The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

When Marnie Was There: Movie Review and Full Recommendation

“When you grow as old as I am you can’t any longer say this was someone’s fault, and that was someone else’s. It isn’t so clear when you take a long view. Blame seems to lie everywhere. Or nowhere. Who can say where unhappiness begins?” ― Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There

Released two summers ago, When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mānī, literally “[My] Memories of Marnie”) is a film adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s novel of the same name. Twelve-year-old Anna Sasaki is uneasy with the fact that her foster parents receive government compensation to raise her and is afflicted by asthma. After a particularly debilitating asthma attack, she spends her summer at a coastal town to live with her relatives with the aim of easing her asthma. While she’s here, she becomes enamoured with a seemingly abandoned seaside manor. She encounters Marnie, an enigmatic girl who asks Anna to keep her existence quiet from others, and as the two spend more time with one another, Anna comes to learn more about her past and eventually, accepts her foster parents fully. Produced by the legendary Studio Ghibli, I believe that this is my first shot at reviewing one of their films: their movies masterfully weave a narrative that holds the viewer’s interest. They further capture the subtle and plain emotions in its scenes, making full use of audio and visual elements to convey a particular mood or atmosphere to strengthen the story, and each of their films have rendered me speechless. This is partially why up until now, I’ve not written about any of the Ghibli films, but When Marnie Was There succeeded in changing that: I watched this film on the first leg of my flight to Cancún, and was failing in all attempts to stem the tears at the film’s conclusion. In being able to capture the strength of Anna’s realisation of who Marnie is, as well as her acceptance of her foster parents and their love for her, When Marnie Was There prompted me to wonder: what about the film makes it so powerful?

So I answer myself, the magic of When Marnie Was There lies entirely within Anna’s journey of self-discovery and how this is intimately tied to her friendship with Marnie. Marnie presents herself as simultaneously being quite similar and different to Anna: Marnie is envious of Anna’s freedom, while Anna longs for a family. As Marnie and Anna spend more time with one another, the once-introverted Anna begins to open up and grows to appreciate Marnie’s companionship, learning of the joys and frustrations that accompany friendship. However, one aspect critical to any friendship is trust, and as Anna attempts to learn more about Marnie, she finds herself encountering inconsistencies: the shore mansion is in fact becoming the new home for Sayaka and her family. Sayaka and Anna are brought together by Marnie’s diary, and its entries suggest that Marnie pre-dates their current time period. Conversation with Hisaki, a painter in the area, finally clarify that Marnie would go on to marry Kazuhiko and had a child, Emily. After Kazuhiko’s death, Marnie was institutionalised and Emily was sent to a boarding school; Emily would grow to resent Marnie for never acting as a proper mother and later had a child of her own. When Emily and her husband perish in an accident, Marnie looks after the child until her death. It turns out that this child is Anna: in perhaps a rather strange fashion, Anna’s grandmother can be seen as looking after her even from beyond the veil, helping her learn the value of friendship and understand her foster parents’ circumstances. By the time Anna is set to leave the town, she’s befriended Sayaka and resolves to get along better with some of the girls from the area. These changes in Anna’s character are profound and quite moving, illustrating the extent that friendship can induce growth in individuals.

While Marnie’s impact on Anna is undeniable, one of the largest questions that doubtlessly remain is whether or not Marnie is indeed interacting with Anna together. Throughout the movie, the narrative keeps the audience guessing: is Marnie a benevolent spirit, a doll brought to life by magic or merely a figment of Anna’s imagination, brought on by the seemingly boundless tranquillity of the seaside town? The answer can be derived with a little bit of thinking (and mine is provided below in the figure captions), but because When Marnie Was There chooses to leave this facet unanswered, the implications are that how real Marnie is less relevant to the narrative: the story is about Anna and how her time in a quiet town leads her to discover friendship. By all definitions, this excursion is successful, and ultimately, Anna leaves her summer accepting who she is, understanding her foster parent’s situations and looking forwards to returning to spend time with Sayaka in future summers. In doing so, When Marnie Was There further aims to show that a rustic, quiet region far removed from the hectic, manic environment of the city can play a substantial role in helping individuals journey within themselves. As an increasing proportion of people now live in urbanised regions rather than rural areas, people are gradually losing their appreciation for the quiet of the countryside. In providing an incredibly detailed depiction of the town that Anna stays in, When Marnie Was There paints an idyllic picture of what life in a rural area can be like: far removed from the bustle of a city, the countryside is quiet and the perfect place for adventures that can shape the course of one’s life.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • As a movie review, I’ve opted to go with the larger format with thirty images, although it was difficult to succintly capture every detail in When Marnie Was There in such a small space. Anna is seen here after a particularly nasty asthma attack: it’s a condition characterised by inflammation of the airways, resulting in coughing and a shortness of breath. Although there is no cure, milder cases can be easily managed.

  • To help Anna recover, she’s sent to live with Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa, relatives of her foster parents’. As they reside in a remote seaside village, the air here is cleaner. This form of treatment is reminiscent of the approaches used during the late 1800s and early 1900s to treat tuberculosis: at the time, it was thought that mountain air would slow the disease, resulting in the construction of secluded sanitoriums. These were shut down following the development of antibiotics. In the case of asthma, while bronchodilator medication is available, trigger avoidance is in fact a commonly-used form of management.

  • The Oiwas welcome Anna into their home; they have a daughter of their own but she’s pursuing studies elsewhere, leaving her room free for Anna to use. Cozy and inviting, the interior of the Oiwa residence and numerous other locales in When Marnie Was There are rendered in great detail: Studio Ghibli’s latest films are among the few that stand toe-to-toe in comparison with the incredible level of detail seen in Makoto Shinkai’s films.

  • There’s a balcony outside of Anna’s room that overlooks the area. The town is said to be located somewhere between Nemuro and Kushiro of the Hokkaido prefecture; Anna is from Sapporo. Incidentally, ALIFE XVI is set to take place in Japan next year, with Sapporo and Tokyo being two of the cities under consideration for where the conference is to be hosted.

  • Shortly after arriving, Anna finds an old mansion on the edge of a cliff, across a salt marsh. At low tide, she’s able to traverse it quite easily, making her way through the shallow waters to reach the mansion on the other side.

  • Upon arriving, she finds that the mansion is deserted, as quiet as Wayne Manor during the events of The Dark Knight Rises, but nonetheless feels that the location seems familiar to her. As the afternoon wears on, the tide returns, trapping her. She’s rescued by Toichi, a fisherman and a man of few words: during her transit back to the mainland, she sees the mansion occupied and in fine condition for the briefest of moments.

  • I’m always fond of watching the small details in any given anime directed at the rendering of food. As the Oiwas and Anna settle down for dinner, I recall last week; I attended the Calgary Stampede and woke up at 0600 despite having just gotten home from the ALIFE Conference the previous evening. This year, the cooler and rainy weather reduced the attendee count, but last week was still reasonably lively. After walking the grounds, I stopped for lunch: a Montréal smoked meat poutine (which never ceases to impress me how they use large chunks of smoked meat rather than slicing it thinly), a colossal fried onion with chipotle sauce and later, deep-fried cheesecake.

  • Monday was the start of my work week. I’ve been working part-time since May began, but now that my defense is done, I’m working full-time. This accounts for why I’ve not put out more posts since I’ve returned; I’m presently still trying to settle into (read “optimising”) my schedule, so it’s been a little difficult to figure out when I can blog.

  • The Tanabata Festival is celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month (by the lunar calendar) in Japan. Besides festival events, making wishes is a tradition: they are written on strips of paper and hung on bamboo known as “wish trees”. Unlike The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, which was significant in-universe because this is when Haruhi technically meets Kyon for the first time, Tanabata in When Marnie Was There serves as the backdrop for Anna’s first real meeting with Marnie after the former leaves the festival following a heated exchange with Nobuko Kadoya.

  • Anna’s self-loathing derives from her total lack of understanding of her origins: her blue eyes stand out and constantly remind her that she has no family. Blue eyes in East Asians without a Caucasian ancestor are possible but incredibly rare (someone would probably have albinism if they do not have any Cacucasian ancestry whatsoever), and from a genetics perspective, the allele for blue eyes is recessive, whereas darker coloured eyes are dominant.

  • The next day, under one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in any movie, Marnie and Anna go for a picnic under the evening light. Here, Marnie teaches Anna to row properly. Voiced by Kasumi Arimura (Airi Katagiri of Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, which I’ve yet to watch but have heard good things about), there’s a quality about Marnie’s speech that makes it appealing to listen to. Kasumi’s voice here is somewhat similar with Akari of Five Centimeters per Second, who was voiced by Yoshimi Kondō.

  • In a scene reminiscent of the “I’m Flying” scene from James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, Marnie climbs to the bow of the boat and stands up, extending her arms  in the same fashion as Rose does. In most large vessels, the bow is deliberately cordoned off for the passenger’s safety, so couples won’t be able to re-enact the scene as shown in Titanic.

  • Later in the evening, Marnie and Anna share a conversation under starlight, asking questions about one another. When Marnie asks about life at the Oiwa residence, Anna blanks out for a few moments, and to Marnie, appears to have fallen through the space-time continuum. This is the first occurrence that suggests the flow of time and the consistency of reality in When Marnie Was There is not that it seems to be.

  • After Anna returns, Marnie decides to take her to a party hosted at the mansion, where folks are ornately dressed in evening attire, conversing about whichever topics are befitting of society’s upper echelons. Anna plays the role of a flower girl at Marnie’s request, but shyness overtakes her and she flees. She downs a glass of wine here, initially unaware that it’s wine. During the course of my travels in Cancún, I discovered that I’m okay with cocktails, so perhaps there’s something about beer that I’m not able to process.

  • Marnie and Anna share a dance under the moonlight following Marnie’s dance with Kazuhiko. After the party, Anna is found asleep near the post office with no recollection of how she got there. The reality of Marnie’s existence remains a question throughout When Marnie Was There, although it is my opinion that this aspect is not explored further because it’s not directly important to the main story.

  • Differentiating what is reality in When Marnie Was There can be a bit of a challenge, but some scenes plainly happen in reality: here, Anna has breakfast with the Oiwas. In an earlier post, I mentioned that I was eyeing the NVIDIA GTX 1070 as a replacement for my aging card (mainly so I can play DOOM and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided The Way It’s Meant To Be Played™), but I later learned that mid-range, more affordable GTX 1060 will be releasing in two day’s time. I’m sticking to 1080p gaming for the foreseeable future, and on second thought, I don’t think I can justify buying a 600 dollar video card just for two games, so I’m now going to try and purchase the GTX 1060. The smaller price point and (near) 980 performance means this card should be more than enough for what I’m looking to do with it.

  • This interior shot of the Oiwa’s kitchen provides yet another example of how detailed interiors in When Marnie Was There are: the only other animated features with this level of detail comes from Makoto Shinkai’s movies. His latest film, Kimi no na wa, is set to release on August 26. The film was shown in advance at Anime Expo on July 3, but for the time being, it seems that discussion has been fairly limited at my usual haunts. The lack of spoilers is welcome, and I look forwards to checking this one out for myself in a little more than a month.

  • Hisako is an elderly lady living in the area who paints the landscapes around the town. She’s impressed with Anna’s sketches, despite Anna’s own dissatisfaction: from an external perspective, Anna is quite skilled with a pencil and manages to produce some excellent artwork of the mansion, as well as profiles of Marnie.

  • Sayaka is a girl who movies in to the Marsh House with her family. She wonders if Anna is Marnie, given the diary she’s found, and in a strange twist, the diary’s contents line up totally with everything Anna’s experienced up until now. Sayaka’s addition to the narrative throws an additional wrench into things, making it difficult to ascertain how Marnie is interacting with Anna, but because Anna and Sayaka both are intrigued by Marnie, their shared curiosity allows Anna to befriend Sayaka.

  • On a particularly fine day, Anna and Marnie hike through the woods: Marnie’s versed in outdoorsman skills to some extent and is munching on a wild mushroom here after ascertaining which of the two are safe to eat. As per Les Stroud’s Survivorman, mushrooms can be a bit of a gamble, so if one isn’t totally certain of a mushroom’s identity, it’s safer to not eat it. The mycotoxins are metabolites that have a range of effects, ranging from gastrointestinal discomfort in the mildest cases, to death.

  • Anna opens up fully to Marnie on their walk, explaining that she hates how her foster parents are being paid to look after her, and how she’s never really known her real parents. In turn, Marnie reveals that she makes her own life a little more fun than it is; her parents are hardly ever home, leaving the nanny and maids to frequently mistreat her, threatening to lock her in an abandoned grain silo near the mansion.

  • Thus, Anna resolves to help Marnie overcome her fear of the silo, and the two set out together. The skies darken, resembling the weather we’ve had for the past week. According to family and friends, the weather in Calgary’s been unpleasant since I left for Cancún, with frequent downpours, thunderstorms and even the odd funnel cloud recorded. The weather’s been so poor that the Calgary Stampede has offered reduced admission prices on consecutive days, although so far, they are still reporting that attendance has been down 80 000 people compared to last year.

  • Reality seems to distend here as Marnie flashes in and out of existence. Anna later finds her trapped and offers to walk her down, but Marnie is rescued by Kazuhiko. Feeling betrayed, Anna rushes home but succumbs to the storm’s ferocity and her own exhaustion. By this point, I personally think that the tranquility of the landscape and region, permeated with the strong memories from the Marsh House, creates a psychological landscape that imprints Marnie’s memories and experiences into Anna, who sees things from her dreams.

  • After locating the missing pages of the diary, Sayaka is able to deduce that Anna’s accompanying Marnie to the grain silo and locates Anna, collapsed along the path and sporting a fever. Sayaka and her brother help bring her back to the Oiwa residence, where she can recuperate. In her dreams, she meets with Marnie again, and in spite of herself, she manages to forgive her.

  • The next morning, Sayaka drops by to visit Anna. Thanks to Marnie’s memories, the two are able to meet and become friends, helping Anna overcome her mistrust of people. Sayaka and Anna share a conversation with Hisako, who tells the full story of the Marsh House and Marnie. Because Hisako seems to know Marnie well, I imagine that she’s the other girl that Marnie mentions in her diary.

  • It turns out that Anna is Marnie’s grand-daughter, which could account for why the area leaves such an impression on Anna. In a manner of speaking, When Marnie Was There is ultimately about how a grandmother helps guide her granddaughter along the path to understanding and recovery, as well as to help her discover friendship. Supernatural elements are completely absent from When Marnie Was There, but the final message remains a very moving one.

  • I imagine that Anna is able to experience particularly vivid dreams about Marnie as a consequence of being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the area; coupled with the knowledge that Marnie told her numerous stories when Anna was a child, the combined sensory aspects would trigger her memories, resulting in Anna being able to experience things like the party and Marnie’s sojourn to the silo as though she was there for herself. Since I’m two years too late to the party, though, I wonder what folks who’d watched the movie back during 2014 have to say about this particular assessment.

  • Thus, with all loose ends resolved, Anna finally understands and accept that her foster parents love her as dearly as they would their own child: Anna calls Yoriko “mother” for the first time in the film, and becomes at peace with her situation. As the summer draws to a close, Anna bids farewell to Sayaka, promising to return again next summer and also makes amends with Nobuko.

  • I love the ending song (“Fine on the Outside” by Priscilla Ahn), as I completely relate to it. Now that I’m drawing close to the end of this review, it seems that I’ll probably be doing most of my blogging on the weekends as time permits. Coming up next will be a talk on Pure Pwnage Teh MovieAmanchu! after three episodes, the last of the Aria: The Avvenire OVAs and, when I finish, Yuuki Yuuna Is A HeroPure Pwnage Teh Movie will be fun to write about, and I’m looking forwards to seeing what happens next in Amanchu!

  • I’ve seen that the latest installment in Strike Witches (this appears to be the third season), Brave Witches, is set for release in October 2016. With around three-and-a-half months between today and then, I will have settled into my schedule for sure by then, and there might just be time for episodic reviews. For now, though, the weekend’s just about over, and it’s time for another work week to begin. I spent most of it working on the revisions to my thesis, but nonetheless, I’m now feeling (mostly) rested and with that being said, let’s get it!

Altogether, When Marnie Was There is a fantastic film from a narrative and technical perspective: this is a movie that earns a strong recommendation. I’ve heard from unverified sources that When Marnie Was There is going to be the last film that Studio Ghibli will produce; on the infinitesimal chance that this holds true, When Marnie Was There is a film that can act as a proper send-off for Studio Ghibli, weaving a wondrous story that remains grounded in reality. This film has motivated me to go read through Robinson’s original novel, which is set in Norfolk, England rather than Sapporo, Japan, but the overall plot is supposed to be quite similar. I will reiterate that this film is definitely worth watching for audiences of all ages and interests: there’s not much more I can really say about this spectacular film that proved to be a fantastic, if somewhat tear-inducing way of passing time during a flight. Next time, I’ll be a little wiser and watch a Studio Ghibli film from home on a large HD screen, although back on the ground, I doubt I will be able to use the excuse of air pressure differences as the reason for my tears.

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