When Marnie Was There (2014)

Anna is withdrawn and anxious. Isolated from her classmates, she takes solace in her drawings. After an asthma attack her foster mother sends her off to the countryside, believing that the cleaner air will do her some good. While there Anna discovers a mysterious house and meets another young girl, Marnie, with whom she becomes good friends. The house has been abandoned for a long time and it is clear early on that Marnie may not be real. Dreams, memory and reality are blended together as Anna slowly uncovers the details of Marnie’s past and subsequently reveals something about herself too.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson, with the action transposed to Japan. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has crafted a beautiful film that will speak to many people. Anna is a character that you are immediately drawn to, though without overly sentimentalising her experiences. She suffers social anxiety, asthma, and we learn early on that she does not smile a lot. This is due to the death of her parents at an early age, something that has left her feeling isolated and disconnected from the world. The film does a great job of showing how she grows and learns to cope with this childhood trauma. The animation is spectacular. From the opening sequence of a busy play park there is a vibrancy and life to everything that happens. As with many Ghibli films the natural world is as much of a character as everyone else. In this film the effects on the sea are mesmerising with the added importance of the sense of receding tides tying into the themes of the film. There were also a number of techniques used to perfectly capture what was happening such as the faces of Anna and Marnie being overlaid at one point to show their similarities.

When Marnie Was There is a film about loss and memory, regret and redemption. The themes are subtly introduced in the guise of a mystery story and never overplayed. While it deals with serious issues there is humour introduced throughout, and in the latter parts the character of Sayaka seems introduced purposefully to help counterbalance the tragedy. This is another classic from studio Ghibli. While it lacks some of the whimsy of their more fantastical films, it is a powerful emotional drama that reaches a satisfying resolution.

In this Corner of the World (2017)

In this Corner of the World follows the story of Suzu, an absent-minded young girl, constantly daydreaming, and drifting through life quite contentedly for the most part. Born and brought up in Hiroshima in the 1930’s, she is fond of drawing and spends her days making up entertaining stories for her younger sister. When she comes of age, Suzu is married by arrangement to a man from Kure, a nearby town and moves in with his parents. As the Second World War begins to have an increasing impact on their lives, Suzu must navigate the various relationships and trials that she encounters.

Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the world of “In this Corner of the World” is a contemplative film about how ordinary lives are disrupted by war. Suzu is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist whom you can happily spend time with. Her daydreaming and escapes from reality are relatable and come to have a powerful significance later in the story. There is a gentle humour to proceedings, some subtle (such as her pondering the notion that caramel might soon cost 100 yen) which keeps the first half of the film quite light and enjoyable. While a story set during the war will never be entirely without tragedy, the film takes an interesting approach to the war. It looks at the everyday activities of a family that are interrupted by the war intermittently, a dark blemish on their rural idyll. There is the traditional Japanese focus on the passage of seasons, cooking, family life, and the entire film is infused with a melancholy for a lost world and that recognizable philosophy of trying to find happiness in an apparently mundane life. The animation style is gentle with pastel shades, though incredible detail in the natural world. There is an almost picture-book quality to some of the artwork, especially in scenes when the story drifts between the “realism” of what is happening and the “brush strokes” of Suzu’s imagination. There are also a couple of impressionistic techniques employed, with a shockingly effective black on white sketch-style employed during one dramatic scene. The voice cast do a great job of bringing these characters to life. The relationships between Suzu and her in-law family form several great subplots along with that of the relationship with an old school friend and even a chance encounter with another young woman in the nearby town. While introducing many characters and plots, the film is well-paced, with many short scenes strung together to give the impression of a full and vibrant world. This is especially effective when we see Suzu doing household chores and time passing. There are references to time throughout the film that take on a terrifying significance as the plot draws closer to the atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima, something of which the characters are blissfully unaware, with the periods of time growing closer together as the inevitable tragedy approaches.

The film takes an interesting approach to its story. Ostensibly about the atomic bomb and the experience of ordinary Japanese citizens during the war, it is largely about memory and loss and is effective often for what it does not show, more than what it does. The war and the impending atomic catastrophe are things that are always on the periphery and being largely ignored by the characters. Suzu is a established early on as a daydreamer, whose understanding of the world is coloured not only by experience but her interpretation of it. This theme is later emphasised when she imagines the bursting artillery fire over the town as splashes of paint. This is a more relatable way of looking at the world than an overly melodramatic approach, and becomes more effective when thinking back over the film as you realise you have almost experienced the war as many at the time would have, without the foreknowledge of what is about to happen. The horrific consequences of the atomic bomb are something that are hard to imagine and the film instead focuses upon what led up to it, so that people can understand what had been lost when the world moved into a post-atomic bomb era. A truly great war-time epic focussing on the lives of an ordinary family living through extraordinary circumstances.

Rebirth (2011)

 

 

The film begins with a woman being tried for the abduction of a baby four years earlier whom she has until this point raised lovingly as her own. The real mother of the child is distraught but the woman, Kiwako, seems to show no remorse for her actions. Jumping forward to her early twenties, the young child, named Erina, is continuing normally with her life when she is befriended by Chigusa, a young woman of a similar age who seems to know a lot about her. The film moves back and forth to tell the story of Kiwako and the child she abducted, renamed Kaoru by her, and the adult Erina who is trying to find her own way in life.

This film is expertly plotted with a lot of well-thought out characters which resonate with each other, particularly the figures of Erina’s father and her much older lover. Similarly a contrast seems to be drawn between the real mother Ritsuko and Kiwako. The story is driven by a number of twists and reveals and relies on some powerful acting by the main cast which really helps show their thought processes. The music is light and fits well with the films quiet contemplative mood and the cinematography is first rate. The scenic shots in particular are fantastic.

This film is an interesting watch and throws up many ideas about relationships, in particular maternal affection. Covering everything from loss, infidelity and abortion this film is careful not to be overly bombastic but to portray things fairly realistically which in turn makes it more powerful. Deserves the praise it was lauded with on release this is an incredibly gripping drama.

Based on the novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta.

Nobody Knows (2004)

nobody knows

A young single mother, Keiko, moves into a new apartment with her four children, Akira, Kyoko, Shigeru and Yuki, transporting the younger children in suitcases and letting Kyoko take the train so they won’t be discovered (as they were evicted from their last apartment for being noisy). The children are all of different fathers and Keiko is looking for a new boyfriend who will pay for them all. One day Keiko abandons the children with an envelope of Akira, only 12 years old, to take care of the others indefinitely. The film shows the children’s life after their mother leaves and what happens to them.

The film is very well directed and the four young actors, who carry the weight of the film, are exceptional. You really feel for them as their situation goes from bad to unbearable. The main criticism of the film would be that the pacing is very slow, perhaps intentionally to build a feeling of helplessness and grinding tedium the kids are experiencing cooped up in the apartment, but lacking any real goal or direction means the audience is required to have a great deal of patience to see the film through to the end. The other problem with the film is that it doesn’t show the full horror of their predicament. This film is based on a famous 1988 case of abandoned children, the details of which are more harrowing and disturbing than they are portrayed in the film. The music, which seems at times to be almost whimsical and light hearted, along with a few scenes of the children playing and having fun, almost undermine the horrific premise of the film.

Hopefully this film succeeds in raising awareness of this case so similar can be prevented in the future. As a narrative I found there were a few too many lulls to keep it engaging throughout, although the direction and acting were great. The issues it raises about child neglect, abandonment, the problem of the loss of the nuclear family, the plight of single mothers and perhaps the failure of government to fund prevention of these cases are all important. And while it is a noble effort I felt that the film would have benefited from a more shocking, realistic telling of the tale to really affect people.