In a moment late into When Marnie Was There, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi relinquishes what has heretofore been a carefully plotted and paced narrative, opting instead for a montage of illustrative backstory that all too neatly pinpoints the film’s thematic concerns regarding traumatic childhoods, culminating in one character actually having to define “sanitarium” for another. That the flashbacks are provided via a character previously glimpsed in a brief prior scene is peculiar; although the certainty likely benefits the target audience for the film’s GKIDS label, it plays as a negation of Yonebayashi’s moderately developed interests in ethnicity and youthful sexuality.
The director’s latest is far less visually elongated and more rooted in the quotidian existence of a young child than his previous film, The Secret World of Arrietty, and at first plays like a refresher and throwback to Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, before revealing itself to be less minimal than minor. The compositions are detailed, but modest, with a lakeside residence in Kushiro serving as the film’s primary setting. Anna (Sara Takatsuki) is 12 and has been sent there for the summer to stay with some relatives, since her parents in the city think she needs a change of scenery, which allows Yonebayashi to meticulously animate the fields of grass and serene lakes of the film’s pastoral setting. Anna is rather sedentary; she draws on a park bench while the other children run around a playground. Yet her mind, the film seems to suggest, is anything but, as her imagination and introspective claim that “I hate myself” bring on an asthma attack which prompts her being shipped away for the summer.
Although the characterization plays mildly stereotypical for its insistence that physical inactivity and creativity are synonymous, Yonebayashi carefully constructs Anna’s psychology, as when she needlessly apologizes to her parents for the cost of the doctor’s visit. Moreover, brief glimpses of Anna vigorously sharpening a pencil while sitting in bed imply a pent-up energy that, for her, has only been able to find release through a visualizing of the surrounding, exterior world, which doubles for her own interiority.
These are useful, potentially complex ideas that take further shape once Anna encounters a conspicuous mansion where young Marnie (Kasumi Arimura) lives, which provides solace to the two damaged souls who’ve previously sought unsuccessfully for partnership or, at least, friendship. That divide is on Yonebayashi’s mind, most notably in a scene where the more elegant, aristocratic Marnie dances with a young boy at a party, much to Anna’s chagrin. Except Anna is jealous of the boy, passively questioning whether or not Marnie enjoyed it, before Marnie insists that Anna dance with her. These are the seedlings of sexual infatuation for both girls, although the dance, which is drawn in close-up and focuses on both of their faces, remains a suggestion of these formations rather than a springboard into a more fully formed examination.
Race is broached a similar manner. When a woman remarks upon Anna’s blue eyes at a party, it becomes a moment of outrage for the girl, who fires back by calling the woman a “fat pig.” The insult, combined with her seeming discomfort with being of mixed ethnicity, acutely presents issues of body dysmorphia as one of the film’s primary concerns, which is further illustrated by Anna’s brown hair being contrasted with Marnie’s blonde. Marnie is the beacon of beauty for Anna, although the specifics of such an infatuation are left unfulfilled by the film’s twist ending, which reveals that—spoiler alert!—Marnie is actually the ghost of Anna’s grandmother, emerging as her child self to help Anna come to terms with her feelings of being an outsider. The reveal isn’t as problematic as the film’s handling of it, which reduces narrative formations to much simpler, digestible terms, effectively displacing them as tangential concerns to the less evocative supernatural conceit. Yet When Marnie Was There remains close to death even in its soft ending, since Anna’s troubles aren’t cured by the wave of a wand, but remain alive, as something that necessitates care, attention, and even the occasional mea culpa, which Anna provides as the film’s final offering.