“When Marnie Was There” is a curious piece of Japanese animation based on a novel by a British author.

Adapted from a novel by Joan G. Robinson and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “When Marnie Was There” is a very sweet and unassuming film and is a far cry from most of today’s animated options.

The story is built around a troubled girl named Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki). Shy and introverted, Anna has been living in the city with her foster mother.

At school, she usually keeps to herself, drawing pictures. She also has asthma, and early in the film, her foster mother sends her to live with her aunt and uncle in a beautiful countryside home, hoping the change of scenery will do Anna some good.

Things start to look up, and when Anna discovers a seemingly abandoned mansion on the other side of a nearby marsh, she meets the blonde-haired, almost cosmic Marnie (Kasumi Arimura). Marnie lives (or lived?) in the house, and when Anna comes to visit, she sees visions of exquisite parties and a high-rolling lifestyle.

It’s obvious from the start that Marnie isn’t just the girl next door. We don’t know right away whether Marnie is a ghost or a figment of Anna’s lonely imagination, but as their relationship moves forward, the character helps us to understand Anna’s background and future.

Different characters and local features all become important. An abandoned silo on the way into town holds an ominous past to match its foreboding figure. An old woman named Hisako (Hitomi Kuroki) lingers with oils and canvas on an overlook across the marsh, obsessed with painting the Marsh House.

The Marsh House seems to be the focal point of the entire community. After a new family buys the mansion and remodels it, a girl Anna’s age named Sayaka (Hana Sugisaki) finds an old journal hidden in her new bedroom that deepens the mystery even further

The mix of Japanese and British culture is notable. Throughout the film, the characters speak Japanese (with English subtitles), and the Japanese signage in the background of certain scenes confirms that the movie is set in Japan. But Marnie (and even Anna) appear to be white Anglo-Saxon characters, and their countryside homes don’t show any Asian design influences. The cultural mix and the anime style doesn’t take away from the film, but it’s enough of a distraction to get the audience’s attention.

Even though it is an animated feature, “When Marnie Was There” is a little too slow and mature for very young children. It’s story and style would be a better fit for older kids, and even then, children who will be able to resist pulling their phones out every five minutes.

View Comments

The story eventually winds its way to a conclusion that is predictable, even if it isn’t obvious early on. Even so, it communicates a very poignant message and explores some of the challenges and stigmas associated with foster children.

The film is also available with voices dubbed in English.

“When Marnie Was There” is rated PG for some thematic elements.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.