“When Marnie Was There” – Quietness and Intimacy in Animation

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The gentle blowing of a breeze near the sea. The sound of the water coming onto the beach, and then receding back into the vast ocean. The sounds of wind chimes and seagulls and cicadas during the warm summer months. All of this capped off with a sweet, nearly invisible musical score of piano, strings, oboe, and harp. This is the ever present soundscape of When Marnie Was There, the most recent and possibly last feature film from Studio Ghibli.

I was reading an interview with the director of When Marnie Was There, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and there was one section in particular that caught my attention. The interviewer’s question concerned whether the staff at Studio Ghibli ever watched computer-generated animated films from the United States. Yonebayashi’s answer was as follows:

“I’ve seen How to Train Your Dragon and other Disney films. I think the filmmaking is of a very high level, and the stories are enjoyable. But I do feel like the pacing and humor are distinctly American. My personal preference is for quieter and slower films.”

What I find interesting about this answer is the phrase “distinctly American.” I have always wondered why this has to be true. We have plenty of talent here in the United States, and with so many diverse people in one general location, you would think that someone would prefer films that were less chaotic. Why is it that Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and the like, continue to make films that are so bombastic? And why do those types of films keep selling?

When Marnie Was There, like most Studio Ghibli films, is an excellent example of an animated film that tells a wonderful story without relying on constant action and noise. When Marnie Was There allows you to breathe with the film, its’ story, and its’ characters.

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I used to think that this sense of peace is what Western animated films are most desperately lacking. It is indeed true that Western animation is greatly lacking in quietness and stillness, but after watching When Marnie Was There, I have discovered that there is something even more crucial that Western animated films do no possess: Intimacy.

“In this world, there’s an invisible magic circle. There’s inside and outside. These people are inside. And I’m outside.”

While watching this film, I noticed that there was an immense amount of sincere human contact between characters. In fact, it almost seems as if the film itself is about intimacy, and it is framed with human contact, or lack thereof, as the focal point. In the beginning of the film, we see Anna alone on a park bench, completely inside herself. After her asthma attack, her mother touches her hand and tries to comfort her. Anna, however, remains detached. Subsequently, Anna rides a train out to Hokkaido. She sits by herself.

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There is not another major scene involving human contact for almost a half hour. It is not until Anna meets Marnie and grabs her hand after nearly falling down on some stone steps that she physically interacts with another person, and this time, unlike with her mother before, she truly feels the sense of touch.

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From this point forward, intimacy plays a major role in Anna’s character development. Yonebayashi consistently utilizes the sense of touch as a way to move the drama and characters forward in the narrative, often accompanied by a wide camera shot with both Anna and Marnie in frame. Animation is fantastic at creating the visuals for a story, and the music and sound effects create the sounds. Capturing the sense of smell, taste, and most importantly, touch, is a much more difficult feat. I think that When Marnie Was There manages to overcome this challenge.

The shots below are also a great example of the use of weather as a way to visibly externalize Anna’s inner emotions. There are cloudy and rainy days, sunsets, moonlit nights, and bright sunny mornings. The weather reflects Anna’s emotions as they ebb and flow unsteadily, trying to find solid ground to stand on.

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All of this intimacy contrasts the first arc of the film. Anna is changing. She is growing closer to the people around her. In other words, she is slowly beginning to move inside the circle. As she approaches the circle’s center, she becomes an entirely different person. When the film culminates with Anna hugging her mother, it is a powerful moment.

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Yonebayashi is a very talented director. He has managed to accomplish something that is very difficult to do in animation, something that is almost foreign to animation here in the United States. He has managed to give the characters life. All of the characters is When Marnie Was There exist within the same space, the same universe, and they interact with each other on an intimate level. It is truly beautiful to behold, and it is this expression of intimacy that keeps me coming back to Studio Ghibli.

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