In one way of looking at things, it’s a great time to be a fan of Studio Ghibli. In the course of its history, the famed anime production house has often taken two years between releases, but the recent debut of When Marnie Was There marked the third Ghibli theatrical premiere in the last 12 months.

At the same time, studio co-founder and acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement from anime films also has plenty of long-time fans on edge. Still, we weren’t about to pass up the premiere of a new Ghibli movie, so we grabbed a ticket and went to see Marnie for ourselves.

Titled Omoide no Marnie (lit. “Marnie of Memories”) in Japanese, the film is an adaptation of the children’s novel by British author and illustrator Joan G. Robinson. The Ghibli film changes the setting from England’s Norfolk to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, but retains the basic premise of Robinson’s 1967 original. Even protagonist Anna’s name is the same, although the anime gives her the Japanese version of the name written in kanji characters.

Twelve-year-old Anna, voiced by actress Sara Takatsuki in her first anime role, has always had a frail constitution, and as the movie opens is spending the summer convalescing at a seaside village on the Hokkaido coast. In a nearby marsh stands a manor house, where one day Anna meets and befriends a blond-haired girl named Marnie, voiced by fellow anime newcomer Kasumi Arimura.

For Anna, who has largely closed off her heart to others, making a genuine friend is a profound experience, and the focus of the film is the deepening interpersonal relationship between the two girls. As Anna spends more time with Marnie, though, she becomes increasingly conscious of something unusual about her friend. Why is it that Marnie seems to disappear at times, or become suddenly frightened at others?

With the film’s spotlight placed squarely on the feelings two young girls have for each other, some may be tempted to label When Marnie Was There as belonging to the yuri subgenre of anime, which focuses on romantic love between women. That wasn’t the opinion our movie reporter, Kaori, came away with after watching the film, though. “Marnie is Anna’s first friend, so she’s very attached to her,” Kaori explains. “On top of that, there’s something undeniably mysterious about Marie…which makes Anna want to know more about her, and leads her to start unraveling the truth,” she told us after taking in the film for herself.

Visually, the film is unmistakably a Ghibli production in its character designs and overall animation quality. “Even more so than usual, a lot of care has gone into the building interiors,” reports Kaori, who found the green hues of Anna’s room and the plush furnishings of Marnie’s to be particularly memorable, as was the film’s lavish ballroom scene. The credit for this these likely goes to Yohei Taneda, an experienced live-action production designer who has dabbled in anime work before, but is serving as art director for an animated feature for the first time with Marnie.

This is only director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s second time helming a film, and his first directorial effort, 2010’s Arrietty, was produced when Miyazaki was still a full-fledged Ghibli staff member (not that Miyazaki’s retirement has stopped him from dishing out advice at his old workplace). Nonetheless, Kaori had high praise for Yonebayashi’s ability to craft the sort of atmosphere Marnie’s story demands. “Watching the film gives you a feeling of floating between reality and fantasy.”

While there’s no shortage of fans who’d love to see Yonebayashi grow into being “the next Miyazaki,” the Marnie director himself doesn’t seem to be interested in competing with or even necessarily emanating his legendary predecessor, as shown in comments he made to the media. “I don’t think I’m going to change the world with this film in the way that Miyazaki has,” he asserted. “Coming after The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, both of which were directed by true masters [Hayao Miyazaki and long-time Ghibli director Isao Takahata, respectively], I’m simply trying to make a Studio Ghibli film for children once again.”

Kaori concurs, noting that in comparison to Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s newest films contain profound messages and themes for adults to mull over, Marnie, like Arrietty before it, has a smaller, more intimate focus. This doesn’t mean the movie is strictly for children, though. “As we grow up, we tend to lock a part of ourselves away, deep inside our hearts. Watching When Marnie Was There, though, I could feel it starting to reawaken.”

Sounds like Ghibli’s post-Miyazaki era is off to a good start to us.
[ Read in Japanese ]