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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Haunting of Marsh House
by Donald Levit

When Marnie Was There/Omoide no Marnie is not one hundred percent a throwback to the salad days of labor-intensive hand animation. But incalculably to its credit, it evades the cold computer feel and the un-fairytale-ish adult imposition of inappropriate wisecracks and streetwise teen jive. And though rivulets of tears well up and course down cheeks, the eyes are not the same-old outsize Japanese Margaret or Walter Keane-like orbs set into stylized faces.

For all that to the good, the Hiromasa Yonebayashi-directed hundred-and-three minutes for masters Miyazaki and Takahata’s Studio Ghibli (pronounced “jiburi”) is not for younger children. There are scary ghost-silo storm scenes that have the characters cowering and crying, plus themes of bullying, isolation, angst, and of parental neglect and abandonment and death; and a too involved lame late explanation that appears tacked on. Rumors circulate about financial considerations that may make this the last of the studio’s such loving but costly features.

Relocated from rustic Norfolk, the Keiko Niwa script adaptation of a Joan G. Robinson young adult book centers on family redemption and reunion, the offering and acceptance of love, and the growing-up process as resolution of youngsters’ feelings of inadequacy, alienation and differentness. In this, it falls within a long tradition of classic books and films like, for example, Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden.

Anna Sasaki is a withdrawn dreamer, a non-participant given to solitary sketching in Sapporo city. Unpleasant to foster mother (or generic “Auntie”) Yoriko Sasaki, whom she pointedly refuses to address or acknowledge by any term of endearment, the twelve-year-old displays a bland “ordinary face, like she won’t show her emotions.”

Different, and different looking, for physical and emotional strengthening from asthma she gets sent to a coastal village on that same northernmost main home island of Hokkaido. Installed in the balconied upstairs bedroom of the now city-dwelling daughter of Aunt and Uncle Oiwa, she does not mix with “fat pig” local lasses her age and soon angers the neighbor mother of one of them.

She continues to find an outlet in a sketchbook, and in wandering the tidal wetlands is attracted to derelict Marsh House, decades ago the possession of a wealthy globetrotting family of blue-eyed foreigners and currently abandoned but scheduled for renovation for new inhabitants. To her only, the weed-grown mansion is sometimes fully lit up and filled with elegant party guests, or is lit only at an upper-storey projecting bay window in which a girl slightly older or just taller than she suffers the scowling Nan’s harshly brushing her luxuriant hair.

That blonde in blue is Marnie, who comes to solitary Anna in brown in a rowboat or on the marshlands at low tide. The two become bosom friends, though the well-dressed and high button-shoed girl appears only at select moments and, indeed, seems to hold back something of herself. The girlie companionship is innocent yet up to a certain point could invite deeper, homoerotic interpretation.

Taciturn fisherman Toichi is introduced as mystery but for all purposes disappears without a ripple. Grey-haired landscape painter Hisako depicts Marsh House on an easel but is around mainly for rushed unconvincing summary exposition. In outsize glasses framed by pigtails, earnest newcomer Sayaki will become the fresh-faced un-mysterious normal future of other summers.

But it is the schoolgirl-crush friendship with Marnie that propels the tale. That, and the revelation of the two’s kinship, brings about emergence from adolescent pain, into acceptance of others and of oneself and who and what one is. Squarely directed at the heart, WMWT is rather a stretch, though not absolutely unpredictable when one thinks about it. Though it is of females, it is not feminine or female. The wholesome impetus and the gel animation talent behind it go a long way, so girls and softy sentimental parents will go for it.

(Released by GKIDS and rated "PG" for thematic elements and smoking.)

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