When Marnie Was There & Depression in Animation

The latest from the Japanese animation team at Studio Ghibli is an adaptation of the Joan G. Robinson children’s novel When Marnie Was There. Hayao Miyazaki, one of the main founders and acclaimed director at Studio Ghibli had listed the novel among his Top 50 Recommended Children’s Books so it wasn’t surprising to see this film in the works.

When Marnie Was There (2014) ©Studio Ghibli
When Marnie Was There (2014) ©Studio Ghibli

When Marnie Was There or Omoide No Marnie (as it is called in Japan) was released in Japanese cinemas July 2014. It will be released Summer 2015 in U.S. cinemas by the New York based foreign animation distributor GKids. GKids has been responsible for distribution of many amazing foreign animated films, from the French film Ernest & Celestine (2012), the Irish film Song of the Sea (2014) and many of the prior Studio Ghibli films including From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) and the Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) [which hits U.S. shelves this month on DVD and BluRay].

When Marnie Was There is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, known for directing the previous ghibli film The Secret World of Arrietty (2010). Marnie is centered on a 12-year-old girl by the name of Anna Sasaki. She is a foster kid who spends much of her time alone, until she moves to the countryside and meets a mysterious girl named Marnie who lives in the old house on the marsh.

When Marnie Was There (2014) ©Studio Ghibli
When Marnie Was There (2014) ©Studio Ghibli

While I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing When Marnie Was There for myself, I have read the novel, watched the Japanese trailer over thirty times and listened to the magnificent soundtrack from Priscilla Ahn and score by Takatsugu Muramatsu on repeat for days on end. When Marnie Was There tells a story from the perspective of a child in great depth and detail, much like Ghibli’s prior films, however, this time it deals with a more poignant look at isolation and depression.

With one listen of the title theme Fine On the Outside, written and sung by Priscilla Ahn, it is clear what the main character, Anna, is feeling. “I never had that many friends growing up, so I learned to be…okay with just me, just me, just me. And I’ll be fine on the outside.” The song continues on with a sense of loneliness and isolation. “Would you cry if I died, would you remember my face.” You can give it a listen for yourself right here. More interesting is that the song was not simply written for the film, but submitted for consideration. It was actually written by the artist when she was in high school, based upon her own experiences.

When Marnie Was There (2014) ©Studio Ghibli
When Marnie Was There (2014) ©Studio Ghibli

The soundtrack features additional similar tracks by Ahn, such as I Am Not Alone, Deep Inside My Heart and You’re a Star.

The film even presents lines straight from the character of Anna, such as the one where she is seen sitting on a bench sketching as other girls play in the distance. “There is a magical circle in this world that no one can see. Those girls are in the circle, and then there’s me, on the outside. But I don’t care about any of that. I hate myself.”

When Marnie Was There (2014) ©Studio Ghibli
When Marnie Was There (2014) ©Studio Ghibli

I found it so intriguing to have a character be presented so clearly as being depressed in an animated film. Though this isn’t uncommon in Japanese animation. We see similar feelings and expressions in many films, such as Colorful (2010) or Neon Genesis Evangelion. Another example is the Australian stop-motion animated film Mary & Max (2009), which even shows concepts of suicide. What makes Marnie different is the fact that its target audience is primarily children, though animation in countries outside of the U.S. are not often shoved into confining categories as being “for kids,” like they are in the U.S.

However, there was quite a hubub with the recent Walt Disney Animation Studios film Frozen (2013) and how people believed it accurately portrayed concepts of depression, anxiety and PTSD. Many who suffer from depression found the character of Elsa highly relatable. It may have been a huge part of why she has become so popular with the teenaged audience. With quotes from her featured song like, “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show,” it’s hard not to view it as an allegory. [Elsa’s depression and anxiety was later officially confirmed by one of the films directors on twitter].

Frozen (2013) ©Walt Disney Animation Studios
Frozen (2013) ©Walt Disney Animation Studios

What is also interesting (but essentially expected) is the fact that while Frozen was an extreme box office success for Walt Disney Animation Studios, When Marnie Was There was pretty much the opposite for Studio Ghibli. The quaint and quiet nature of the film had a hard time competing with the intense, dramatic, musical, CGI, box office champion when it premiered in Japanese cinemas so close to its release.

This is also suggested to have been a reason behind the closure of the animation department at Studio Ghibli. No more films will be releasing for quite some time and the studio will focus solely on its distribution rights, products and museum.

I made sure to snatch a few When Marnie Was There items (actually I asked my friends mom if she could pick them up while she was visiting Japan). They’re quite lovely.

What do you think of When Marnie Was There and depression in animation? Does the film look interesting to you? Do you think it’s okay to show children these concepts? I’ll leave you with that, and my own sketchbook doodle of Anna and Marnie below!

Until next time!

illustration by Damian Alexander (2014)
illustration by Damian Alexander (2014)


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