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Film Review: When Marnie Was There

Updated on February 22, 2016
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Review written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.


In 2014, Hiromasa Yonebayashi released When Marnie Was There, based on Joan G. Robinson’s novel of the same name. It premiered in the United States at the New York International Children’s Film Festival in 2015. Starring Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Hana Sugisaki, Hitomi Kuroki, Ryoko Moriyama, Nanako Matsushima, Susumu Terajima, Toshie Negishi, and Kazuko Yoshiyuki with Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Ava Acres, Vanessa L. Williams, Catherine O’Hara, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly, and Katy Bates providing English voices, the film grossed 3.63 at the Japanese box office. Winner of the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival Award for Best Animated Feature Film, the film was nominated for the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year, the Annie Awards for Best Animated Feature – Independent, Directing in an Animated Feature Production, and Writing in a Feature Production and the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.


Introverted Anna alienates herself from the rest of her peers and is severely asthmatic, finding solace in her drawings. To aid her health, Anna’s foster parents send her to some relatives in a rural seaside town. There, Anna becomes fascinated by a manor in the marsh next to the village. Though it’s abandoned and run-down upon her first visit, Anna finds it full of life and light on her second meeting a blonde girl named Marnie that looks exactly like a girl from her dreams. And only Anna can see her.


When Marnie Was There is yet another fantastic film from Studio Ghibli and the fifth to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. As per usual for the studio’s films, it has wonderful characters and Anna has great character development which really plays into the film’s coming of age story. She initially starts off the story as isolated with abandonment issues, believing that her foster family took her in for nothing more than a steady government paycheck. As a result, she generally keeps to herself. However, after spending a fair amount of time with Marnie, Anna is changed by the experience with seeing much of herself in the other. In the interactions, she’s able to open up more. Further, her learning about what her biological family went through, she’s able to appreciate her foster family and overcomes her belief that her biological family just abandoned her and that said family was only interested in the paycheck. What makes her whole character arc great is how realistic and engaging it is.

Now, Marnie as a character is also very interesting as she’s not the typical plucky girl who puts on a smile despite her past. And her past is quite the troubled one as her parents are never there and the maids and governess do nothing but abuse her. What makes her so different though is how she’s actually the spirit of Anna’s long departed grandmother and is a result of Marnie promising that she’d never leave Anna. What’s more is that she winds up being an interesting deconstruction of the missing parent plot device. She ends up leaving after her only romantic interest, Kazuhiko, died and she had to be sent to a sanatorium in order to regain her sanity. As a result, her daughter, Emily (who was Anna’s biological mother) was sent to an orphanage. Upon the two reuniting, Emily and Marnie’s relationship became strained because the latter was never there and Marnie feels that she failed because she didn’t spend enough time with Emily. Her character arc ties together nicely with Anna’s as Marnie’s demeanor is part of what helps Anna to come out of her shell. Further, their time together shows Anna what her biological family was like and it helps her in coming to terms with her foster family. It’s all very well done.

Marnie being the spirit of Anna’s biological grandmother provides a very notable connection between the two. While at first it seems like there’s quite a lot of romantic tension between the two and when it becomes apparent that Marnie is Anna’s grandmother, that tension becomes seemingly odd. However, that tension becomes diffused when it’s clear that not only did Marnie help Anna be able to open up more, Anna helped Marnie by being a stand-in for Kazuhiko. As such, Anna is able to help Marnie feel like she is able to move on and deal with Kazuhiko’s death. It’s quite a heartwarming notion to see both girls help each other move on in death and in life.

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