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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

When Marnie Was There movie review: girls have adolescent angst too

When Marnie Was There green light

Enchanting, startling; a rare story about a girl at a precarious age. Full of that exquisite Studio Ghibli sorcery that captures the beauty of the ordinary.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Studio Ghibli’s films

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s another enchanting animated film from Studio Ghibli, but this one is really special. Less overtly fantastical than some of Ghibli’s other projects — though it’s still primarily a ghost story — When Marnie Was There is grounded in an adolescent reality that we almost never see onscreen: that girls have a rough time, too, in the transition from childhood to adulthood, and in finding a path through conflicting and confusing emotions to our own true identities.

The details of her pain are doled out slowly, over the course of her story, but it’s plain from the opening scene that 12-year-old Anna (the voice of Sara Takatsuki) is a loner, and lonely with it, and escaping into her sketching doesn’t help, even though she loves it. She’s stressed, depressed, and full of anguish: “I hate myself” is a startling thing to hear a child say, particularly onscreen, but it’s far from unrealistic. Her worried mother, Yoriko (Nanako Matsushima) — whom Anna calls “auntie,” because Yoriko is actually her adoptive mother, and Anna has issues with this — sends her off to spend the summer with kindly, good-natured relatives (the voices of Susumu Terajima and Toshie Negishi) in a quiet fishing village… and here Anna starts to come out of her shell via her friendship with Marnie (the voice of Kasumi Arimura), who lives in a mansion across the marshes that is only accessible on foot during low tide. It’s instantly clear to us, if not to Anna, that something isn’t quite right with Marnie and her house: one moment it’s empty and falling into ruin, the next it’s hosting a lively party in which the guests are all dressed in elegant but obviously old-fashioned attire. Is Marnie a ghost? Has Anna traveled back in time? Or is Anna merely dreaming up a friend with a glamorous family to assuage her loneliness? Does it even matter if Anna is finally happy, and learning how to appreciate all the very good people she has in her life? The mystery of Marnie will be solved, and the solution will be lovely and satisfying to Anna, and to us.

Based on the beloved novel by Joan G. Robinson — which is apparently one of Ghibli cofounder Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite books — and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty), Marnie is full of that exquisite Ghibli sorcery that has nothing do with the supernatural and everything to do with capturing the beauty in the most ordinary of moments in bold color and moving lines. Laundry swaying in the breeze; a ripe red tomato being sliced; paper lanterns glowing in the evening. The almost meditative contemplation of the minutiae of everyday life is a sublime complement to Anna’s journey toward herself: the transformation of her pain into self-discovery and growth becomes simultaneously something both normal, a process we all go through, and something wondrous, because it is a miracle for Anna. No, we rarely see stories about girls navigating the obstacles of this precarious age, and this one is even more remarkable for how it lets us share in Anna’s triumph in getting over those hurdles. Marnie doesn’t make me feel like a kid again: it makes me feel like I can almost remember what it was like to feel, for the first time, like adolescence might be survivable.

I saw the Japanese-language version, with English subtitles. There is a dubbed English-language version; the voice cast includes Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Grey Griffin, John C. Reilly, and Vanessa L. Williams.


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of When Marnie Was There for its representation of girls and women.


green light 5 stars

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watch at home

When Marnie Was There (2015)
US/Can release: May 22 2015
UK/Ire release: Jun 10 2016

MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements and smoking
BBFC: rated U (very mild threat, scenes of emotional distress)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Bluejay

    Loved this one too.

    While it’s rare to see in movies in general, I think Studio Ghibli has been consistently terrific about putting girls, and their interior lives, at the center of their films.

  • Diane45

    If say this is up there with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke — it’s top of the line Ghibli, it conpletely floored me. Did you get a chance to hear the song during the credits? It made me tear up, especially after sitting through the film — one of this years best, in my opinion. What a rare Jem.

  • Diane45

    I’d say*

  • Bluejay

    That’s “Fine on the Outside” by Priscilla Ahn:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4ASDIs6JD8

  • Diane45

    Thank you for the link, I suggest the reviewer checks the song out if she hasn’t already.

  • Bluejay

    I’m sure MaryAnn knows about it. She put up several links to the soundtrack at the end of her review. If you’re interested in buying the song, you can click any of those links, and support this website with your purchase. :-)

  • Yeah, I was about to say this. Ghibli has always been great when it comes to representation of girls on screen.
    I moved this up my list. Sounds fantastic.

  • I know almost nothing about Japanese pop culture, but I get the sense that it is a little bit better about telling stories about girls and women.

  • I heard the song in the credits. Can’t say it made me cry, but it’s nice.

  • Stacy Livitsanis

    There are so many pleasures in this stunning film. When Anna arrives at her relatives’ house in Hokkaido I’ve never felt such a strong desire to step into and live in the world depicted onscreen. Throughout the film, and I don’t know how the animators do it, but every time Marnie and Anna embraced, which was a lot, I started crying. If this is indeed the last movie Ghibli make (hopefully not), it’s as good as anything they’ve ever done.

    This ridiculously gorgeous film has at least two of the most astounding moments of animation I’ve ever seen, based on human movement and emotion rather than supernatural wonders: When Anna is talking to Hisako, the woman sketching at the shore, she somewhat awkwardly moves away after speaking with her and her bodily movements are impeccably authentic for a child that age. It couldn’t be more accurate for how a gangly girl like Anna might move if it was rotoscoped from a real child (maybe it was?).

    The other moment is right at the very end [mild spoiler – skip if you haven’t seen and don’t want to know] when Anna introduces her adopted mother as her “mother” and her mother is overwhelmed by this respectful form of address which Anna had previously refused to use, and the look on the mother’s face practically broke me in half it was so moving. Seeing this in the cinema and still unfortunately somewhat limited by society’s expectations of typical male behaviour in public, I practically injured myself trying not to bawl my eyes out in the theatre. With this and Arietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi could carry the Miyazaki torch.

  • Nina

    You’ve been missing out, MA! Even many anime films in which a woman-as-mother or romance plot drives the story, female characters tend to be depicted as nuanced, multi-dimensional characters.

  • That’s great. But that doesn’t help America’s appalling lack of nuanced female characters in its mainstream pop culture.

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