Japan’s beloved animation empire, Studio Ghibli, is apparently saying sayonara.
Its revered catalog of beautifully visualized, sensitively expressed children’s programming, which created the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” has been underperforming at box offices in Japan and internationally. True, they are often minimal on action, but always priceless in imagination. How regrettable it would be if such lushly hand-drawn 2-D movies were no longer available to young viewers who favor brash computer-generated films. The latter may look more realistic, but often feel far less.
Feeling is the central focus of “When Marnie Was There,” a modest adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel. Moving the action from the east of England to eastern Japan and moving the story to the present, it retains the basic themes.
Anna, a lonely foster child, never connected to the kind woman who took her in following the deaths of her mother and grandmother. Anna keeps her adoptive mother at arm’s length, calling her Auntie. Suffering a bout of asthma, she is sent away from the city for a fresh-air vacation, staying with a caring couple who encourage her to explore the sandy beach. On one of those tours she encounters a seaside mansion occupied by a charming girl named Marnie, who becomes Anna’s first friend.
Who is Marnie? That’s one of the film’s key questions. We watch it unfold shifting between modern scenes apparently genuine and others seemingly two generations old that suggest dreamlike memories. Marnie and Anna can meet either way. They connect quickly, but keep secrets from each other, and us. We wonder who Anna is at heart, whether Marnie’s welcoming attention will encourage her visitor to grow into a wise, caring and generous girl. And why would that be Marnie’s concern?
There are passages of anxiety here, with rising tides and thunderstorms that put the girls in moments of Gothic urgency, but they are few. This is a film defined by patience and attention, an adventure of emotional exploration. The feelings in play are as richly textured as the images, which can turn a plump housewife carving a vegetable meal into art. It is a love story, but not a romance. Boyishly cropped brunette Anna and exquisitely beautiful Marnie, her long blond hair fluttering, hold hands, exchange hugs and sometime need firm embraces to dry their tears. But what is developing between them is not a preadolescent crush. It’s the start of the friendship of a lifetime, a fantasy becoming real. Much like a Ghibli film.