Those who think of anime as a medium suited only for science-fiction heroes with bad haircuts and neurotic animals competing in repetitive card-playing games may be surprised and quite likely charmed by the down-to-earth quality of When Marnie Was There, the latest — and some fear the last — offering from Japan's revered Studio Ghibli. Long-time Ghibli fans may find it a little less ambitious than earlier milestones such as Spirited Away, but what Marnie lacks in adventure or fantasy is compensated with a convincing depiction of adolescent angst with a gothic twist. It's a deliberately low-key tale set (well, mostly) in the real world and guided by the self-conscious emotions of youth — but filtered through a Henry James-like ghost story.
Based on a 1967 young adult novel by British author Joan G. Robinson (which Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki once named as one of his favorite books for children), Marnie is the story of Anna, a depressed, asthmatic twelve-year-old girl sent to live with relatives in the country. With plenty of free time to wander the area, she becomes fascinated with an old mansion at the side of a marsh, and also with Marnie, a young girl she occasionally sees behind the mansion windows. An intense friendship develops between the two girls, despite indications that Marnie may not actually exist. She seems to wander between the present and a Gatsby-style past where her wealthy parents host a never-ending party, and many of her meetings with Anna end with the latter either collapsing or waking up from a dream. Marnie is even drawn just slightly out of style with the rest of the film, with pale features and slightly outdated clothes recalling John Tenniel's depiction of Alice in Wonderland, and the film subtly lets the viewer — but not Anna — become aware of her otherwordliness.
Its supernatural elements aside — and they're so understated as to barely register for the first half of the film — most of When Marnie Was There is a quiet and thoughtful film about Anna growing up and discovering herself. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi devotes much of the film to simply following Anna's almost plotless explorations of the world around her. This is, oddly, a film that delights in the sights and sounds of the natural world: A compulsive artist, Anna spends many scenes with pencils and sketchbook in hand, and her realistic drawings of Marnie, the mansion and the town provide a black-and-white reflection of the film's own realist/animated world.
So if Marnie celebrates the natural world, why make it as anime? There's hardly a scene that doesn't provide an answer. This is, as one has come to expect from Ghibli, a visually beautiful film, with subtle touches in atmosphere and design that would be heavy-handed in a real film. Animation allows the ordinary to startle with its vividness, from hidden depths in a landscape to rich, vibrant details from nature. (There are times when I had to stare closely at the backgrounds to confirm that the filmmakers hadn't slipped in photographic elements.) Compared to the sameness of so many recent hyperactive CGI adventures, Marnie is an anomaly, a film in which every landscape or cloud calls for contemplation.
And yet the naturalness of the graphic design complements the simplicity of the plot and the single-mindedness of its heroine. Passionate without becoming hysterical, emotional without becoming melodramatic, When Marnie Was There ultimately favors Anna's growth over its gothic ghost story with a conclusion that is slightly contrived but, by young-adult fiction standards, completely satisfying. Spirits are put to rest, mysteries are explained, and life, which Anna has learned to embrace, is just a little strange sometimes. As strange and beautiful as the collision of animation and realism in this film.
When Marnie Was There Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando and Hiromasa Yonebayashi from Joan G. Robinson's novel. English adaptation by David Freedman. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka and Geena Davis. Opens Friday, June 19, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema.