June 12, 2016

When Marnie Was There (2014)

Anna Sasaki is a disenchanted 12 year-old girl in Sapporo who has lived with foster parents ever since her own parents died. When she suffers a severe asthma attack at school, she is sent to the coast to spend time with her foster mother's relatives. Once in the town she becomes fascinated by a dilapidated mansion on the edge of a salt marsh. When the mansion turns out not to be as abandoned as she assumed, Anna forms a friendship with the secretive blonde-haired girl named Marnie who lives there. Finding out Marnie's secret has a profound effect on Anna's own life.

When Marnie Was There is a 2014 anime feature directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi for the noted production company Studio Ghibli. Following its release, and with the retirement of company mainstays Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Ghibli has gone into a production hiatus. This makes When Marnie Was There the final studio production for the immediate future - and very possibly forever. That is a shame on two fronts: it's sad that such an exceptional company may be closing shop for good, and if so it's sad that it is closing out on what is a fairly underwhelming film.

It is important to note that underwhelming does not automatically equate with bad. The general standard of Studio Ghibli's film is pretty much unparalleled in animation worldwide, so with each new release there is a certain level of anticipation to go with it. When Marnie Was There certainly maintains the quality of animation, voice acting and general production values for which Ghibli is renowned. Its story, however, is remarkably low-key and predictable, and its pace is maddeningly slow. As a minor entry into the company's catalogue, it is a little underwhelming. As the potentially final film for the entire decades-long run it almost feels a little tragic.

A key problem of the film is that the stakes feel so low. There is a mystery involved as to who Marnie is and why she keeps appearing and disappearing, and very quickly it becomes clear that she is either a ghost or that the story involves time travel. Pretty much all suspense boils down to waiting to find out which of the two options is correct. There never seems to be any greater peril than that as the film goes on. When the truth behind the mysterious Marnie is revealed, the film makes the critical error of simply explaining the situation rather than finding a way of visually expressing it. Marnie herself is not present at the revelation of her own nature. It is somewhat unsatisfying.

Thankfully there is always the animation to fall back upon, which is predictably gorgeous. Yonebayashi does a very good job of maintaining a Ghibli house style while still finding ways to visually express his own directorial style and identity. He previously directed Arrietty for Ghibli and shows enormous promise as a director in his own right. I simply hope that he handles a better paced and more interesting screenplay the next time around.

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