"When Marnie Was There," the delicate, evocative new Japanese animated film from Studio Ghibli, does not fall neatly into any conventional narrative category. But that doesn't get in the way of it being visually spectacular.
As directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, responsible for "The Secret World of Arrietty," "Marnie" shares with that 2010 film a magical sense of the natural world, an ability to create a hand-drawn universe that is meticulously made as well as quietly stunning.
Like "Arrietty," "Marnie" was suggested to Yonebayashi by Studio Ghibli's eminence grise Hayao Miyazaki, and like Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle," it is based on a novel by a British fantasy writer, in this case Joan G. Robinson.
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Transposed from rural Britain to the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido, "Marnie" is part YA coming of age tale and part ghost story. It deals with friendship, loneliness, abandonment and forgiveness, and though its curious narrative arc means you're never sure exactly where it's going, the film works up a considerable emotional charge by the end.
"Marnie" starts with a 12-year-old girl named Anna Sasaki dealing with sadness. As voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the dubbed English version and Sara Takatsuki in the subtitled Japanese, Anna always feels outside of the magical circle of friendship other girls share. Even Anna's foster mother worries about this, talking about how she always has "an ordinary face," one that doesn't show emotions.
Then Anna's chronic asthma becomes worse, and she is sent from urban Sapporo, where she lives, to recuperate in rural Hokkaido. She's to board with the Oiwas, relatives of her foster mother, a boisterous, jolly couple who don't take things too seriously.
A gifted but shy artist, Anna is looking for a place to sketch when she stumbles on an abandoned mansion set on a marsh, a place that she feels drawn to even though locals say it has a reputation for being haunted.
Because of the house's location on the marsh, the effect of the tides means it's accessible only at certain times. Pulled there almost by an unknown force, Anna rows out to the house one evening, and there she meets Marnie (Kiernan Shipka/Katsumi Arimura), a girl her own age with stunning blond hair whom she has previously dreamed about.
The two young people become fast friends, exchanging confidences and stories about their mutual loneliness. "You're my precious person," Marnie tells Anna. "Promise me we'll remain a secret."
Anna, whose first words to Marnie were, "Are you a real person?" a question the blond girl ignores, clearly only half-believes that this creature is real, but her need for companionship is so strong and Marnie fills it so well that she doesn't really care.
One of the virtues of telling this story with animation is that everything looks equally real and those in the audience can't be sure any more than Anna about exactly who Marnie is. Director Yonebayashi's elegant style, which uses gorgeous colors to combine the real and the magical in a believable way, also helps to tell this unusual tale effectively.
For in some ways the story of "When Marnie Was There" grows stranger and more complex the longer it goes on, slowly allowing us deeper and deeper into the world these two have made for each other. Yonebayashi's style is intentionally unhurried; he's in no rush to reveal the secrets of the world he's taken us into. But his aim is true, and the rewards of this film are unmistakable.
'When Marnie Was There'
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles