Monday, February 1, 2016

When Marnie Was There: A poignant slice of Gothic Lite

When Marnie Was There (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, and pointlessly, solely because some characters smoke

By Derrick Bang

As has become a rather quirky custom in recent years, two of the recently announced Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature prompted bewildered frowns.

No surprise, since both are all but unknown on these shores.

After a rather clumsy attempt at traversing the flooded marsh, Anna, left, gratefully
accepts some rowing tips from her new best friend, Marnie.
Brazil’s Boy and the World has yet to achieve wide release in the States, although a few Northern California venues are scheduled to open it later this month. Japan’s When Marnie Was There supposedly received “limited release” last spring, after a few festival appearances ... but it sure never played anywhere near our neighborhood.

Fortunately, Marnie is readily available for home viewing, having been released on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 6. It’s definitely worth the rental — or purchase — as it’s yet another of Studio Ghibli’s elegant fantasies, with a touching story perfectly told via lush, hand-drawn animation.

More than anything else, Studio Ghibli’s animators always establish a firm sense of place. Our heroine spends the bulk of her saga on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, in a moody, wind-swept marshland that frequently floods with the ocean tide. Grass sways gently; flowers and trees dance in the breeze; water laps along the barren shore.

The film is based on British author Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel of the same title, which until Studio Ghibli’s interest had become almost impossible to find (along with most of her other books). Hayao Miyazaki cited it as one of his 50 recommended children’s books, and in late 2013 announced that his studio would bring it to the big screen.

This wide-ranging interest in classic children’s fiction comes as no surprise to longtime Studio Ghibli fans, since 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty was based on British author Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. That film was co-scripted by Miyazaki and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi; the latter has directed When Marnie Was There, and adapted it with co-scripters Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando.

They’ve done a lovely job.

Our young protagonist, Anna, is a typical Studio Ghibli heroine who feels disconnected from the rest of the world. With short hair and plain clothes, she looks more like a boy than a girl: likely a bit of emotional defiance every bit as protectively concealing as the plain face she displays at all times.

“Everyone else is inside: inside some sort of invisible magic circle,” she ponders, during a moment of interior reflection lifted directly from Robinson’s novel. “But I’m outside.”

Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki) lives in Sapparo and has no friends at school; she always sits alone, making accomplished sketches of what she observes, but disparaging such efforts and refusing to show them to anybody who displays interest or curiosity.

She comes by her withdrawn nature honestly; she’s an orphan who has repressed darker fears and feelings. She’s sullen at home, leading foster mother Yoriko (Nanako Matsushima) to worry about the girl’s health: a genuine concern, after Anna collapses during a serious asthma attack. As a result, Anna is sent to spend the summer with her foster mother’s sister and brother-in-law, Setsu (Toshie Negishi) and Kiyomasa (Susumu Terajima), who live in a rural seaside town where the air is fresh and the skies are clear.

This setting is almost antiquated: a bucolic region isolated from modern concerns and technology. A computer or smart phone would seem grotesquely out of place.

Anna frets, worrying that her foster parents are “dumping” her. But Setsu and Kiyomasa ignore her petulance and aura of quiet misery, treating her with warmth and jovial cheer. (Studio Ghibli stories always have one or two slightly exaggerated adults on hand for mild comic relief; Setsu and Kiyomasa fit that bill here.)

While exploring one day, Anna spots a huge mansion across the salt marsh; after wading over for a closer look, she finds it abandoned and empty. Setsu later explains that it once was a lavish vacation home for “some foreigners,” but that it has remained empty for years.

Although ... maybe not. At times, the estate seems gay and brightly illuminated, and Anna is certain that she sees a blond-haired girl through an upper bedroom window: the same girl who soon begins to haunt her dreams.

Then, on the night of the summer Tanabata festival — an excuse for the Studio Ghibli animators to further brighten their palette with opulently colored costumes and strings of lights and lanterns — Anna finally meets this mysterious apparition. This is Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), dressed in finery, and with a disconcerting talent for moving and behaving in a manner that seems to skirt physical limitations.

The girls become fast friends, each pledging to keep the other a secret. They meet more frequently, the radiantly merry Marnie gradually drawing Anna out of herself. On a coldly logical level, Anna knows that something is amiss, particularly when she’s invited to join a guest-laden party at the mansion. But she’s too enchanted by this new friendship — too mesmerized by Marnie — to risk spoiling things by asking hard questions.

By this point, though, we’re certain that something gently supernatural is at work. Add a spooky abandoned feed silo, howling winds and several gloomy, storm-tossed nights, and there’s no doubt why this film has been dubbed “Ghibli Gothic.” Substitute moors for the salt marsh, and we could be immersed in a playful riff on Wuthering Heights.

Savvy viewers likely will anticipate the “big reveal,” or at least get close; Yonebayashi and his co-scripters drop all sorts of hints. But the film isn’t driven solely by this central mystery; we also yearn to see Anna emerge from her self-imposed emotional prison, a subtle transformation akin to a slowly blooming flower.

As a result, Anna cautiously opens herself to the wider world. She meets Hisako (Hitomi Kuroki), an older woman who paints watercolor pictures of the marshland, and seems to know the area’s history. And when a new family moves into the mansion — which somehow doesn’t conflict with Marnie’s nighttime presence — Anna is unable to ignore the uninhibited overtures of their young daughter, Sayaka (Hana Sugisaki).

Particularly when the curious Sayaka finds Marnie’s diary, hidden in a drawer.

Yonebayashi gives his film a languid, thoughtful pace, as befits its gentle narrative. But I fear it’ll resonate almost solely with adolescent girls; young boys likely will sniff contemptuously and abandon ship within minutes. (Their loss.)

The film has been dubbed for American release by an all-new cast that includes Hailee Steinfeld (Anna), Geena Davis (Yoriko), John C. Reilly, Ellen Burstyn and Kathy Bates. Such high-caliber talent notwithstanding, it’s a mistake, as always has been the case with American dubs of Studio Ghibli films.

The original Japanese voice actors possess a delicate, reflective cadence that mirrors the films themselves; their American counterparts are, by comparison, loud, harsh and overstated. The dubbing simply doesn’t “fit” the atmosphere, and in fact works against the mood that Yonebayashi and the animators worked so hard to achieve.

So, if these comments have prompted a rental, be sure to watch the film in its original Japanese, with English subtitles. The latter aren’t always perfect; as one example, the subtitles give the frequent response hai all sorts of translations, apparently based on context, when the actual meaning — okay — would fit all circumstances. But since the narrative is driven by tone and visual storytelling as much as through dialog, it’s easy to get the essential broad strokes.

When Marnie Was There is more melancholic than most Studio Ghibli productions, but certainly no less absorbing or rewarding. The storyline is constructed as carefully as the verdant setting and stunning animation: definitely a worthy Oscar contender.

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