“You’re my precious secret”
Studio Ghibli’s 2014 anime drama When Marnie Was There (Japanese: 思い出のマーニー, Marnie of [my] Memories) was the production company’s last project before its six-year hiatus, ended in 2020 with the release of Earwig and the Witch. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the film is based on Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel of the same name. Much like Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), which was based on Diana Wynne Jones’s 1986 novel of the same name, When Marnie Was There was penned by a non-Japanese author.
Struggling with asthma and a general apprehensiveness toward the world, young Anna is sent to the countryside. Painfully aware of her own “foreign” looks, when she meets Marnie, a girl with flowing blonde hair and blue eyes, Anna feels an instant kinship. But the girl’s presence is so elusive, and the marsh house she occupies so hauntingly silent, that Anna soon finds herself questioning the stability of her own mind.
When Marnie Was There‘s appeal rests in the story’s many mysteries. The most unsettling aspect, as we quickly learn, is Anna’s lack of credibility as a protagonist. Often incapable of controlling her emotions and the effects they have on her body, she wakes up in strange places and with memories as hazy as distant dreams. This certainly conveys the feeling of alientation she experiences, allowing us to embrace and fear the same blind spots.
Marnie’s mysterious home, known as the marsh house, comes alive during the night, when the high tide floods the bog with enough indigo water to require a boat to make it across. This motive of otherworldliness is similar to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), in which the domains of the humans and the spirits were separated by the setting sun, turning streams into seas. Anna’s misty recollection of events also adds an ethereal quality to the story, twisting everything into the fruit of a fever dream. So much so, that fantasy and reality overlap, making a Venn diagram out of the heartbreaking secrets shared by the two girls.
Their blossoming friendship is nourished by plenty of blushing, jealousy and longing. So much so, that it can easily be interpreted as something more than mere comradeship. That is, until the film’s mysteries are allowed to unfold fully, revealing an unexpectedly distressing core.
Even though When Marnie Was There is based on a novel by a British author, its Japanese execution warrants a few interpretations. One of these includes a gentle reference to the Japanese concept of ma (間), which literally means a “gap” or “space”. It’s also seen as a free zone that allows contradictory things to co-exist. In the film, the past and present are brought together, distorting Anna’s perception of the world. In traditional Japanese art, ma touches on the artistic interpretation of an empty space, which is a vital component of a piece and forces the viewer to focus on the intention of the negative space, its purpose.
Designing moments of ma in conversation is about creating moments of awareness and stillness. In When Marnie Was There, the marsh house is often portrayed as abandoned and quiet, but its presence is the focal point of the story. Similarly, the blurry moments Anna spends with Marnie leave her tranquil enough to start healing.
Still, the film struggles to rise to the heights of Studio Ghibli’s classics. Adhering strictly to its dramatic narrative, When Marnie Was There often feels over-sentimental. And while it allows us to enjoy a summer in the Japanese countryside, the lack of dynamism leaves us staring at the tickling clock alongside Anna, though for different reasons. The verdict would be that the adaptation of the novel simply isn’t Japanese enough, unlike Howl’s Moving Castle, which took great liberties with its source text.
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