My notes on the affecting Studio Ghibli ghost story Omoide no Mânî (When Marnie Was There).Joan G. Robinson’s children’s book was set in Norfolk, and is a cross-generational ghost story about lonely children – with an inevitably MR Jamesian sense of landscape. The novel had been transformed by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi into a Studio Ghibli animation that shifts the setting to Japan – with a few tiny suggestions that blonde Marnie and blue-eyed Anna might be at least part-foreign – and is very specific about its new location (only SG can put such love into recreating the tiles of a Japanese railway station or the type of grass on a hill overlooking a bay) while it addresses universal themes with its delicate, sensitive, deeply emotional storytelling.
The match between genteel English fiction and Japanese animation is surprisingly apt – both forms sidle up to deep subjects and drop hints, rather than wallow in the manner American pop culture prefers. This gets you to cry by not telling you that you should but leading the audience gently through a story with many ups and downs. Asthmatic Anna Sasaki (voiced by Sara Takatsuki), an adopted child, is shy and draws a lot, but her loneliness is at least in part due to her unwillingness to make friends and her credible, sad insistence on not committing to her foster mother (whom she calls her aunt) as the woman has to her. After collapsing in a playground and a spell in hospital, Anna is sent to the country to stay with earthy, likeable relatives and gradually comes to love the landscape (a view from the window of the comforting room she has inherited from a grown-up daughter) and particularly an old house across a marsh where she sees Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), a girl from a different time who has seldom-seen socialite parents and isn’t well-treated by a grandmother and nasty twin maids.
In parallel with The Moondial, The Amazing Mr Blunden and several other YA stories probably influenced by Robinson, the story proceeds as the modern girl slips into the past and is around while Marnie’s life rolls towards inevitable tragedy (involving a storm and a tower-like stone grain silo) … which turns out not to be the death that turned her into a ghost but a more realistic, perhaps even sadder outcome that leads to a subsequent family history that feeds into Anna’s present life and prompts the heroine to change in small ways that are for the better. The screenplay by Yonebayashi, Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando is nuanced, playful and unusually good on depicting children the way they really are – in the country, Anna meets a large, bossy girl who organises trash clean-ups and would be a villain in an American movie but it’s a horrific moment when the heroine cruelly rejects the slightly overbearing but friendly girl by calling her a fat pig not because she hates her but because she’s in a phase of valuing the fantasy of Marnie’s friendship over any possible real attachment.
The idyllic, yet slightly disturbing bond between human and ghost – which almost shades into lesbian romance, though we twig early on that Marnie is Anna’s grandmother – is magical and charming, but shot through with sadness. Marnie, dressed up like a doll and indulged at glittering social events, idolises her parents, ‘but really she was horribly neglected’. The way this informs her own behaviour when she grows up and has a daughter who becomes Anna’s late mother is affecting – for all the flights of fantasy and wonder, the strength of the SG approach is in the depiction of relatable, believable behaviour by unsaintly kids and grown-ups, and running through this is the way that Anna is nudged towards making herself happier (and healthier) rather than traumatised further on the course to a Scrooge-like transformation. Oh, and it looks unutterably lovely throughout.