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.