I’ve been slipping lately as a Ghibli completest. There are a few movies I haven’t gotten around to seeing in the last few years, and one of them was this, When Marnie Was There – the second movie from Yonebashi ‘Maro’ Hiromasa, who seems to be carving out a niche for himself adapting whimsical, gentle-paced English children’s books from a generation ago. With Arrietty and this movie, I thought that was simply what he was instructed to do by Miyazaki, given that those books are on his favourites list, but since Yonebashi and various others from Ghibli have fractured off to found Studio Ponoc, he seems to be continuing the trend even outside Miyazaki’s influence with Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Yes, When Marnie Was There is an adaptation of a 1967 novel by Joan G. Robinson set in Norfolk. Honestly, though it won some awards and was previously adapted for Jackanory, I’d never heard of it and it seems to have been out of print until interest was revived by this adaptation. The sample chapters I’ve read show a rather unlikeable protagonist and lots of patronising and overdone renderings of the Norfolk dialect, but presumably the protagonist gets more likeable and the story itself is a sweet and well-crafted one.
This adaptation, transplanted to Hokkaido and its comfortable-looking temperate summers (definitely considering spending a lot of time there next year), is remarkably well-done and tasteful. It doesn’t have the bombast of Miyazaki’s most prominent films and won’t make anything like their cultural impact, but it’s a wistful and sweet story in the vein of Omoide Poroporo and thus makes it into my top five Ghibli films. Yonebashi seems to have managed to capture that middle ground between the supernatural fantasies of Miyazaki and the everyday dramas of Takahata, and the film benefits greatly from that.
Twelve-year-old Anna doesn’t fit in. She’s adopted and feels distant from her family, doesn’t make friends easily, sometimes says very rude things when she feels cornered, and as a girl apparently with some foreign blood – visible mostly in her eye colour- feels like an outsider in her native land. She’s also asthmatic, and the doctor thinks the air of the Hokkaido countryside will do her good, so she goes to stay with relatives by the sea.
In the new town, she’s drawn to a strange mansion down on the marshes. She meets a girl called Marnie who is free-spirited, looks like a French doll and is virtually held as a captive in her own home by her household staff. Anna and Marnie become fast friends, to the point they profess their love for one another and it borders on the adorably homoerotic. Anna is in some ways girlish but with her short hair, usual choice of shorts and rather headstrong attitude has very appealing androgynous characteristics. Marnie is more classically girlish, usually wearing pretty dresses and loving to dance and twirl, but also gets down to some serious rowing when she needs to. They’re lovely characters, suit one another very well and their intimate friendship is a joy to see unfolding, even after the twists are revealed and we come to understand everything.
The film is understated and beautifully-done. Movements and expressions are rendered in a lovely way and the setting is striking, even if but for a windmill changed for a grain silo, this could very easily have still been Norfolk. With a Japanese matsuri. The two lead characters reminded me strangely of Shinku and Souseiseki from Rozen Maiden, which was sweet.
I think this will mature not as one of Ghibli’s most iconic films, but one of their more mature and understated. Certainly one I’ll enjoy rewatching in the future.