Since its start nearly three decades ago, Studio Ghibli has been dominated by the creativity of co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. But since the turn of the millennium, five of its 10 feature films have been made by other, younger directors.
One reason is that Ghibli releases about one film a year, but Miyazaki and Takahata preferred a more deliberate pace. The gap between the two most recent Takahata films was 14 years, while Miyazaki spent five years on his last full-length animation, 2013’s “Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises),” before announcing his retirement in September 2013. Ghibli seems to have prepared for the inevitable changing of the guard by giving its younger animators chances to direct.
One of those directors, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, had a hit in 2010 with “Karigurashi no Arrietty (Arrietty)” and now, with his new animation “Omoide no Marnie (When Marnie Was There),” he has made the first Ghibli film without Miyazaki or Takahata’s names anywhere on the credits. Based on a 1967 children’s book by British writer Joan G. Robinson, it is also the studio’s first film with two heroines: Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki), an unhappy 12-year-old orphan who calls her kindly adoptive mother “aunt,” and Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), an outgoing, if mysterious, blonde-haired girl who Anna befriends while spending a summer on the Hokkaido coast with her mother’s relatives.
It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Marnie is not what she seems and that the story will be more than an ode to budding female friendship. It is, instead, a hybrid that combines familiar Ghibli elements — from meticulously observed details to gorgeously realized landscapes — with a script by Yonebayashi that departs from the concerns and motifs Miyazaki made his signatures.
That is, he has not tried to make a Miyazaki film by proxy, and “Marnie” is all the better for it. If this film is indicative of Ghibli’s future direction, Miyazaki can rest easy in retirement. (Takahata, aged 78, has yet to call it quits.) At the same time, Yonebayashi is no Miyazaki-like genius transcending the limits of his material with daring imaginative flights; he has turned in a solid adaptation, squarely aimed at girls the same age as his heroines, made with the sort of tugs to the heartstrings Miyazaki disdained (though he has loudly praised the film to the media).
Anna is a sensitive, socially awkward loner who barely cracks a smile to the warm-hearted couple caring for her over the summer in their cozy Hokkaido cottage. She has come to them for relief from her chronic asthma and, her worried adoptive mother hopes, to make friends with the neighborhood children.
Exploring a nearby inlet with sketchbook in hand, Anna happens on a large, dilapidated summer villa by the water that looks uninhabited — until she spies a girl behind a second-story window, having her long blonde hair brushed by an elderly woman.
Later, after a bruising encounter with a local girl at a town festival sends her running away angry and in tears, Anna returns to the inlet. This time she meets the blonde-haired girl, Marnie, who is eager to escape her gilded cage of a house that both fascinates and frightens Anna. Smilingly overcoming Anna’s initial shyness, Marnie quickly makes her a friend and confidante. “Let’s keep us a secret, forever,” she says, and Anna agrees.
Soon, Anna is telling Marnie things she has never told anyone, while Marnie introduces her to the nighttime revels at the villa, presided over by Marnie’s stylish socialite mother. In the daytime, however, the villa looks as abandoned as ever. What is going on here? A lonely girl’s unusually vivid fantasy/dream life? Perhaps a huge silo that terrifies the usually unflappable Marnie hold a clue?
All is finally illuminated, with a humanistic realism that is more Takahata than Miyazaki — see the former’s 1991 film “Omohide Poro Poro (Only Yesterday)” for a good example — though “Marnie” does not entirely escape the uncanny, or even want to. Scenes in the villa brought back memories of “The Shining,” though not the hotel’s terrifying Room 237. Meanwhile, Anna sees Marnie, not as an exotic Other but as a friend who, however elusive, is essential to her at the deepest level for both her present happiness and her future growth.
Is she real? Does it matter? Marnie rows the enraptured Anna about in a boat with brisk confidence, but she also teaches her to do it herself. That’s what counts, isn’t it?
Fun fact: Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s previous Ghibli film, “Kashigurashi Arrietty (Arrietty),” was also based on a work of fantasy by a British author: “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton. The 2010 film earned $145 million worldwide and won animation of the year at the 34th Japan Academy Prize awards.