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When Marnie Was There

Saturday 11th January 2014

Andrew Osmond on what’s next for Studio Ghibli

When Marnie Was ThereIn December, Studio Ghibli announced its next feature film to the world. Well, it’s probably not the next for Britain – we still haven’t seen Ghibli’s mixed 2013 double of Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya. In Japan, though, Ghibli is already looking ahead to summer 2014 and When Marnie was There, based on a British children’s book by Joan Robinson. The Japanese name is Omoide no Marnie, or The Marnie I Remember. As with Arrietty, Ghibli’s version of The Borrowers, Marnie’s British setting will be reportedly changed to a Japanese one. The film will also have Arrietty’s director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

If any readers know the book, we’d like to see your thoughts in the comments section below. First published in Britain in 1969, When Marnie was There is a very respectable book, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and read by actress Ann Bell on the BBC’s Jackanory. It’s also a very good book, rich in the way of fine children’s fiction. If you read it as an adult, you’ll be rewarded and surprised by the way it goes. Hayao Miyazaki likes it – it was on his list of fifty children’s books released a few years ago. It’s unconfirmed if Miyazaki has any involvement in the Marnie film, having retired from directing, but the fact that Ghibli picked one of his approved books speaks, well, volumes for Miyazaki’s continuing influence.

Here’s an early passage from When Marnie was There, which might have caught Miyazaki’s eye:

This house stood alone and had a quiet, mellow, everlasting look, as if it had been there so long, watching the tide rise and fall, rise and fall again, that it had forgotten the busyness of life going on ashore behind it, and had sunk into a quiet dream… It was as if the old house had found itself one day on the staithe [riverbank] at Little Overton, looked across at the stretch of water with the marsh behind and the sea beyond that, and had settled down on the bank, saying ‘I like this place. I shall stay here forever.’

When Marnie Was ThereThe protagonist – whose impressions are relayed in the above passage – is a girl called Anna, rather different from Ghibli’s usual cheery adventurers. To the people around her, Anna seems cold and listless, uninterested in having friends. Robinson, though, is highly sympathetic to the girl, making you wonder if she was modelled on the author’s own childhood. Anna sees herself as highly self-sufficient, and resents grown-ups who think there’s something wrong with her. An example of her thought-process: Anna took sudden and unreasonable exception to being called ‘a quiet little thing.’ It was one thing to not to want to talk to people, but quite another to be called names like that. And here’s a beautiful description of Anna’s thoughts when she sees a group of strange children, who attract her in a distant way:

She wanted to know about them, not to know them. She wanted to discover, gradually, what their names were, choose which one she thought she might like best, guess what sort of games they played, even what they had for supper and what time they went to bed. If she really got to know them, and they her, all that would be spoiled. They, from inside, looking curiously at her, outside – expecting her to like what they liked, have what they had, do what they did.

It will be interesting to see how much of Anna’s delicately-conveyed character will make it into the anime. Viewers with expectations shaped by previous Ghibli anime – and anime in general - might find her unlikable, though From Up on Poppy Hill had a very private girl as a protagonist. Anna’s personality is a key part of the story, which starts when her foster mother, worried by her unsociability, bundles her off to live with family friends in a Norfolk village. The setting is backed by a salt-smelling creek and marsh, “a remote, quiet world where there were only boats and birds and water, and an enormous sky.” And the house, which fascinates Anna.

When Marnie Was ThereAfter a long build-up, Anna encounters Marnie, the little girl who lives in the house. She has pale fair hair, and wears a long white dress (hands up everyone who’s thinking of the Princess Clarisse in Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro). “It would have looked strange on anyone else,” the author comments, “but Anna accepted it almost without question. It seemed right that the girl should look like the character out of some fairy story.” While Anna accepts the girl without question, we instantly wonder who exactly Marnie is. Is she a real girl, another outsider like Anna? Could she be a ghost? Is Marnie simply an imaginary friend, a playmate Anna has conjured up (though very real to Anna herself)? Or could Marnie be something else again?

The next part of the book deals with the intimate friendship between Anna and Marnie, two outsiders who seem to be perfectly in tune. This, of course, is familiar territory for Ghibli – Totoro and Kiki each focused on different kinds of girls’ relationships, though Ghibli might look back to an older anime by its founders. The 1979 serial Anne of Green Gables was directed by Takahata, with some design and layout work by Miyazaki. Several of its episodes focus on the lyrical friendship and shared dreams of Anne and her playmate Diana, and could provide useful pointers for When Marnie was There. (Despite its age, the Anne anime still has a presence in Japan, with a prequel series and a compilation film in recent years.)

As Marnie’s story continues, Anna encounters other members of Marnie’s household, gawping at their finery while disguised as a beggar. After these bright lit parties, events take on a darker hue. There are suggestions that Marnie’s ostensibly glamorous life hides cruelties, while a menacing, shadowy windmill draws the girls. The story builds to a fine climax, involving storms and a flood far scarier than Ponyo’s.

And then… well, there’s actually a lot of the book left to go, taking the story unforeseen ways. New characters are introduced, the tone shifts, and Marnie’s nature is finally addressed. And addressed in a good way, with a clever solution in the manner of a detective story, which still leaves room for ambiguity. However, it’s quite possible the film may excise or compress this part of the book. It could work in a serial, but its unexpected transitions will be tough to sell in a film. And frankly, while the book’s last part is ingenious, it’s less compelling than the earlier chapters, barring the continuing mystery of Marnie.

Joan G RobinsonThe Marnie book is available from Amazon UK as a Collins Modern Classic. Marnie’s author, Joan Robinson died in 1988. Some of her other books are still available, though many were for much younger children. They include Mary-Mary, about a (naturally) contrary little girl. Her most famous creation – and some readers must know this one! – is Teddy Robinson, a “cosy, jolly, easy bear.”

It seems plausible that Marnie may be along very similar lines to Arrietty: a fairly small number of characters, not much spectacle, but plenty of room for atmospheric locations and subtle interactions and reactions. Arrietty was particularly good at getting inside its heroine’s head, a priority in Marnie.

Yonebayashi is credited as a co-writer on Marnie’s script, along with two more familiar names.  One is a woman, Keiko Niwa, who had co-writing credits on Arrietty, Poppy Hill and Tales from Earthsea. The other is much more surprising: Masashi Ando, who apparently will also provide Marnie’s Animation Direction and Character Design. Ando is a renowned anime veteran, who’s contributed to a wide range of anime (Paranoia Agent, A Letter to Momo, Evangelion 3.0). However, he had the temerity to express his creative disagreements with Miyazaki when he worked on Spirited Away (for more, see here).

The fact that Ando is being invited to work at Ghibli again – and supposedly this is a Ghibli “after” the reign of Miyazaki – suggests that hatchets are being quietly buried. You never know… Perhaps someday we’ll see Ghibli reaching out to a director that it once humiliated and kicked out the door – a chap called Mamoru Hosoda.

What does Marnie suggest about Ghibli’s future direction? On the one hand, the fact that this is an adaptation of a solid children’s book, with young girl protagonists, could be taken as deeply conservative. This is Ghibli’s second kid-lit adaptation in four years. Perhaps the studio is moving in the direction of the old World Masterpiece Theatre anime strand; that is, adaptations of venerated books from Heidi to Anne of Green Gables. It’s a tempting route for a studio anxious to be associated with quality without the risks – and Ghibli without Miyazaki is in a dangerous spot.

We’ve already mentioned Miyazaki’s list of fifty children’s books. Could this actually be Ghibli’s Ten- or Twenty-Year Plan? If so, then we might expect Ghibli versions of The Little Prince, The Wind in the Willows and The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened. The Disney studio spent much of the 1950s and 1960s mining British classics like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. What goes around…

Then again, it’s far too soon to judge, before we see even a second of Marnie’s animation. The latest Disney film, Frozen, looked like a conservative fairytale on paper, but it threw humongous character and story curveballs, and dragged the Disney princess into the twenty-first century. There are plenty of ways Marnie could startle us, even while giving us the Ghibli tropes we know. Heck, Marnie could turn out to be a full-on subversion of the studio style - Ghibli’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica! Okay, so maybe that’s going a little bit far…

When Marnie Was There will be released by Studio Ghibli in Japan this summer.

When Marnie Was There

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