl dressed like Alice with blue eyes and long blonde hair. Marnie is like the vivacious and daring sister Anna never had and the two girls strike up an intense friendship.
Past and present blur as Anna seeks to find out the truth about her ‘ghostly’ friend. Over the course of a magical summer she also finds a resolution to her own problems; there is a thrilling climax in a dark tower amidst a howling storm and a satisfying twist at the end.
Studio Ghibli’s best films, such as Spirited Away, embrace Japanese tradition and weirdness. Marnie is more straight-laced, but features a celebration of the Tanabata festival, in which children dress up and parade through the streets carrying lanterns. The stained-glass window kaleidoscope of colour and light here is a magical.
It is almost enough to watch such splendour as a kind of therapy, to meditate and unwind to the wheezing cicadas, the wind chimes, the heavy patter of rain at the beginning of a storm. But is it enough for our more restless young audience?
Perhaps in the next few years Ghibli will reinvent itself in the same way as Disney, which came back from a poor 1970s/80s to experience a creative renaissance between 1989 (The Little Mermaid) and 1999 (Tarzan), producing successful animated films based on well-known stories, which restored public and critical interest.