Joan Gale Robinson, author of the well-known Teddy Robinson series of children’s books, also wrote a novel for young readers titled When Marnie Was There in 1967. A contender for the Carnegie Medal that year, it had a darker, more complex story than any of her previous fictional works. In a book review published in The Guardian (‘Charley’, Hannah Carter, September 29, 1969), the reviewer offers details of Robinson’s childhood and how it inspired the creation of the story. Joan’s parents were nonconformists – they thought it best for their daughter to grow up in a dreary neighborhood where life was dull, if not extremely lonely. Books were her only companions. To make matters worse, she never got to experience the warmth of her mother’s affection. Joan’s mother was, in her own words, “unget-at-able”: aloof and somewhat preoccupied with her own mental issues.
When Marnie Was There gave the author an opportunity to look at her own problems, and writing the story finally helped her work through them. The narrative centers on a young girl, Anna, who is a foster child. She feels lost and abandoned: “She knew perfectly well that things like parties and best friends and going to tea with people were fine for everyone else, because everyone else was ‘inside’ – inside some sort of invisible magic circle. But Anna herself was outside.” The reader is eventually taken on a journey to witness her self-discovery and transformation. It was written with the intention of reaching out to young readers, but it contains subtle messages and intriguing mysteries that all ages can cherish.
Studio Ghibli is well-known for its thought-provoking, beautiful, intricately detailed, hand-drawn animation films. Films like Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988), My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989), Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001), or Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004) are today household names. Spirited Away won the prestigious Golden Bear in 2002 and the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003. In November 2014, Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli and a director of many animated films produced by the studio, was presented with an Academy Honorary Award for his significant influence on animation and cinema.
Throughout his career, Miyazaki had always been devoted to stories with deeper meanings – stories that entertain while leaving a lasting impression on the reader. In his list of 50 essential children’s books, When Marnie Was There finds a place. Miyazaki selected it for Studio Ghibli to adapt.
From Page To Screen
Hiromasa Yonebayashi was chosen to direct the adaptation. He had previously helmed The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) for Studio Ghibli and was no stranger to adapting works of fiction to animation. The Secret World of Arrietty was adapted from Mary Norton’s popular fantasy novel The Borrowers (1952). Yonebayashi initially thought capturing the delicate nuances of the conversations from Robinson’s book in an animated movie would be challenging. But as he revisited the book, he realized how he could create a one-of-a-kind adaptation. The film was shown in 2014 in theaters. It won the Children’s Jury Award at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival in 2015. In 2016, it was nominated in the Best Animated Feature of the Year category at the 88th Academy Awards and in the Best Animated Feature – Independent category at the Annie Awards.
Yonebayashi’s adaptation of When Marnie Was There shows a 12-year-old Anna as an introvert, constantly struggling with self-doubt and self-hatred. Her problems intensify with age. After she loses her parents at a young age, she’s raised by her grandma who too died of illness and heartbreak. Anna spent a part of her life in an orphanage. She was later adopted by Yoriko Sasaki (Mrs. Preston in the book), her foster mother in the film.
Yonebayashi moved the story’s location from Britain (Norfolk) to Japan (Hokkaido) and made the characters Japanese. It also gave the director an opportunity to explore different themes. By setting the story in Japan, Yonebayashi could showcase the unique beauty of the landscape and the culture of the people.
Anna travels to the countryside to recover from asthma attacks in both the novel and the animated film. In both versions of the story, Anna’s foster mother takes this step, hoping it will change her attitude and behavior. Anna typically exhibits an indifferent attitude towards Yoriko. She wears what she describes as an “ordinary face” – masking any emotion with a blank expression.
The only significant change in her character in the film is that she likes to sketch pictures. This may have been done to give Anna a sense of identity and perhaps direction in her life. The book portrays her as a lost soul while When Marnie Was There chooses not to portray Anna’s difficulties at excelling in studies – she is described as having a problem of “not-even-trying.” People constantly deride her. The anime avoids this side of the story. Studio Ghibli, interestingly, gave Anna blue eyes, lending an air of mystery to her origins. Blue eyes in Japan are sometimes considered a sign of being a ‘foreigner’.
Anna is sent to spend the summer with Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa, her foster mother Sasaki’s relatives (in the book they are Mr. and Mrs. Pegg, friends of Mrs. Preston), who live in an idyllic village near Kushiro. The hand-drawn images provide the story vibrancy, showcasing lush greenery and crystalline waters. Anna is drawn to a house that sits all alone near the marshes. She feels she knows the house from somewhere. Like in the book, Anna wanders about the village, discovering its nooks and crannies. This village is picturesque, with greenery and saltwater marshes. The atmosphere is usually uplifting. But even there, Anna initially feels a sense of melancholy as she walks through the village – according to Robinson’s book, “It was one of those still, gray, pearly days, with no wind, when sky and water seemed to merge into one, and everything was soft and sad and dreamy.”
The anime depicts Anna drawing the picture of the Marsh house soon after she gets to the village. She is captivated by it, as it triggers her childhood memories and ignites her imagination. She still avoids interacting with people, opting instead to sketch on her own. The Oiwas are a lovely couple who give Anna a lot of space. They are more tolerant of Anna’s idiosyncrasies than in the book, where Mrs. Pegg occasionally rebukes Anna for her sullen behavior. In the animated film, Anna meets Nobuko, the daughter of the neighbors, who is almost the same age as Anna. In the book, Mrs. Pegg (Mrs. Oiwa in the film) loves Anna but is somewhat taken aback by her quirks and withdrawn demeanor.
Yonebayashi added some local touches, such as when Anna and Nobuko meet at the Tanabata festival. Rooted in a Chinese myth, Tanabata marks the reunion of two star-crossed lovers, Vega and Altair, typically separated by the Milky Way, on the seventh day of the seventh month. Vega and Altair were originally Princess Orihime (a beautiful seamstress) and Hikoboshi (a cowherd) who lived on opposite sides of the celestial river. The mystical feel of the Tanabata festival adds to the film’s charm, inducing a feeling of wonder and the possibility of wishes being granted, especially when the character of Marnie appears.
While walking, Anna gets increasingly irritated by Nobuko’s questions. She’s self-conscious, and when asked about her blue eyes, her fragile patience breaks. Although Nobuko‘s curiosity appears to be that of a naturally inquisitive girl, Anna likely misinterprets it as a slight to her. She lashes out at Nobuko by calling her “a fat pig” and runs away.
Anna’s self-hatred is portrayed thoughtfully and realistically in the anime. It remains faithful to its source material, but also expands a bit on it, and makes it relatable in our ultra-modern society. The book mentions Anna’s disgust with herself and tells the reader, “… [she] hated her own dark hair and sun-burnt skin.” Anna, in the Ghibli animation, also has issues about how she looks and behaves. She tells herself, “[I’m] ugly, stupid, moody and unpleasant… that’s why I hate myself.” As teenagers mature, it is common for them to experience self-doubt and emotional turmoil. But Anna’s feelings are so intense that at some points she’s almost suicidal, without even realising it. The anime shows us the extreme intensity of her feelings but avoids depicting it explicitly.
After her unpleasant interaction with Nobuko, Anna runs to the marshes and breaks down. She has flashbacks of her childhood: unpleasant memories of her relatives arguing after her grandmother’s death. None of them wants to take on the responsibility of an orphaned child. She is still very young, but an incident like this can leave a lasting impression on a child. The animation here is brilliant, no less detailed and well-thought-out than any live-action film: Anna sits alone in a corner clutching a toy, dwarfed by the crowd. She is isolated and terrified as no one pays any attention to her. The director deftly introduced this event, which was not in the original story.
Although the author deals with the darker side of human emotions in her book and the sudden loneliness a child might face in a foster home, she chooses not to delve too much into this aspect of the life of an orphaned child. Yonebayashi incorporated this scene in the film to fill some gaps in the story and provide a more realistic picture in the end. After sobbing at the marsh’s edge, Anna opens her eyes to a swaying boat in the water. The night’s darkness is broken by the lighted candle on the boat. She rows it to the Marsh house, where she finally meets Marnie. Marnie steps in to secure the boat, preventing Anna from capsizing. Meeting Marnie is a significant turning point in Anna’s life.
The Girl In The Window
Anna had once seen a girl through the windows of the Marsh house, but in a dream. Marnie has blonde hair and blue eyes. The director leaves the why of this a mystery, open to the viewer’s interpretation. Perhaps her blue eyes are suggestive of her connection to Anna. The relationship between Marnie and Anna slowly blossoms into a beautiful friendship. Anna experiences the unfamiliarity of human contact after a long time, probably since she was but a child and had not yet built a barrier around her. Marnie is a cheerful soul. She delights in her time spent with Anna, which involves rowing a boat, foraging for mushrooms, and picnics. This beautiful pastoral landscape rich with color dramatized in the anime perhaps reflects her desire for peace and happiness.
We soon learn that Marnie has problems of her own. While she is an outgoing and jolly child, she, too, suffers silently. Her parents are wealthy, and often get her beautiful, expensive presents. But material things can’t compensate for the lack of parental affection. Her parents are almost never home. Her mother does not appear to have a lot of maternal warmth and love. She carries out her duties as superficially as possible.
Marnie is looked after by a Nanny and two maids. She’s often told ghost stories, which terrorize her; the maids use her fear to control her. The nanny inflicts pain on Marnie when she combs her hair; the aim being to keep Marnie ever fearful of the pain. Marnie adores her parents, but deep down, she feels lonely and unloved. She tells Anna, “I am jealous of you. You are lucky to be a foster child… the folks who took you in as a daughter must be truly kind-hearted people.”
Marnie is Anna‘s “secret friend.” They both wish to keep their friendship private. We’re also shown this in the book. It appears that they have little faith in adults.
Marnie has a special place in Anna’s heart, but she also puzzles Anna. Often, she appears out of nowhere, and sometimes disappears just as suddenly. At times, she does not show up at all. Anna is consistently caught between her desired trust and swaying doubts. Her character in the anime also tends to give off the impression that perhaps she’s only a character from Anna’s dream. This dream-like atmosphere is effectively evoked in the anime. When Marnie asks Anna about the family she is living with, Anna is left feeling perplexed, struggling to distinguish between what is real and what is not.
The sense of her other ‘reality’ is disturbed whenever Anna is with Marnie. She appears to be living in two different worlds. At the same time, things often also seem very real – the parties, the picnics, the walks on the village beach. Towards the end, she concludes Marnie was only a figment of her imagination.
Anna meets another girl named Sayaka (Priscilla, in the book), the daughter of the family that has just moved into the Marsh house. She takes a liking to the girl and tells her she believes, “Marnie is…someone I made up.” Marnie’s secret is not revealed until the very end of the film. Whether Marnie is a ghost or just a figment of Anna’s imagination is not entirely clear to the viewer. The film has an air of supernatural mystery, with the Marsh house looking abandoned, one day and alive and full of people, the next.
This much is certain: Marnie has a positive effect on Anna. She’s kind and understanding, always trying to bring Anna out of her shell, even if Anna is a little suspicious, every now and then. Marnie is shown to have a love interest in a young man named Kazuhiko (named Edward in the book). At first, Marnie tells Anna that she’s a little bothered by Kazuhiko’s caring behavior, but Anna probably can see that Marnie is fond of him and takes his opinion seriously. Marnie confides in Anna about her terror of a nearby abandoned silo and how her maids frequently threaten to lock her up there. They even drag Marnie once to the silo in an attempt to lock her in, ultimately failing, but the incident leaves her scarred. Bullying and how it may emotionally afflict youngsters is an issue that appears in both the novel and the anime.
Confronting Inner Struggles
Anna finally persuades Marnie to accompany her to the silo to help overcome her fear. She reassures Marnie that the ghosts she fears are nothing but made-up stories. On their way to the silo, the weather suddenly turns foul. A thunderstorm batters the crumbling structure. Marnie is terrified, and Anna is upset too.
Anna is at an important juncture in her life. It seems Marnie has forgotten that she’s not with Kazuhiko and is talking to Anna as if she were him. Not long before, Anna was seen walking alone by Sayaka. To Anna, it seems like Marnie was walking with her until Sayaka called her; but she has vanished again.
Anna’s two worlds seem to collide. In the end, Kazuhiko rescues Marnie, but Anna is left alone. When she discovers this, she feels betrayed and angry. The animation artfully illustrates Anna’s intense emotional distress.
Anna escapes from the silo, the thunderstorm creating a hazardous situation. She trips and falls and becomes unconscious. Sayaka and her brother eventually rescue her. The book also depicts this incident, where Anna is badly hurt and rescued by a neighbour. It also mentions the phrase which Anna saw in the house she was staying in, “Hold fast that which is Good” – these words come suddenly to her mind when she is in the silo, alone. The words have a powerful meaning when considering Anna’s rekindled troubled feelings about her past – letting go of the pain is the only way she can move on.
Anna is hurt by Marnie’s behavior and doesn’t understand why she’s left alone again. It rekindles Anna’s feelings of abandonment. She struggles with this until she meets Marnie again and learns that Marnie did not even see her there that day. It was as if Anna wasn’t there at all. Although she is bewildered, Anna feels their bond is so strong that she needs to move past this, and pretty soon ends up forgiving Marnie. It seems unlikely that they’ll ever meet again. They both need to say their last farewells.
The anime presents this as a dream sequence. This incident in Robinson’s book is more serious because it is presented as a real incident, and Anna almost drowns in the rising tide when she goes out to talk to Marnie. Yonebayashi has softened some of the darker elements of the book in his adaptation.
The Past Is (Mostly) Unveiled
After recovering from her ordeal, Anna discovers something about her past that surprises her at first, but eventually brings clarity. Marnie is her grandmother. The Marsh house was Marnie’s childhood home. The author of the book emphasizes logic when describing Anna’s dreams/supernatural experiences: Marnie would sing to Anna and share stories from her own childhood. She even had a photograph of the Marsh house that she probably showed to Anna. The link to the past is inevitable – it influences the present and lends it an ethereal quality. It is distinctly visible in the visual medium.
Despite all the explanations, many strange events remain difficult to explain. Was Anna’s experience only an echo of her memories? Is it really the spirit of Marnie returning to compensate for the times when she was unable to be with her grandchild? Or is it a combination of both? One may never know for sure! This sense of doubt and ambiguity is beautifully evoked in the anime.
Addressing Childhood Trauma
For a book that discusses children’s mental health, When Marnie Was There was way ahead of its time. It’s unafraid to explore the dark side of a child’s psyche, something perhaps unusual in the 60s. Yonebayashi, too, remarkably explores the themes of loneliness, self-doubt, hatred, and self-loathing that could be a result of past traumas in a child’s life.
He also explores how this curse has plagued generations of Anna’s family. Both her mother and grandmother were troubled by mental issues that negatively impacted their lives and their relationship with one another. But Anna finally breaks this chain of tragedy.
The story asks several questions. Who is accountable for the emotional turmoil and mental distress that Anna experienced? According to the book: “How can one say? …it isn’t so clear when you take the long view. Blame seems to lie everywhere. Or nowhere. Who can say where unhappiness begins?”
Love And Healing
Ghibli’s version also focuses on the process of healing. The anime emphasizes that healing begins with acceptance and love, just as Robinson’s book says: “Being loved is, oddly enough, one of the things that helps us grow up. And in some ways, Marnie never grew up.”
Even though Anna has difficulty understanding those around her, she is still deeply loved. She finally grasps the true state of her circumstances, and when she does, she is no longer on the “outside.” She is now inside the “magic circle.”
Anna’s drawings in the beginning of the film are black and white. By the end, she has added color to her sketch of Marnie, suggesting that her bleak worldview is becoming more vivid and real. It is ultimately a story about growing up, a bildungsroman which entails emotional trauma and mental health issues which cannot be ignored.
Glorious Final Act
Yonebayashi skilfully adapts the story to animation without over-dramatising it, and like all Ghibli films, contains a hidden message that can be appreciated by more mature viewers. Takatsugu Muramatsu’s music is slow and atmospheric. It creates a sense of mystery and wonder but also leaves us emotional, while beautifully capturing the film’s themes.
The tone of the anime is more somber than the studio’s other works. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) was the only other animated film that had the same intensity. It told the tragic story of a brother and sister trying to survive the American firebombing of Tokyo in WWII.
Miyazaki believed that portraying depressing situations might influence children’s outlook. In an interview with the famous French artist and cartoonist Jean Giraud (also known as ‘Mœbius’), he said, “Inside me I have negativity, despair, or hopelessness… But I don’t feel like expressing it in my films, which children see. I’m more interested in what drives me to make a happy film or what makes me feel happy.”
Nowadays, pre-teens everywhere are struggling to understand and adapt to an ever-changing, violent, and increasingly incomprehensible world. Loneliness has become a common factor, and suicide rates as well as cases of violence among the younger generation, are on the rise. Yonebayashi hopes that this film will be a ray of hope in these times of despair, “This film will connect with many people, and many children are tired and feel lonely so I wanted this film to sit beside them and push their back a little bit, so they can take a step forward, with courage.”
When Marnie Was There (2014) may not have the instant recognition of other Ghibli anime, but it’s an unforgettable gem and a fitting finale for the highly regarded animation studio.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Hiranmoy Lahiri is a writer who studied video editing at Kolkata Film and Television Institute, India. A postgraduate in English Literature, he has published articles in The Statesman, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, the Offscreen website and Asiatic: IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature.