The latest offering from Studio Ghibli is sweet and good-natured, but it doesn't match its previous achievements.
Based on the eponymous novel by Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There is the latest feature from Arrietty director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and the latest production from Studio Ghibli.
Focusing on the well-established territory of teenage dreams and childhood traumas, When Marnie Was There is the story of the 12-year-old Anna, who lives with her foster posters.
The brunette Anna, a tomboy herself, with a knack for drawing, feels outside "the invisible circle" that surrounds her schoolmates. Her medical condition, an asthma that needs to be taken care of, doesn't make things easier.
The easiest solution for Anna is to go to distant relatives of her foster parents to spend the summer there, and follow the leads of Takamoto's heroine in Only Yesterday (1991). Urban environment always creates problems and enhances traumas that Japanese country knows well how to handle.
The bright greens and the deep blues of the film secure a sense of adventure. Anna's room seems to be modelled on Arrietty's bedroom, a rather exotic but still genial combination of flowers and greens. Only Anna this time has no desire to spend her time inside.
What immediately attracts her attention is the salt marsh and a long-abandoned mansion on the other side. Bullied by kids and in turn talking harshly to them during the Tanabata festival, Anna seems alone in her effort to discover what's hidden underneath - and find the blond Marnie in the process.
The film cleverly plays with the notion of mistaken identity: who is Marnie and, if she is a ghost from the past, what's her relationship to Anna? Anna herself seems lost in the beauty of her surroundings; her character can only be revealed in the sketches she draws, which need to be deciphered.
This promising start does not hold fast through the film, which is undecided between celebrating friendship and investigating a character in its various dramatic turns.
Anna has indeed a dramatic past (no spoilers here), but is all revealed in a flashback sequence in the end of the film, leaving the rest in mystery.
In the meantime, her thoughts and intentions remain a secret to us as well; Anna has no real reason to get away from her foster parents (her excuse does not stand well in the film). Her reactions only make Anna a rather neurotic character, who can find comfort nowhere.
In contrast, her friend Marnie has a good reason to be unhappy: behind her blue grand bowtie, Marnie suffers from the lack of love her rich parents are unable to give her. Those folks can organize big parties, but Marnie only gets scolding from her nannies and maids.
If this story were the focus of the film, it would have been a dramatic turn indeed. Instead, the perplexed Anna needs to find her answers in the impressively-looking surroundings. It is a beauty to behold, but does not elevate the film above a well-prepared elegy on friendship.
Children (and grownups) may feel the serenity the film clearly wants to advertise at every level, and spreads in its various supporting characters (including the mute old guy who helps Anna, and the all-knowledgeable female painter Hisako).
Still, the problem with When Marnie Was There is that there is no preceding storm.