Adaptation Animation

'When Marnie Was There' Film Review: A tale of love, life and loss as only Studio Ghibli can tell

May 29, 2015Ben MK

"In this world, there's an invisible magic circle. There's an inside and an outside. And I'm outside."

Two years ago, Studio Ghibli released The Wind Rises, the final bow from acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. Now comes quite possibly the last feature-length film from the legendary animation studio itself. Based on the novel by British author Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There is a story of life, loss and love as told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. And it's a perfect example of just what makes Ghibli's films so wonderfully unique.

The story centers on Anna Sasaki (Sara Takatsuki), a withdrawn and depressed girl from Sapporo, who feels like an outsider both at school and at home. After her parents died when she was just a toddler, Anna was taken in by her grandmother. But when she too passed away, Anna was adopted by Yoriko (Nanako Matsushima) and her husband, who raised her as if she was their own.

Anna wasn't always this unhappy though. Yoriko remembers the bright and exuberant young girl she once was. So in an attempt to reverse the negative changes in her daughter's demeanor, Yoriko sends Anna to spend the Summer with her aunt and uncle in the seaside town of Kushiro, in the hopes that the fresh air will rejuvenate her. There, Anna stumbles upon a purportedly haunted mansion called the Marsh House, and befriends its mysterious resident, a young girl named Marnie (Kasumi Arimura).

What follows is as much a tender story of friendship as it is a ghostly mystery. As Anna begins to spend more and more time with Marnie, she learns about her complicated family life: Marnie's rich, absentee parents; her cruel Nan and the pair of maids who mistreat her; and a noble young man named Kazuhiko, who's there for her in her darkest of times. Over the course of the Summer, Anna also makes another new friend, in the form of an inquisitive girl named Sayaka (Hana Sugisaki); and together they gradually piece together the puzzle of Marnie's life, revealing a bittersweet tale that's both tragic and heartwarming.

Unlike many of Studio Ghibli's most beloved films, the fantasy elements of the story are kept to a minimum. That means you'll find no whimsical forest creatures or talking animals here. Instead, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty) and his co-screenwriters, Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando, keep the movie firmly grounded in the relationship between Anna and Marnie, spending the first half of the movie on their developing bond, then switching into mystery-solving mode in the movie's last act, when we learn just how deep their bond really goes.

The result is a story that takes its time unfolding, but the emotional payoff — as with most of Ghibli's films — is well worth the wait. Of course, it doesn't hurt that When Marnie Was There is also an incredible-looking film, brimming with the kind of lush, haunting landscapes and hand-drawn character artwork that the creative minds at Ghibli have become famous for. Add to that the film's beautiful closing song, Priscilla Ahn's "Fine on the Outside," and When Marnie Was There isn't just one of the studio's best films; it's a fitting conclusion to a thirty-year legacy that moviegoers won't soon forget.

When Marnie Was There releases May 29th, 2015 from GKIDS. The film has an MPAA rating of PG for thematic elements and smoking. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 43 Mins.

* Reviewer's note: The above review is of the movie's original Japanese-language version. When Marnie Was There is also being released with an English dub, which features the voice talents of Hailee Steinfeld, Kathy Bates, Catherine O'Hara, Ellen Burstyn, Geena Davis and John C. Reilly.

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