Reality as Dreams, Dreams as Reality: When Marnie Was There (2014) from Studio Ghibli

Posted by Janet Chu on October 23, 2015 in Blog, Janet Chu tagged with


Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (also known as the director of The Secret World of Arrietty) and produced by Studio Ghibli, the world-leading Japanese animation studio, the animated film When Marnie Was There was released in the summer of 2014 in Japan, and in October of this year in the UK at the London Film Festival. The film, an adaptation of the 1967 young-adult novel of the same title by the English writer Joan G. Robinson, tells the story about an isolated heroine Anna’s secret experience of encountering and befriending a mysterious girl Marnie in treating her asthma in a rural area in Hokkaido, Japan.

Since its release, the film has been at times described as ‘a swirling, gently gothic mystery’[1] or a (rare) Gothic piece from Ghibli.[2] Indeed, several essential elements in this film make it a Gothic-tinged work. For instance, Marnie[3] makes her presence at an uninhabited old Western-style mansion in the desolate marshland; the mansion is unoccupied during the daytime, but is peopled at night; Marnie is a spectral being, who mostly appears at dusk or in the nighttime, and who cannot go too far from the mansion; and Marnie fears to be imprisoned in a dark tower nearby the mansion. When watching the film, one would be very eager to investigate these enigmas: ‘Is Marnie a real person?’, ‘Why is there a radical transformation in the marsh mansion between the daytime and the nighttime?’, ‘Does this all happen in Anna’s imagination or does it happen in reality?’, ‘Who is Marnie?’, and ‘What is the story behind the mansion and Marnie?’.

A sense of the supernatural and suspense is intentionally generated and maintained throughout the film. Amongst all those tension-filled episodes, I was especially impressed by the nocturnal scene of Anna’s initial encounter with Marnie at the mansion. Making a retreat from society, Anna paddles towards the long deserted house, a building that always possesses an uncanny charm for her. All of a sudden, lights and a chandelier brighten up the house, and a girl in white shows up and scurries down the stone steps to assist her in pulling in to shore. As Anna lifts up her eyes, she sees Marnie in the background of a crescent moon shining softly in the firmament encompassed by floating clouds and stars. And then, the house’s hostess, in a dark evening gown, pushes open the French doors, laughing cheerfully and speaking to an accompanying guest: ‘Please take a look at the nighttime marshland. How beautiful it is! Let’s get closer to it!’ All those strange and magical things take place in a poetic setting like this. At such a night as tender as water and as beautiful as a dream, it does not seem entirely impossible that the dead are temporarily brought back to life as a nostalgic restoration of an olden time of prosperity and conviviality.

Reality and dreams are intermingled in the film. Sometimes dreams become reality, and sometimes reality becomes dreams. It is a very moving and high-quality animated work, and it might (but hopefully will not) be the last feature film from Ghibli, partly owing to the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki in September, 2013. Miyazaki was one of the two major directors in Ghibli,[4] who has created several feature-length masterpieces, such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Porco Rosso (1992), Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and The Wind Rises (2013).[5] Interestingly, it has been observed that at the wedding scene in When Marnie Was There, one of the guests seemed to be particularly sketched to resemble Miyazaki.[6]

As Halloween is coming soon, this mildly Gothic-toned animated film When Marnie Was There may be another practical option for the celebration of the festival.


*When Marnie Was There trailer:


[1] Collin, Robbie. ‘When Marnie Was There Review: “will leave you sobbing”’. The Telegraph. 9 Oct. 2015 <>.

[2] Desowitz, Bill. ‘Hiromasa Yonebayashi on Making Studio Ghibli Gothic “When Marnie Was There”’. Thompson on Hollywood. 5 June. 2015 <>.

[3] The name, as Collin suggests, is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller film Marnie (1964).

[4] The other director is Isao Takahata, who is widely acclaimed for his animated films: Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991), and Pom Poko (1994). In 2013, Takahata directed The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a piece based on the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. This film was nominated for the 2015 Academy Awards Best Animated Feature.

[5] A French animator Dono blended scenes selected from these films, and made a video clip as a tribute to Miyazaki:

[6] Kohara, Atsu. ‘A Comprehensive Reading of When Marnie Was There, a Fantastic and Dark Suspense Story’ (Chinese translation). Asahi Shimbun Blog. 25 Aug. 2014 <>.


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