In the bustling city of Sapporo, Anna (Sara Takatsuki) sits alone and silently sketches the other, happy girls. Presumably they don’t have asthma, their parents are alive and, unlike her foster parents, they don’t keep them just for the tax benefit. After she has an attack that asthma cannot fully explain, her foster mother, Yoriko (Nanako Matsushima), sends her to stay with relatives in the country. Anna believes she is a burden for Yoriko to bear, so she is glad to oblige.
We don’t need her opening narration to spell this out, but it does anyway. It emphasises, I suppose, that Anna’s misery is somewhat self-inflicted. She would not be the first teenager to let the voices in her head simmer, unfounded, with low self-esteem and persecution. After all, we can see she is a talented artist, and that Yoriko cares for her as if she were her own.
It is not until Anna arrives at the country town of Kushiro that these emotions spill out in superbly animated sequences; the grass sways violently in the wind, the rain falls in apocalyptic curves and the moon shines a lonely light on the marsh. Across those waters is a beguiling, dilapidated mansion compelling Anna to sketch and explore. She eventually discovers that, when the tide is in, the house is mysteriously restored to its former glory – when a young girl named Marnie (Kasumi Arimura) lived there.
Is Marnie a ghost? A delusion? Anna doesn’t seem to care, and it is thrilling to solve this mystery before she does. Whatever Marnie is, wherever she came from, she becomes Anna’s first and only confidant. Apart from their unusual blue eyes (for Japan), they share a loneliness that comes to those with too little and too much. Marnie is the only child of beautiful and wealthy parents, but they neglect her, so she is left to the mercy of her oppressive grandmother and the jealous maids. Despite her supernatural presence, she is very human.
So too are a trove of other characters who quiver with life – a trademark of Studio Ghibli’s remarkable output. I saw the Japanese version with subtitles, though past experiences suggest that the English version, featuring the voices of Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka, will be just as moving.
Studio founder, Hayao Miyazaki, has publicly included the Joan G. Robinson book among his favourites. He was not involved in this adaptation, having retired his venerable brush after The Wind Rises (2013, also wonderful). It is Hiromasa Yonebayashi who has skillfully directed the last Studio Ghibli film for the foreseeable future. How long will it be before we wander into another magical, frightening, exquisitely hand-drawn adventure? For now, the tide is out.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 103 minutes
When Marnie Was There will screen nationally in Australian cinemas from 14 May 2015 through Madman Films