When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another Japanese animated film that is not about action or adventure but about emotions, identity, and self-reflection. Based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson, “When Marie Was There” brings up a lot of questions and is able to answer all of them in poignant, moving, and sometimes surprising ways. By the end of the movie, there is no denying that the story is complete and the craft required to tell it has been executed as well as possible.

Anna (Sara Takatsuki) is sent by her auntie to live in a remote village after a terrible asthma attack. The hope is that Anna’s health would get better over time because there is plenty of clean air there. On the way to her home for the summer, Anna notices an abandoned building sitting on a hill and asks Auntie’s relatives (Susumu Terajima, Toshie Negishi) what it is. She is told that it is a silo and it is believed to be haunted. Speaking of haunted structures around the village, there is an unoccupied house by the marsh, completely inaccessible by foot when the tide comes in at night. From a distance, Anna sees a girl there.

The main character is given shades of complexity. Initially, she comes across simply as a shy girl who has a talent for sketching. As the picture goes on, however, we learn the self-hatred Anna feels for having been adopted. The material then continues to take risks and shows that at times Anna can be cruel especially toward the overweight girl who just wanted to befriend her. Anna’s lack of social awareness can be a source of frustration especially when she lashes out on people who genuinely mean well.

Clearly, our protagonist has a lot of unsolved issues and she is without the necessary tools to be able to handle them without support. And so we begin to feel the weight on her shoulders. It turns into an emotional experience exactly because we wish for her to find some peace even though she may not be ready. The screenplay does a good job in getting us to root for the character even though we are aware of her flaws. It does not make excuses for her.

The animation is beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the small moments. For instance, when Anna discovers the magnificent view in her room, we see people rowing their boats, birds socializing and looking for food, how the water glistens under the sun. It puts us into the sense of wonder the character feels. When she is depressed and feeling hopeless, we peer into her dreams and understand the isolation and desperation she is unable to communicate in her waking life.

“When Marnie Was There” is a cut above many stories, animated or otherwise, because it communicates using not only on the level of assertion and plot but also by way of implication. The filmmakers are able to take advantage of the medium by taking a paranormal element and underlining the humanity in it while avoiding expected trappings. Halfway through, I realized that I did not know where it was going—nor did I care. Instead, I found myself relishing the details of this world and thinking about how Anna might fare once she returns home.

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