Sunday, September 19, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: When Marnie Was There.


To start off with, I want to say that it's hard to talk about this book without giving away spoilers. So, if you care about that sort of thing, I suggest that you stop now and go read the book or at least watch the movie (which I will also be talking about).

Good. Okay, so let's go.

When Marnie Was There book, vintage cover

When Marnie Was There is a young adult novel by British author Joan G. Robinson and published in 1967. It focuses on a 12-year old girl named Anna. Anna is a foster child and frequently feels lonely and unloved and as if she is separate from everyone else. Due to health concerns, Anna's foster mother whom Anna calls “Auntie” sends her to stay in Norfolk for a while. While in Norfolk, Anna meets a mysterious young girl named Marnie who lives in the large and equally mysterious Marsh House. The two develop a very deep, intimate friendship. Anna's feelings of loneliness and isolation mirror Marnie's life in which she feels neglected due to the frequent absences of her parents and her mistreatment at the hands of the servants. Anna and Marnie bond over a number of things and tell each other a number of secrets (for example: Anna reveals how her foster mother receives a stipend for Anna's care and how much that bothers her). They also engage in a couple of misadventures, such as when Marnie brought Anna into one of her parents' fancy parties in the guise of a beggar girl. This goes on until a climax that happens at a dilapidated windmill that Marnie is afraid to enter. After that, things kind of wind down to an ending in which Marnie's mysterious nature and her real connection to Anna is revealed.

And what's revealed is . . . (and here come the big SPOILERS folks)

Marnie was actually Anna's grandmother who had taken care of her for a short time when Anna was very young. Anna's family history and the circumstances by which she became a foster child come to light. Thus, Anna was able to connect with one of the family members she felt abandoned by as a human being and ultimately learn to forgive them. Whether Marnie was actually a ghost of the now-deceased grandmother or if Anna was actually somehow moving back and forth through time is unclear. Though it's also likely unimportant as the magical elements are here to serve Anna's character arc first and foremost.

When Marnie Was There book, modern cover

Now, I don't know quite how other people feel about this book. I've never met anyone else who's read it. Personally, I rather liked it. I like that it had the wherewithal to not explain its primary magical plot device. Because, let's be honest it wasn't really about that (time travel story rule #1: Time travel stories aren't really about time travel. They're about characters, the situations they get in and the experiences they have that change them due to time travel. Even though When Marnie Was There might not actually be time travel). Also, as someone who's read a lot of fairy tales, children's fiction and superhero origin stories, I'm interested in stories that actually care about the psychology and feelings of orphans and kid characters in other tough situations that don't treat them as standard tropes on a checklist. I echoed a similar sentiment regarding the Cinderella character in the Ashley Poston book Geekerella. I suppose that if anyone was able to make that happen, it would be Joan G. Robinson. Robinson made a career of writing about children who don't feel loved, basing much of it on experiences and feelings she herself had as a child. So, I really don't have much else to say. It's a book of big friendships and big feelings that cares about the rich internal lives of children. I do suggest reading it if you can.

But then there's the adaptation. And that's where things get really interesting. At least in the details.

When Marnie Was There film poster

The animated film When Marnie Was There (in Japanese Omoide no Mani or directly translated as Marnie of Memories), was released in 2014. The film was written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

Overall, most of the relevant story and emotional beats are the same. Anna is still a lonely foster child who feels unloved. Marnie is still a mysterious rich girl who is neglected despite seemingly having everything in the world. The friendship is still profound. Secrets are still revealed. The party still happens. The windmill part still happens (though it's not a windmill now, but I'll get to that). Marnie is still really who she was in the book.

The difference is that now, it all happens in Japan. And that can make a big difference.

Now, normally I would warn against one culture co-opting and rewriting the story of another culture. But like I said, very little has been rewritten and what has became a bit more interesting. Also, this is a case where it's the story of one imperial power (Great Britain) being co-opted by another once imperialist country (Japan). Certainly this would be a different situation if Studio Ghibli had taken a story that was Korean, Ainu or Okinawan.

In the movie, Anna is still Anna and Marnie is still Marnie. Everything else is changed or rewritten to be more Japanese. Instead of being Norfolk, the town she's sent to is in Hokkaido. The couple she stays with changes from the Peggs to the Oiwa. The taciturn fisherman who helps Anna out a couple of times changes from Wuntermenny (the name is a joke that I can't explain here. It's explained in the book) to Toichi. A friend Anna meets later changes from Priscilla to Sayaka. And for some reason the windmill changes to a grain silo (are there no windmills in Japan?).

So, what this means is that Marnie wasn't just a rich girl, she was a foreign rich girl spending holidays in Japan. The Marsh House isn't just a big house, it's a big Western style house on the edge of a tiny Japanese coastal town. And Anna isn't just a foster child. She's a foster child of mixed race living in Japan.

Now, I've never been to Japan but I've heard other folks talk about their experience about being a foreigner or gaijin in Japan, so I'm going from that. So, the thing is that the Japanese in general do not in general hate gaijin, which may be what you were expecting. However, gaijin do frequently make Japanese folks feel uneasy. The thing is that Japan is a very risk-averse country and one of the things their culture emphasizes greatly is preserving harmony. Essentially keeping things running smoothly and not causing any unnecessary strain or burden on anyone. So, the assumption is that dealing with gaijin will more likely lead to that disharmony. For example, there are restaurants that put up signs that say things like “we don't serve foreigners” largely because they don't want to put pressure on their largely Japanese staff to serve someone who might not completely understand the language. And restaurants that actively welcome foreigners often do it because they have people on staff who know English and they'll just jump right to taking your order in that language rather than letting you even try to order in Japanese.

And while it may not be done maliciously, it is still othering.

So, with this undercurrent in mind, think of how it impacts a story about a young girl who feels thoroughly othered. And think about how it affects someone like Marnie who not only doesn't see her parents as much as she needs to, but is also in that situation in a strange country. Or think about how the Marsh House must have stuck out like a sore thumb being a Western style mansion on the edge of a more traditionally Japanese rural village.

There's one specific scene that really underscores this. A scene that happened a fair bit differently in the book. In the book, Anna has a conflict with a local girl in which the local girl says Anna is “just what she is” and Anna returns by calling the girl a “fat pig” (honestly, Anna probably could have handled that better). In the book, I believe the conflict happens at the local post office. It does underscore that Anna doesn't like herself because she treats “just what you are” like the worst insult ever. But the movie does more with it.

This time, the scene is set during the Tanabata festival. So, Anna is with the girl and her friends, wearing a borrowed yukata and still feeling out of place but trying to do her best. She's about to engage in one of the festival's traditions of tying a slip of paper with a wish written on it to a tree. Then, the local girl snatches it away and reveals that it says “I wish I could live a normal life”. She then notices and points out that Anna's eyes are “kind of blue”, which to the audience is a marker that she is not 100% Japanese. Then the blow up between the two happens. In that moment, when Anna is trying her best to fit in, this girl managed to blow it all up and reveal not only that Anna feels like she doesn't belong but also points out one of the things that makes her an outsider. It's a scene that really works better due to the setting change.

Anna and Marnie share a dance

There's not much else to talk about here but I do want to touch on one other thing. And that's the potential LGBTQ reading of the story which is essentially clear at the beginning and then denied in both the book and movie by the time it ends. You see, the beginning of Marnie and Anna's story can easily be read as the story of two girls falling in love. There's a lot of physical closeness between the two. There's a lot of emotional intimacy. They straight up tell each other “I love you” a few times. It's to the point where I've seen one internet poster who was absolutely put out by the fact that they had supposedly teased a queer romance and then supposedly changed it at the last minute. Which, really, isn't what they did but I don't blame them for interpreting it as such. Really, I think this is a case where the real culprit is the change in how close friendships are written in literature. Particularly among children. I mean, it's not just among children. One classic example is how the men in the Lord of the Rings treat their comrades with much more emotional openness in those books. They'll often weep and embrace and things like that. But especially between children, there was a tendency of showing friendships as being much more touchy-feely and open and physically expressive. The root of this being that Western fiction, childhood was generally regarded as innocent and downright asexual. Two young girls kissing or holding hands or telling each other they love each other was just them being emotionally straight-forward and innocent. And it's probably an even bigger thing when, like for Anna and Marnie, the friendship is supposed to be this life-changing thing. For another example, I remember in Baum's Oz books, Ozma would often welcome Dorothy to her throne room with a kiss on the cheek. The book didn't change, but the coding did. And it's kind of too bad because this likely gave a bit of false hope to a group of people who've felt starved for media representation.

Well, that's it for now. Next time: our last book and Studio Ghibli's first TV series.

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