Reflections on ‘When Marnie Was There’

“When Marnie Was There” ties together two Japanese summer festivals: Tanabata and Obon. Originally released in Japan on the 19 of July, the original Japanese title was “Marnie no Omoide” (思い出のマーニー) or “Memories of Marnie.”

According to, Obon is an annual Buddhist event where one commemorates the return of one’s ancestors to this world. The spirited come to visit their relatives.

By the lunar calendar it was the 13-15 days of the 7th month of the year.  Using the solar calendar, that would be mid-August, but out of tradition and practicality, Obon is celebrated at various times in various regions.

Obon week in mid-August in one of Japanese three major holiday seasons (the other two are New Year’s in January and Golden Week in April).

The Chinese characters for Tanabata literally mean the evening of the seventh. The tale of Tanabata likely comes from China. The tale of Tanabata has many variations, but the legend is about two lovers, Orihime (織姫 Weaver Princess ) and Hikoboshi (彦星 or牽牛 Cowherd), who are separated by the Silver River  or the Heavenly River (銀河系 or 天の川  what we call the Milky Way). They were once married, but neglected their duties so they were separated. They can only meet once a year–one the seventh day of the seventh month, when the magpies build a bridge across for their rendez-vous. If it should rain, they must wait another year.

The festival is celebrated on 7 July and into August. Although  “When Marnie Was There” was originally set in Great Britain and written by Joan G. Robinson, this Studio Ghibli movie was released on 19 July 2014 (except for “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Grave of the Fireflies” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” all Studio Ghibli movies had their Japanese release in July or August) and and is set on the Northern most of the four main islands of Japan, Hokkaido.

The 12-year-old brown-haired, grey-eyed Anna Sasaki (佐々木 杏奈) lives in the centrally located inland capital of Sapporo with her foster parents. She watches other girls her age, but feel that she is on the outside. “In this world, there’s an invisible circle.” For some reason, Anna has changed from a happy child to a sullen, angry outsider. When Anna suffers an asthma attack, her foster parents sent her to live in the small coastal town of Kushiro with the foster mother Yoriko’s relatives, Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa.

In Kushiro, across the seaside marsh, there’s a mysterious abandoned mansion that is decidedly exotic in its European-style rooms and windows. Crossing over at low tide to explore, Anna feels a certain familiarity about the house, but when she is ready to leave, the tide has risen and she can no longer cross over.

An old fisherman, Toichi, picks her up and takes her across in his rowboat. Looking back, Anne imagines the mansion as it once was–beautiful and well lit.

Back at the Oiwa’s house, a traditional Japanese home, Setsu tells her that the mansion was once the vacation home for some foreigners, but has been vacant and become rundown.

In her dreams, Anna sees a girl with her long blonde hair being brushed by an older woman in a kimono.

On the night of the Tanabata festival, Setsu encourages Anna to make friends with other young people. Where most people might wish for good grades or better skills in sports, Anna wishes only to be normal.  After saying mean things to one of the local girls, Anna runs away, ending up at the marsh where she meets Marnie–the long blonde girl in her dreams.

Marnie and Anna become friends, but Marnie has asked Anna to keep their meetings secret. One evening Marnie invites Anna to a party at the mansion. In the evening light, the mansion is beautiful, but the party very un-Japanese. The people enter the house with their shoes on and the men and women are coupled. Marnie disguises Anna as a flower girl, and later, Marnie meets with a boy named Kazuhiko.

Eventually, a new family moves into the house and Anna meets the girl Sayaka, who now lives in Marnie’s old room. Sayaka has found Marnie’s diary and together Sayaka and Anna try to learn what happened to Marnie.

Some other things to keep in mind about Japan when watching “When Marnie Was There.” When Anna is taken in by Oiwa, we see them treat her to sushi and watermelon. To a Japanese person, sushi would seem like a special treat and watermelon in Japan is quite expensive.

Marnie’s grandmother is shown always, to my memory having seen it only once, dressed traditionally, in a kimono. Marnie’s mother and father are shown as having to a large extent rejected Japanese traditional values. The house is built in European style both inside and outside. While many modern houses and apartments have taken a European style, that is usually limited to the outside and the inside at least has a genkan (entry way) where you take off your shoes). While most women in contemporary Japan wear Western style clothes, they still adhere to certain customs. Yet in the party scene, we see Marnie enter the room with her shoes on. The rest of the guest have their shoes on in the house. This isn’t just a Japanese custom, the removal of shoes before entering a home is very East Asian, something you’ll see in China and Korea. I understand it has carried over to Hawaii.

You have to wonder if the grandmother is unusually traditional or if we’re in a time period when women still wore kimono or, at least, the grandmother is from a time period when women normally wore kimono. Yet even if the grandmother was from more contemporary times, she and others of her generation would still remove their shoes before entering a house. Without noticing this, one might  judge the grandmother more harshly instead of seeing the dynamics of a generation gap and even a very natural reaction by the grandmother to her daughter’s total rejection of current Asian customs. There is, of course, also the consideration of racism, or zenophobic sentiments on the part of the grandmother.

The account we get of the grandmother is from Marnie’s point of view, and the grandmother doesn’t get to tell us her side of the story. Moreover, Marnie’s mother, even from Marnie’s point of view, is an absentee parent as is her father. The grandmother might resent being made into a parent for no other reason than the parents are too self-involved.

Still Marnie returns to a moment when her life was filled with hope, when she was loved by a good friend and falling in love with the boy she would later marry. The vacation home seems to be her furusato, the home she returns to for Obon and the place where she is able to visit and help Anna. This is a haunting in a gentle Obon sense that might strike a deeper chord in the soundtrack of the Japanese culture.


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