When Marnie Was There

Historically, British children’s literature has been good for Japanese animation. Without it the Studio Ghibli canon certainly would be diminished — there’d be no Howl’s Moving Castle, no Secret World of Arrietty, and no glorious new adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 book, When Marnie Was There, from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Lucky for us, this cultural cross-pollination does indeed exist; in When Marnie Was There, it thrives. As if in sly defiance of easy adorability, this is the story of an asthmatic self-loathing prepubescent foster child with abandonment issues. 12-year-old Anna’s biological mother has died, and her foster mother has sent her away to another relative’s house by the seaside, where the air is better. There, roaming alone with her sketchbook in the gorgeous Ghibli countryside — and honestly, even an hour and a half of just this would be highly watchable — Anna meets Marnie, an ethereal blonde girl who apparently lives in an abandoned marsh-side mansion, accessible by foot only at low tide. A bit of mystery and some very intense bonding ensues. With seamlessly amalgamated imagery of Atlantic and Pacific seacoasts, the sense of place here is extraordinary. It’s in the details, and in the love of details: When Yonebayashi does an establishing shot of a train going by, it’s really to show the swaying pink flowers in the foreground. Most impressive, though, is how the place connects to character, as if only here could Anna ever really hope to work through her complex memories and feelings. Only here could such a dreamy combination of gothic ghost story, bumpy adolescent coming-of-age, and sweet pastoral romance be achieved.