Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s luminous, unsettling “When Marnie Was There” evokes Alfred Hitchcock, and not just because of the title. The animated story of troubled 12-year-old Anna (Sara Takatsuki in the subtitled version I viewed), who visits a spooky mansion inhabited by the elusive “Alice in Wonderland”-like girl of the title (Kasumi Arimura), is at times like a YA version of “Rebecca” (1940). Based on Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel, the story springs to vivid life through Yonebayashi’s exquisitely detailed, achingly atmospheric hand-drawn animation.
As in his previous film “The Secret World of Arietty” (2010), Yonebayashi demonstrates here that he is as a much a master of numinous realism as fellow Studio Ghibli artist Hayao Miyazaki is a genius of the surreal and fantastic. Though the narrative of “Marnie” bogs down toward the end, this does not diminish its spell.
Things don’t look very magical in the beginning, however, as Anna sits alone, away from her raucous fellow students, during recess. “There is an inside and outside,” she says in voice-over, as she draws the scene on her sketchpad. “And I am outside.” Then she collapses into a fit of asthmatic self-loathing. Many 12-year-olds, and former 12-year-olds, can sympathize.
Anna, though, suffers an extreme case of depressive social withdrawal, due in part to a back story that is gradually disclosed. Her foster mother follows a doctor’s advice and sends her to the seaside home of relatives, Kiyomasa (Susumu Terajima), a good-natured maker of toys and gimcracks, and his wife, Setsu (Toshie Negishi), a portly, maternal type with a big, sometimes annoying laugh.
Despite the warm welcome, Anna feels estranged. “This smells like a stranger’s home,” she says to herself, an example of dialogue that is sometimes as strikingly acute as the imagery. But her moodiness melts when she looks below at the radiant coastline, rendered with saturated, subtle colors and a minutely precise mise-en-scene. And later, when she gazes across the shallows, the wind rustling her hair and the reeds, and sees the Marsh House, abandoned but still grand, a place she feels she’s seen before.
But the house isn’t always derelict; sometimes it comes alive. Like the girls in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” (2001) and Henry Selick’s “Coraline” (2009), Anna has stumbled into a secret realm. Blond, blue-eyed Marnie, a girl as lonely as she, introduces Anna to a Marsh House full of period partiers reminiscent of those in the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining” (1980).
Is it a dream or a portal into a ghostly dimension? The satisfaction of the explanation, as is often the case, does not equal the chill of the mystery. But Yonebayashi has touched on the greater mystery underlying everyday life, a world pulsing with wonder and possibility, edged with a shadow of melancholy.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.