‘When Marnie Was There’ and wondering where the female animated characters will be now

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"When Marnie Was There" may be the last film from Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli. Photo provided

“When Marnie Was There” may be the last film from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli. Photo provided

When Marnie Was There, what may be the last film from animation giant Studio Ghibli, opens in my hometown of Oklahoma City this weekend.

As a big fan of animation and Ghibli, that’s sad. As a woman, it’s both sad and worrisome.

As I noted in my review, the legacy of one of the most beloved animation houses in cinema history might be a bit too weighty for the delicately rendered fable When Marnie Was There, but apart from its status as possibly the last film from Japan’s acclaimed Studio Ghibli, the coming-of-age story dazzles the eyes and stirs the heart.

As a female filmgoer, it also shocks the senses: I couldn’t help but wonder if this is how men feel all the time when they watch movies.

Almost every character in When Marnie Was There is a girl or woman. Only one supporting character is a man, and only a couple of periphery characters are male. The main character and the vast majority of the people she interacts with are all female.

Usually, it’s the other way around. Usually, women moviegoers have a hard time finding a film that passes the Bechdel Test, which asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who have at least one conversation about something other than a man. So, to encounter a film that would fail a flipside Bechdel Test – I can’t recall two men talking about anything at all at any point in Marnie — is rare.

And refreshing.

Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who adapted Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers into Studio Ghibli’s 2010 film The Secret World of Arrietty — about a tiny girl who befriends a normal-size boy — draws from another distinctly British tale with Marnie, based on Joan G. Robinson acclaimed 1967 young-adult novel.

The story focuses on troubled and sickly 12-year-old loner Anna (voice of Hailee Steinfeld in the English-dubbed version), whose worried foster mother (Geena Davis) sends her away for the summer to the country home of some bohemian relations (John C. Reilly voices the movie’s most active male role, as Anna’s caring and joking foster uncle, who is a carpenter, while Grey Griffin actually has a bit larger role as her accommodating and nurturing foster aunt, who is a gardener).

The sea air is intended to help Anna’s asthma, but her “auntie,” as the girl calls her foster mom, also hopes the change of scenery will heal the adolescent’s disconnected, self-loathing mindset. Anna’s adolescent identity issues have been exacerbated by her orphan status and festering doubts over whether her foster mother really wants her.

An aspiring artist, Anna is enchanted by the Hokkaido seaside — which the Studio Ghibil artists have hand-drawn with the lush exquisiteness of an Impressionist painting — especially the Marsh House, a gothic, formerly abandoned mansion only accessible by foot at low tide. While exploring around the reportedly haunted house, Anna encounters a seemingly free-spirited girl named Marnie (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka). Their secret friendship helps draw Anna out of her shell, but she wonders if the mysterious Marnie is a real girl, a ghost or a figment of her imagination. With the help of eager Sayaka (Ava Acres), the daughter of the mansion’s new tenants, Anna learns the answer is much more complex and resonant (even if the reveal won’t be a surprise to most adults).

This one is for the girls. A taciturn boatman and Marnie’s distant father get a bit of screentime, but it’s the female characters’ problems, relationships and story arcs that dominate Marnie. This is a coming-of-age story about a girl, not a boy, and it’s all about Anna’s attempts to put behind her troubled beginnings, forge her individual identity and prepare for passage into her teenage years and onward into womanhood. Even more surprising, there are no concessions made for usually obligatory — usually obviously tacked on — romantic angle, in which Anna must engage in a relationship with a boy to make her young identity complete.

And who knows when we’ll see that animated again, especially if Studio Ghibli makes its production hiatus permanent.

With co-founder and figurehead Hayao Miyazaki’s 2013 retirement from filmmaking, Studio Ghibli has suspended the production of new features, so sadly, Marnie may be its swan song. It may not have the magic of Miyazaki’s classic work, but if it is the last Ghibli film, it is an elegant and elegiac way to end of an era.

But it also may mark the end of a female-centric era in animation. As I wrote on this blog last month when Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning masterwork Spirited Away debuted on Blu-ray, his habit of making strong, multifaceted women and girls the main characters in his movies has been as much a part of the Studio Ghibli tradition as his visually captivating flights of fancy and his dedication to telling animated stories that are complex and not watered down.

While American animated lead characters are rare outside the Disney princess stories, they are commonplace in Miyazaki’s fantastical films, including Kiki’s Delivery Service, about a 13-year-old witch living on her own for the first time; My Neighbor Totoro, about two sisters who encounter wondrous woodland spirits near their new country home; and Howl’s Moving Castle, about a young hatmaker who is transformed into an old lady by a jealous witch and seeks out a mysterious wizard to change her back.

Meanwhile here in Western world, we can’t even get female Minions in the Minions movie — although we did get a female villain — and with the admittedly wonderful Inside Out, Pixar has managed to produce two movies with female main characters in 20 years.

Studio Ghibli has seemingly had a good influence on Pixar: Witness the thematic similarities between Spirited Away, which somewhat literally tracks the spiritual journey of a girl whose recent move catalyzes her transition from childhood to adulthood, and Inside Out, which quite literally follows the challenging emotional journey of an 11-year-old girl whose family moves from her beloved Minnesota to a new home in San Francisco.

But with Miyazaki’s retirement and Ghibli’s hiatus, where is the good influence going to come from now? Will Pixar make a movie about a girl on average of more than once a decade (the next Pixar release, The Good Dinosaur, opening in November, is about a boy dinosaur who meets a caveboy, so they’re not going to make it two girl stories in a row)? Will we ever see a female Minion – and if we do will she be like Smurfette, a flat supporting character with a bow as her distinguishing characteristic? Will Kung-Fu Panda 2 and 3 co-director Jennifer Yuh get the chance and the same level of studio support make an animated movie – or even a franchise – about a girl?

If the makers of Marnie aren’t there anymore, where will the women and girls in animated movies be?

Quick hitters

– The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Jaeger-LeCoultre recently announced the selection of writer and director Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, 2011 New Directors/New Films) as their 2015 Filmmaker in Residence, the third annual initiative and partnership between the two  organizations. Previous participants include award-winning directors Lisandro Alonso (Jauja) and Andrea Arnold (Red Road).

Lesli Klainberg, Executive Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center said in a news release, “We are very excited to welcome Athina Tsangari as the third annual Filmmaker in Residence during the 53rd New York Film Festival. Athina is a dynamic and fearless filmmaker, and we are thrilled to provide her with the space and time to develop new work while connecting her with a vibrant New York film community. Athina has already had a remarkable career, and we are so excited to see what she does next.”

“I feel greatly honored to be hosted as the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Filmmaker in Residence this year,” said Tsangari. “I am looking forward to working on my new script, part of which is set in New York City, and to drawing inspiration from the city itself, camaraderie from its essential film community, and stimulation from the Film Society’s invigorating programming. It is always an invaluable gift when Xenia—the goddess of hospitality—and cinema join their graces and forces.”

During her residency in New York, Tsangari will be working on a screwball action-thriller called White Knuckles that centers on two criminal sisters (a burglar and a bookkeeper) dealing with “VAT fraud, amour fou, architectural infiltration, and electrically amplified fistfighting.” Her newest feature, Chevalier, is a buddy comedy that takes place on a luxury yacht astray on the Aegean Sea and will have its world premiere in August at the Locarno l Film Festival.

– Check out Mental Floss’ excellent list of 15 history-making women who deserve their own biopics. The list includes a wide range of amazing women, including Harriet Tubman, “Moses of the Underground Railroad”; Hedy Lemarr, who was both an it actress and incredible inventor; and Oklahoma native Mary Blair, the legendary Disney artist who introduced Walt Disney to modern art and changed the look of his animated films forever.


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