Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 43 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity
The great director Hayao Miyazaki has retired, but Studio Ghibli, of which he was a co-founder, is still producing quality films. We see this in director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s fantasy film, adapted from Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 Young Adult novel. (I hope the rumor about this being the last of the studio’s productions is just that!) I saw it right before a screening of Inside Out, so I was struck by a few similarities, such as that the main (human) character is a girl, and that each suffers for being an outsider.
Tomboy Anna Sasaski says at the very beginning of the story, “In this world there is an invisible circle. Everyone else is on the inside, and I am on the outside.” She even says, “I hate myself.” She actually is a very talented sketch artist, but her self-loathing blinds her to this. Though slow moving for many Americans, we can scarcely find its equal in exploring the themes of abandonment, loneliness, friendship, and forgiveness.
The reasons why the troubled Anna feels that she is an outcaste unfold gradually. For one thing, she is a Caucasian living in Japan: when another girl compliments her for her blue eyes, Anna fails to see the good will in the words, taking them instead as one more aspect of her being outside the circle. Also, early on we learn that she is an orphan raised by Japanese foster parents. They have been very kind to her, but when she accidentally discovers an invoice that reveals that they are being reimbursed for her expenses by the government, she questions the genuineness of their affections. Indeed, when out of concern for her outbursts of asthma they send her from urban Sapporo to stay for the summer on the coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture, she feels abandoned. But she is welcomed into the home of the aunt and uncle of her foster mother, Kiyomasa and Setsu Oiwa. They live high enough on a hill to afford a good view of the beautiful bay below, something that even the forlorn Anna can appreciate.
Well along in years, the jolly pair love children, doing everything they can to make their shy visitor feel at home. Best of all for her, they allow her plenty of freedom to explore the scenic area. Anna soon becomes attracted to a large old mansion on the other side of a saltwater marsh. At low tide she is able to wade across and peek inside. As she had been told, it has been empty for many years, the paint peeling and debris scattered about. And yet as the days pass she is sure at times that she sees a blond-headed girl through an upstairs window. Each time an old woman is combing her long tresses.
At last Anna meets the girl, who says she is Marnie. Soon the two are spending time together, Anna even attending a gala party that Marnie’s parents host. And yet, most of the time the house is empty and abandoned. So, we wonder whether Marnie is a figment of a lonely girl’s imagination, a ghost, or what?
The two girls become best friends, even though in temperament they are opposites. Marnie is as outgoing as Anna is shy. They find comfort in sharing their experience about their mutual loneliness. Although not an orphan, Marnie is continually saying Goodbye to her parents as they set forth on another of their world travels. The unhappy girl reveals that while they are absent the maids bully her. Marnie declares to Anna, “You’re my precious person. Promise me we’ll remain a secret.” They express their friendship by hand holding, sharing secrets, and venturing out late at night in a rowboat that Anna “borrows.” The owner is an old seaman who says very little, until late in the film he surprises us with some background information.
Anna remains the outsider to the villagers and their children because her extreme shyness causes her to rebuff their efforts to include her. One local, however, who does manage to befriend Anna is Hisako, the woman who brings her easel and canvass each day to paint the old house. Along with Marnie, she is the person whose kindness brings Anna out of her shell. Anna learns of Marnie’s complicated story, and in a series of heart-warming events at the climax sees how Marnie fits into her own life story, leading her to a new understanding and appreciation of herself and of her foster mother. She also gains a new friend when the old mansion is remodeled, and another happy event occurs in her life.
This is another example of just how beautiful old-fashioned flat, hand-drawn animation can be. The characters are well defined, and the backdrops are rendered in splendid colors. Many of the views of the coast, the forest, or the various homes would make fine wall paintings. Young children might find the slow pace a bit much, but older ones ought to identify with one of the other girls—and I hope this would include boys as well as girls. The adult accompanying the children can help in this respect. Like other Ghibli Studio films (See Spirited Away, The Wind Rises, Howl’s Moving Castle, or my favorite, the sad, poignant Garden of the Fireflies), this one is a feast for the eye and the soul. People of faith might find in her story a vindication of the claim of the psalmist about the God who is always concerned with the outsiders of society.
The film is being shown in English-dubbed and subtitled versions .
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.