Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, February 22, 2016

OSCARS 2016: When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata announced their retirement two years ago, it sent a wave of mourning through both anime circles and the hardcore animation fandom. Not helping matters was the hiatus Studio Ghibli announced afterwards, many fans worrying that the studio would be shutting its doors forever. The panic overshadowed what may be the final Ghibli film. “When Marnie Was There” was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously made the wonderful “Secret World of Arrietty.” Like that film, “When Marnie Was There” is based on an English-language children’s novel. While the box office in Japan did not match prior Ghibli successes, “Marnie” still grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Anna is a withdrawn, shy twelve year old girl. Her asthma and a deep anxiety about her foster parents pushes her away from the girls that could be her friend. After an especially serious asthma attack, Anna is shipped off to live with relatives of her parents in the country. While there, Anna becomes fascinated with an abandoned house in the marshlands. Only at night during high-tide, Anna sees a beautiful little girl living in the home. After discovering her name is Marnie, the two become extremely close, secret friends. Yet nobody else notices Marnie and, soon, an entirely different family moves into the house. Anna realizes that her new best friend is a ghost.

What’s most impressive about “When Marnie Was There” is how accurately it captures the loneliness of childhood. Anna has no friends of her own. She’s introduced sitting on a park bench, watching healthier children play. She’s an extraordinary sketch artist but is too shy to share her work. Self-loathing thoughts fill her head constantly. Being around people makes her viscerally, painfully uncomfortable. During a suspiciously Halloween-like sequence, Anna potentially makes some friends with the local girls. Her anxiety quickly bubbles up and she lashes out at the girls, receiving a cruel teasing in return. It’s not that she’d rather be alone. Being around people is something she can’t even stand. Anybody who has ever experienced anxiety as a child is going to see a lot of themselves in Anna.

The reason Anna and Marnie become such close friends, so quickly, is they both have an innate, mutual understanding of one another. They both enjoy the quiet. They both dislike crowds. It’s apparent to the audience quickly that Marnie is a ghost. Yet this is not a typical haunting. When Anna meets with Marnie, she seemingly slips into the past. As the story goes on, it becomes clearer that Marnie exist in a repeating fantasy, a memory that can be interacted with and repeats infinitely. Ghosts are the shadows of the past. This become even more obvious when we realize Marnie has a personal connection to Anna. There are hints at abuse and death, when Marnie talks about her cruel grandmother or the bullying maids. Cruel acts echo through history. As a meloncholey family film, “When Marnie Was There” isn’t afraid to get a little spooky either. Anna and Marnie’s journey to a dilapidated grain silo is surprisingly creepy. The film’s fantasy element allows memories and regrets, ghosts and the dead, to come to life and interact with the living.

The biggest joy of “When Marnie Was There” is watching Anna come out of her shell. When with Marnie, the girl’s shy face lights up. Marnie teaches her how to row a boat. They share secret conversations late at night, outside the collapsing mansion. Marine’s parents throw opulent parties, which Anna fills horribly out of place at. Afterwards, Marnie and Anna share a dance, laughing and swaying back and forth in the night air. It’s not impossible to read Anna and Marie’s relationship in a romantic sense, given Anna’s tom-boyish tendencies and uncomfortable reaction to Marnie’s male love interest. The two hug a lot too. However you interpret their feelings, watching Anna learn to care about something more than herself is touching and beautifully realized. Exploring the mystery of Marnie’s fate also causes a friendship between Anna and Sayaka, the girl who moves into Marnie’s old home, to form. In a round-about way, Marnie leads Anna to find other friends, enriching the girl’s life.

“When Marnie Was There” is, of course, gorgeously animated. Two sequences feature a tomato and a watermelon and both are so ripe looking, you want to eat them. The waves of the water move with a life like motion. Priscilla Ahn’s theme song, “Fine on the Outside,” is beautiful and heart-breaking. I’m not a huge fan of how the story resolves itself, flatly explaining some information in a heavy handed way. Yet “When Marnie Was There” is still a touching, fantastically done story. If it is indeed the final Studio Ghibli movie, it’s a powerful statement to go out on. [8/10]

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