There are no walking houses, magical forest creatures or one-way trains to the spirit world in “When Marnie Was There,” but that doesn’t mean Studio Ghibli’s latest animated feature — and some fear its last — isn’t brimming over with its own unique sense of enchantment. In this demure Japanese adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s decidedly British ghost story, a withdrawn teen befriends a mysterious blonde girl who may or may not actually exist. Following news of Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, this lovely and relatively low-key drama from potential successor Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“The Secret World of Arrietty”) has cast the studio’s own status into question.
A strong box office showing would have gone a long way to encourage the Ghibli team to keep the pipeline open, but local interest has been disappointingly soft for “Marnie” (whose $31.1 million domestic showing pales compared with the $120-220 million Miyazaki pics earn), and the view from the top seems to be that producing quality hand-drawn animation is too labor-intensive to continue long-term. Still, ceasing such activity altogether would be a far greater loss, as this latest project plainly demonstrates.
By no means an essential addition to the Ghibli oeuvre, “Marnie” nevertheless represents yet another splendid escape from the increasingly strenuous glut of computer-animated offerings, this one designed to serve as family entertainment after the more adult-skewing likes of “The Wind Rises” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (and it’s notably the first produced without the involvement of either Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, who directed those two other films, respectively). The story centers on a tomboy named Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki) who doesn’t have any close friends at school; nor can she relate to the pretty and popular girls in her class.
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Timid yet clearly not without talent, Anna spends her free time drawing. She feels disconnected from her peers and, to some extent, from her foster mother, who frets about Anna’s recent fit of asthma attacks, ultimately sending the young girl to spend some time with her adoptive grandparents in Hokkaido, the large island at the northern tip of the crescent-shaped country — an intriguing substitute for the novel’s rustic Norfolk setting.
There in Hokkaido, Anna finds the freedom to explore the area for herself, which of course is one of the great pleasures of a story like this for audiences patient enough to appreciate the change of pace — one that allows us to revel in the hand-painted backgrounds and carefully rendered flora and fauna. Anna’s solitary perambulations lead her to an abandoned villa overlooking the marsh. There’s something about the way the sun hits the house that serves as its own invitation. When the tide is low, Anna can easily cross to the odd building, and being a naturally curious child, she does exactly that, discovering to her astonishment an unhappy-looking blonde girl in the upstairs window.
Who is this young lady? And why can’t anyone else see her? As far as the locals are concerned, the big house has been abandoned for years, but when Anna approaches, the clock turns back, and the rooms fill with life. Rather than react in fear, Anna is drawn to the mystery, making tentative contact and then fast friends with the strange girl (Kasumi Arimura), whose name is Marnie — or “Mah-nee,” as Anna says it with her soft Japanese accent.
In translating Robinson’s YA novel to the bigscreen, Yonebayashi (whose colleagues call him “Maro”) has worried less about potential cultural differences than those that exist between the two mediums. In essence, he has transposed the story, with its haunted windmill on the hill and sibylline blonde at the window — who could be a ghost or an imaginary friend or something altogether different — halfway around the world, holding fast to a certain Europeanness in the process (certainly, Marnie’s straw-colored hair isn’t standard in Japan). And yet, the essence of Anna and Marnie’s interactions shifts, changing from long, intimate conversations that flower on the page into more visual expressions, such as hand holding, secret sharing and late-night excursions via rowboat, just the two of them.
This sort of girls-only compact is not so uncommon among children’s stories, as seen in last year’s “Frozen” and, to cite an almost certain influence (if not the direct inspiration to make this film), in the same-sex kinships seen in Nippon Animation’s “Anne of Green Gables” TV series, overseen by Ghibli’s own Takahata some 35 years earlier. The young women’s connection is perfectly innocent, and yet, there’s something intense enough about short-haired Anna’s single-minded fixation on her blonde companion — the true basis of which emerges through a series of revelations and reversals late in the film — that could support alternate readings, the way lesbian audiences have embraced Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.”
But “Marnie” is about friendship, and the bond that brings Anna around to socializing with other girls her age. Yonebayashi’s open-hearted tale, more than any other Ghibli offering, could conceivably have worked just as well in live-action, and yet the tender story gains so much from the studio’s delicate, hand-crafted approach. Bursting with color and detail, buoyed along and uplifted by pianist Takatsugu Muramatsu’s feather-light score, the film’s traditional animation style gives the already old-fashioned narrative an even more timeless feel. Instead of marking what could be the end of an era, it arrives almost like a classic heirloom, uncovered and restored for contemporary eyes, a reminder of the craftsmanship and care that Ghibli always put into cel animation — once upon a time, when Marnie was there.