The Girl in Blue
Alarm and consternation has gripped the organisers of populist-yet-slightly-art-housey film retrospectives across the land – can it really be true? Say it isn't so! How can a benevolent supreme being countenance such a thing? Yes, if the rumours are true, Japan's Studio Ghibli is ceasing operations. Considering that Ghibli's top wasabi Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement, this shouldn't necessarily come as a huge shock, but on the other hand there's (presumably) only so many times you can mount revivals of My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and all the other crowd-pleasers, without having the convenient hook of a new Ghibli movie to hang them on.
But here it is, the (possibly) final film under the Studio Ghibli marque, Hiromasa Yonebayashi's When Marnie Was There (J-title: Omoide no Mani, or Memories of Marnie). This is not the story of someone thinking back to the days when their local cinema was showing a problematic Hitchcock psycho-melodrama with Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, but a rather more nuanced story. Quite who it's going to play to other than die-hard Ghibli fanatics I'm not entirely sure, but anyway.
This is the story of Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki), a troubled young girl living in Sapporo, Japan. Suffering badly from asthma, amongst other things, her adoptive parents decide to send her to live with their relatives in the remote countryside, in a (fairly) idyllic lakeside village.
However, on her arrival Anna finds herself inexplicably drawn to the Marsh House, a luxurious mansion now falling somewhat into disrepair. Despite this, she sees there is a young fair-haired girl of around her own age living there, and the two become friends. The other girl is Marnie (Kasumi Arimura). Anna comes to realise that Marnie has troubles in her own life, and that perhaps the strange connection they feel may end up helping both of them...
Now, you're a smart and intelligent individual, questionable taste in online film criticism excepted, and you may well be wondering exactly why a Japanese animation would choose to name its two main characters Anna and Marnie: common names in the land at the root of the sun these are not. Well, the answer, which you may have already surmised, is that once again Studio Ghibli has looked beyond Japan for its source material. As with Howl's Moving Castle, Tales of Earthsea, and Arrietty, When Marnie Was There is based on an English-language novel – an actual English one in this case, written by Joan G Robinson and apparently much acclaimed (not that I've ever actually heard of it, of course). Transferring the story from the UK to Japan has been done fairly seamlessly, the odd thing with the names aside – the wilds of Norfolk become the remote countryside of Hokkaido with the greatest of ease.
Actually, realising that this was based on an English novel set in Norfolk almost helped me figure out why When Marnie Was There seemed a little familiar: there's the troubled visitor from the city, a delapidated and often inaccessible house out in the marshlands, a definite undercurrent of loneliness and desperation, a strong flavour of the supernatural... That said, while I suppose you could show When Marnie Was There in a double bill with The Woman In Black and the two would synergise quite nicely with each other, this is an altogether gentler and less disturbing piece with considerably fewer untimely deaths in it.
Which is not to say this is one to dump the tinies in front of while you slide off to grab a breather somewhere: from the very start, it is clear that this is a film concerned with serious, quite dark themes. Alienation, loneliness, depression, loss – all of these are central to the story and subtly woven into the narrative with the Ghibli writers' customary skill. Is it heavy going for a bit? Well, perhaps, but you almost expect a challenging narrative from this studio – this is actually quite lightweight compared to some of their past projects – and the conclusion of the story is ultimately a positive one. This is a ghost story where the past is embodied not as a monster seeking to wreak vengeance, but as a source of answers and understanding.
By western standards the story does feel a little unfocused – is there supposed to be a big moment of revelation when we discover one of the characters is a ghost? It doesn't feel like it, plus the audience would really have to be very slow not to guess the film's final revelation long before it's made – and perhaps also lacking in incident. But set against this there is the usual Ghibli mastery of form – these people do make the most beautiful animated films in the world. Even then, I did feel there wasn't a whole lot going on here I hadn't seen before – there's the bit where the wind stirs the long grass, the incredibly busy and detailed crowd scenes, the loving depictions of meals being prepared and consumed – all of it meticulously done, but somehow lacking in the visionary touch of the fantastic that marks out their best films.
When Marnie Was There is beautiful to look at, of course, and laden with all the essential storytelling virtues, of course. No-one could accuse Studio Ghibli of departing with a sub-standard production. But at the same time this is solid rather than anything really special – it's easy on the eye, and passes the time very pleasantly. It's just not truly exceptional in the way the studio's work has so often been in the past.