From the all powerful Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There is a beautiful animated feature about friendship and loneliness. Released in Japan in 2014 and in the US (in a dubbed version) last year, we are latecomers to this gorgeous film.
Adapted from a British book for children, with action moved from Norfolk to the Japanese town of Sapporo the story is about an outsider called Anna Sasaki. She’s a lonely girl, talented at art but not great at joining in, and with no real friends to speak of. Adopted, she has no real memory of parents and consequently feels permanently out of place. She finds school a horrendous and soul destroying place to be – and what makes this animation particularly unusual is the way in which her depression over this is depicted. We can see how unhappy she is, but also how debilitating the emotion is. This is the first animated film I can remember seeing which is so clearly dealing with depression, rather than simple sadness. As an audience the understanding of this is heartbreaking.
To help counter this depressive malaise her adoptive mother (with whom she has a spiky relationship) sends her to the brighter environs of the seaside, to stay with relatives for a summer away from the troubles of home. Although the idea of being sent away may seem a curious one, Anna soon finds a new world of happiness when an old abandoned mansion on the other side of the bay suddenly comes magically back to life and a young girl living there called Marnie becomes her friend. Is it magic or ghosts or time travel making this friendship possible? Or is it just day dreaming? Imagination? It’s a secret friendship too – no one else can see the mansion alive, just the the crumbling boarded up house awaiting redevelopment. Who is Marnie? She’s a Western looking girl – blonde and blue-eyed and unusual in the backdrop of this small community.
As we learn more about Marnie the connections become deeper and more intricate as further friendships blossom and Anna’s world becomes wider. The two girls enchant each other and suddenly life seems okay.
At its very heart When Marnie Was There is a beautiful film about the restorative power of friendship. It’s not without flaws – Anna herself ends up picking on a girl and although is later contrite it does seem odd what with she has gone through before. Also the ending possibly wraps things up a little too quickly and neatly, and the idea that a more Western blue-eyed blonde character in a Japanese village is the magic ideal Anna should be looking towards is a little uneasy. Although probably not intended in that way it does remain an unfortunate thought nagging in the minds of the viewer.
But overall When Marnie Was There is a heartwarming film with a surprisingly complex emotional centre. The animation is as beautiful and elegant as you would expect from Studio Ghibli, with an incredibly luscious screen picture which makes the community by the sea seem somewhere incredibly inviting.
When Marnie Was There is out in UK cinemas on Friday 10th June and worthy of a visit from cinemagoers of all ages.