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When Marnie Was There

A sophisticated and unique narrative structure supports this beautifully animated film.

Structure: 4/5 | Entertainment: 4/5

Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was Here is a beautifully animated film with a unique and uncommon storyform. This unusual—yet still fully functional—take on narrative structure sets the film apart from most animated fare.

Take any Pixar or Disney film and you will typically find the Main Character Throughline in Situation and the Overall Story Throughline in Activity. Po, Mr. Incredible, Woody in Toy Story 2, and Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon all share a common problem with their physicality. Po is fat, Mr. Incredible is overweight and stuck in a dead end job, Woody is falling apart, and Hiccup is a 98 lb. weakling. The same kind of conflict, just wrapped up in a different package.

Contrast that with Anna from When Marnie Was Here: she hates herself.

This is not some happy-bouncy-lampy thing here. Anna’s perception of herself outside of the circle with everyone else inside defines her dysfunctional Way of Thinking. Like Hamlet before her, Anna’s problem is how she thinks and specifically, how she thinks of herself (Main Character Problem: Self-Aware).

Hard to imagine talking toys dealing with the same thing.

In fact Marnie’s Overall Story Throughline—the part of the story that encompasses everyone—isn’t about fighting, or getting back home, or training how to kill dragons. It is something vastly more sophisticated and heady: the imbalance in the story that everyone feels revolves around Anna’s depression and her inability to recall her relationship with her Grandma. Most films spell out their Overall Story Throughline in the title: Finding Nemo, Star Wars, A Separation. The same happens here—but in the original Japanese title. Omoide no Mani litterally translates to Marnie of [my] Memories. Seems the Japanese might know a thing or two about exploring problems having to do with Fixed Attitudes.

And these Fixed Attitudes affects everyone from her foster mother Yariko to the Oiwa’s who take her in to the “fat pig” Nobuko and ultimately to Marnie herself. Even the little girl who befriends her, Sayaka, the one who provides her ample Evidence from which to force those recollections (Overall Story Issue, along with the silo and the house), can’t comprehend why Anna seems to have forgotten everything.

But Anna has. Instead of addressing the Overall Story Problem of Self-Aware, she focuses on her longing to be with Marnie and her ability or inability to make it through the marsh (Overall Story Symptom: Desire and Overall Story Response: Ability). The ebb and flow of that emotional tide between Marnie and Anna reflects beautifully the heart of the story—the Relationship Story Throughline.

Separated by the veil that sits between life and death, both Marnie and Anne find themselves unable to accurately predict when they will run in to one another again (Relationship Story Issue: Prediction and Relationship Story Throughline: Situation). Even the title, When Marnie Was There, suggests an emotional loss occurring because one is no longer there. That unfairness, or abandonment at too young an age, keeps them coupled together across time (Relationship Story Problem: Inequity) and draws them ever closer. It is only once Anna forgives Marnie for leaving that she is able to rise above the tide of her own emotions, removing that self-hating chip on her shoulder and finding relief from her grief in the process (Relationship Story Solution: Equity, Main Character Growth: Stop, and Story Judgment: Good).

Hisako’s unraveling of Marnie’s story flips the last switch in Anna’s emotional growth. By drawing Anna out of her compulsive self-obsessions and woe is me thought process, Hisako makes it possible for Anna to become more aware of what is really going on around her (Main Character Issue: Circumstances and Overall Story Solution: Aware). With that growth in place, Anna can tend to things outside of her own circle and finally remember her grandmother’s face (Main Character Solution: Aware and Story Outcome: Success).

When Marnie Was a There reflects more than simply cultural differences in storytelling. Sure, the Main Character Problem-Solving Style of Holistic is typically only found outside of the States, but it is the entirety of the storyform itself that truly sets this film apart.1 Marnie feels like a sophisticated play because its areas of conflict mimic familiar fare like Hamlet and 12 Angry Men.

The brain trust at Pixar, and now Disney, always pride themselves on looking to Miyazaki and Co. for inspiration. They would do well to break out of their own preconceptions and examine this film for its unique and refined structure. If When Marnie Was There is any indication, we can write something more emotionally complex. Something beautifully moving. We just need to keep ourselves aware of what is out there, lest we crawl back into our own walled circles and tend to our wounds of self-hatred with the same story.


  1. In addition to the sound design. Can’t forget the wind in the grass and the light tap-tap-tapping of humid rain on wood. ↩︎

Final Storyform Settings

Story Engine Settings for When Marnie Was There:

The image above is taken from the Story Engine window of Dramatica Story Expert. Story points in BLUE represent choices made by the user. Story points in RED reflect implied story elements provided by Dramatica.

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