“In this world, there’s an invisible magic circle. There’s an inside and an outside. And I’m outside,” says Anna Sasaki.
One of the most engaging and moving dramas I’ve seen this year actually came from the world of animation, specifically Studio Ghibli (which should surprise no one). It is also the last release from Studio Ghibli (for the time being while they’re on hiatus). With the exception of one title, Studio Ghibli’s animated films have been synonymous with high quality animation and storytelling (the exact same could also be said of Pixar’s animated films). Their seemingly final film is called When Marnie Was There, and it was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (who had previously directed 2010’s The Secret World of Arietty for Studio Ghibli). I recently saw When Marnie Was There on the big screen at the IFC Center, and while it might not be an epic on the level of retired Ghibli co-founder and Academy Award winner Hayao Miyazaki, it was still an outstanding, small, intimate film with a moving story that is worthy to stand alongside Studio Ghibli’s other wonderful releases (except for 2006’s Tales From Earthsea, Studio Ghibli’s only misfire).
2014’s When Marnie Was There follows a young girl who is sent to a rural, seaside town to deal with her depression. She soon encounters a girl named Marnie, who lives in a mysterious, seemingly deserted mansion. As their friendship blossoms, Marnie’s secrets become dangerous and life-threatening. The English language dub contains a cast that includes Hailee Steinfeld (as Anna), Kiernan Shipka (as Marnie), Ava Acres (as Sayaka), Vanessa L. Williams (as Hisako), Catherine O’Hara (as the Elderly Lady), Geena Davis (as Yoriko), John C. Reilly (as Kiyomasa), Ellen Burstyn (as the Nanny), and Kathy Bates (as Mrs. Kadoya). Steinfeld captures the emotional complexity of Anna, whose asthma and depression are the catalyst for her being sent to Kushiro for the summer. Shipka shines as Marnie; she subtly captures Marnie’s self-awareness of danger lurking nearby as well as her joy of having a companion. The English voice cast in general does well in bringing their characters to life. Yonebayashi’s strong direction brings this charming tale to life with beautiful animation and strong vocal performances.
Based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson, the screenplay by Yonebayashi, Keiko Niwa, and Masashi Ando slowly builds the world of the rural seaside town of Kushiro and its secrets. The focus on the friendship between Anna and Marnie is one of the film’s biggest highlights and strengths. The potential supernatural mystery elements are reminiscent of Frank LaLoggia’s 1988 cult film Lady In White). Atsushi Okuo’s cinematography matches the film’s tone while creating a beautiful landscape (the evening scenes using candle lights were gorgeous). Rie Matsubara’s editing moves the film at a good pace, allowing the story to take center stage. Takatsugu Muramatsu delivers a dramatic score that places emphasis on the supernatural elements of the story while capturing the depression Anna feels. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There is a wonderful adaptation of the Joan Robinson novel that features beautiful animation and a strong voice cast. While it might not be ranked as high as a Miyazaki or an Isao Takahata film, it is another fine Studio Ghibli production that (if it ends up being Studio Ghibli’s last film) is the perfect swan song for the legendary animation studio.