When Marnie Was There: why we see what we want to see

A couple of weeks back, I saw Yonebayashi Hiromasa’s second Ghibli film again. Based on the book of the same name by Joan Robinson, When Marnie Was There tells the story of Anna, a young girl searching for a place in a world that she believes has abandoned her. Sent away to a seaside town, she appears to find it when she meets Marnie, a girl that seems to be as lonely as she is. But is all really as it seems?


Numerous others have or will undoubtedly review Marnie in greater depth and with far greater understanding of both Robinson’s original novel and how Yonebayashi and his team worked to bring its atmosphere to the screen. Hence, I wish to focus just on what we can learn from this glimpse into Anna’s life, for it is something that all of us would benefit from in our own lives.

At the time we met her, Anna certainly had had an unfortunate life, one that connects to her loneliness. After losing her parents at a young age, she is taken in by a childless couple of no relation to her. Having been ‘abandoned’ by all her loved ones, she feels cut-off from those around her, a feeling exacerbated by the deep blue eyes that make her stand out amongst her classmates. We might be inclined to criticise Japan’s group culture, whereby one person may be discriminated against because everyone else wants to appear to be part of the group. However, Anna herself is clearly involved in creating and maintaining that wall. She also pushes her foster parents away, addressing her mother by ‘Auntie’ instead, and is inclined to interpret everything they do as indicating that they only took her in out of self-interest. Anna’s negatively has caused her to see everything according to the lens of ‘they all don’t care for me, they only care about themselves’.

“So what if she’s a bit late!”

Whilst there are indeed some people who are trapped in such circumstances, as the audience, we can see that this isn’t the case for Anna. Her foster mother asks about her life at school because she is concerned that she is not fitting in. She sends her away to the seaside not because she is tired of her, but in the hope that the change of scenery and company will cheer her daughter up. And the Oiwa couple do not scold her for straying too far or staying out late because they understand that she’s trying to work things out for herself. Personally, I think they could have been a bit more worried that they didn’t know where she was after the festival, though perhaps that’s more of an indication of how safe they regard their little community to be.

“I found a letter. It said that they were increasing the subsidy for me.”

I won’t comment on where Anna ends up—that’s what the viewing experience is for. But I want to emphasise that what Anna did is what all of us tend to do: we look for or interpret evidence such that it backs up what we already know, or rather, believe to be true. In psychology and cognitive science, this is known as ‘confirmation bias’, and we can see it every single day in the media, not only in editorial-type programs but even in news reports. But we do this not just with regards to larger scale developments or incidents involving many people, but right down to little behavioural tics that someone might have. I know I’ve done this; I’ve seen friends and family do it; I’ve even had a jarring experience when confirmation bias was applied in a situation that I was involved in, with hugely negative consequences.

“I just can’t believe in anything anymore!”

But confirmation bias does not have to rule our lives. If we understand this tendency of ours, we can learn to mitigate and perhaps even overcome it, more or less. Many people have already written a range of advice as to how to accomplish this, but I’d argue that the first and most important step is for each individual to be aware of it. The tricky part is that it’s something that few people can realise on their own — most will need some kind of prompt or lesson. I wish I could say that that one, jarring incident ensured that I always try to look at things from viewpoints other than my own—and I believe it has, at least with regards to interpreting the messages of the media I consume—but it’s still very difficult when it comes to real life. So I certainly don’t expect anyone to completely overcome it in all situations; it’s probably not even possible. Nevertheless, as long as we try to remember the dangers of confirmation bias, there’s always hope, right?

p.s. It is still difficult to believe that When Marnie Was There may be the last Ghibli film to grace our screens. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s one of the reasons I haven’t seen Ronia the Robber’s Daughter yet—I just haven’t been able to find the time—but when I do, it will certainly be in the spirit of treasuring what may be one of the last times I see the beauty that can be produced with traditional hand-drawn Japanese animation.

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

3 Responses to When Marnie Was There: why we see what we want to see

  1. lamdofthekwt says:

    Thank for the review. I watched When Marnie was There after reading it. A great movie about a confused girl who finds out who she is. Love that she waved to her new friend and Marnie was waving to her out the window of the Marsh House. It shows how far she has come to To be able to call her Aunt Mom was a great moment. When the artist said “You have seen Marnie” and when she forgave Marnie something Marnie had been waiting for all those years.


    • karice says:

      Agreed – I loved that they showed us how much Anna had changed by interacting with Marnie and Sayaka. And how she managed to befriend Toichi (and old man with the boat). But at the same time, I appreciated how it wasn’t too unbelievable, that she is still sorting out how she should relate to her foster parents (she was still unable to call Yoriko “Mum” instead of “Auntie”—she said “Obā-chan” rather than “Okā-chan” in the scene on the balcony of the Oiwa house—but still, as you pointed out, she managed to introduce her to Hisako as “my mother” (“haha”)).

      Is the book good? I haven’t read it myself, and was wondering if I should try it one day.


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