Nota Bene

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May 12, 2015

A Girl's Story: "When Marnie Was There"

Anna is the main character in Hiromasa Yonebayashi's When Marnie Was There.
(Photo courtesy of distributor GKids)
I am not generally attracted to animated features, but when I read about the plot of Hiromasa Yonebayashi's When Marnie Was There, I decided to attend a press screening. It is a rare movie in which a girl is aided in her quest for identity by another girl. I was completely absorbed in the film, at first because of its lush colors and cinematography—and then because Anna, its protagonist, is such a complex character. When Marnie Was There is quite simply one of the best movies for young adults that I have seen in recent years, and it is opening next week.

Anna, who is 12 years old, is an adopted child. She is also a talented artist, yet she is so insecure and fearful that she develops a terrible case of anxiety. Her mother, fearing for her well-being, decides Anna needs a rest from their life in the city. She sends her to family friends, empty nesters who live in a seaside village. The movie, which is based upon the book by British author Joan G. Robinson (1910-1988), switches the setting to Hokkaido. Near an abandoned house on the village marsh, Anna meets a girl named Marnie who helps her to realize the sense of belonging that is the object of her quest.

Adapted by female screenwriter Keiko Niwa, the film was produced at one of Japan’s famous animation studios, Ghibli, which also produced Spirited Away (2001). Strong female characters, including Anna’s mother, and the compassionate but eccentric “grandmother” who protects Anna from the wrath of a villager, make When Marnie Was There a delightful movie for young women. A measure of its emotional power is that at the end of the screening, I turned to a male critic seated next to me and caught him dabbing at his eye with a tissue. Neither of us had ever felt so moved by an animated character.