Tuesday, July 7, 2015

When Marnie Was There Adoption Movie Review - A Foster-Care Ghost Story.

When 12-year-old foster child Anna Sasaki collapses at school from an asthma attack, her long-time foster mother sends her away from the big city of Sapporo to Kushiro, a rural area where the foster mother’s family lives. Although she has been sent to Kushiro to recover her physical health, Anna finds answers that have been plaguing her peace of mind, and she also meets Marnie, a friend with a very mysterious past.

The Adoption Connection

This movie is very relevant to foster care and adoption. Anna expressed that she feels like an outsider. She is being cared for by Yuriko, who she alternatively describes as “my mother,” “Yuriko,” “my guardian,” “auntie” and “my foster mother.” Anna has been living with Yuriko and her husband for seven years. Anna has learned that Yuriko receives money from the government for serving as a foster parent – however, Yuriko does not know that Anna knows. Anna is torn apart inside by this knowledge, wondering whether Yuriko could actually love her, since she’s getting paid. At one point, when Anna is sick, she apologizes to Yuriko for “costing you money again.” This baffles Yuriko, but it shows that Anna struggles with knowing whether she is actually loved. Later, Anna expresses her sorrow at the circumstances of her life, expressing that her wish is for “a normal life every day.”
Yuriko talks to a doctor about Anna. Yuriko notes that Anna does not show her emotions. She wonders aloud, “Maybe it’s because we’re not related by blood.”
When in Kushiro, Anna is convinced by her foster aunt and uncle of Yuriko’s love for her, and by the end of the story, Anna appears to accept Yuriko as her mother.

Anna also learns the story of how she came into foster care, and quite a bit about her birth family’s history.

(Major Spoiler Alert – the rest of this section contains major spoilers.)

Anna reluctantly identifies herself as a foster child. She explains, “My real parents died when I was little, my grandma too. I know they didn’t die on purpose, but sometimes I feel I can’t forgive them for leaving me alone.”

Anna sees an abandoned house across a marsh which is strangely familiar to her. While exploring, Anna meets her mysterious friend, Marnie. Marnie and Anna share their stories with each other, and they find comfort in each other’s understanding. Marnie is actually a ghost, but she is also Anna’s birth grandmother, returning in the form she had when she was a girl of Anna’s age. It’s interesting to imagine what it would be like to meet my grandparents as peers of my own age. Anna learns Marnie’s story, and from Marnie, finds out how she herself came to be in foster care. Although it is a story with significant sadness and loss, there are also notes of joy, perseverance and determination. After she knows her story, Anna is much more at peace.

Anna’s words to Marnie might echo the feelings of people separated by adoption, saying at one point, “You left me behind… I won’t forgive you, leaving me behind without a word… Why did you betray me?” and at another point, “I missed you – I kept calling you with my heart… I’ll never forget you,” and ultimately telling her, “Of course I forgive you. I love you, and I won’t forget you.”

Marnie was neglected and abused as a child. Anna and Marnie both envy each other – Anna envies Marnie for growing up with her birth family, and Marnie envies Anna for living in a safe, loving home with kindhearted people.

Strong Points

Anna’s foster mother and her extended foster family truly do show their love and fondness for her throughout the film. Her aunt explains that her foster mother was “ecstatic” when Anna first arrived, and she spent much time teaching her life skills “to make up for the five years she didn’t get with you.” All members of Yuriko’s family embrace Anna as part of their family.

Anna learns her whole story – even going back a couple generations – of how she came into foster care, and the fact that Yuriko does receive payment (or rather, money for Anna’s expenses) for caring for Anna. Having all truth open and accessible is very healing to Anna, and she is able to find wholeness by knowing the truth. I can’t think of a more important message for foster and adoptive families – truth, lovingly and skillfully shared, helps people heal.

Anna is able to express powerful emotions about the circumstances of her life, and the people in her birth family and adoptive family to whom she expresses those feelings always respond with love.

Spoiler Alert ***** The film captures the importance of physical locations to adoptees – it is often quite powerful and meaningful to return to places that were part of one’s story before the adoption or entry into foster care. ***** End spoiler


Although she intended well, when Yuriko sent Anna away “to get well” it might have felt like abandonment to Anna, especially since Anna was wondering whether she was loved or just a source of income. In fact, Anna later explains to another child that Yuriko sent her to Kushiro because “I worried her, so she got rid of me for a while.” The fact that Yuriko sent her there by putting her on a train by herself makes it more likely that Anna might have felt abandoned.

Anna struggles to view herself as Yuriko’s child and struggles to view Yuriko as her parent. This is expressed in her word choice, “I’m not their real child, but they raised me, which I appreciate, but one day I saw, they get paid for it. They get paid because I’m not their real child. Even worse, they hide it from me.” Ultimately, through access to honest information, Anna is able to view herself as having two sets of real parents, integrating her identities and achieving what Lori Holden would call wholeness. (Click here for more from Lori on wholeness in adoptee identity.) and while you're at it... (Click here for Lori's well-received book on how openness in adoption can help children achieve wholeness).

This is, at times, a very sad story. Viewers could resonate painfully with Marnie’s or Anna’s experiences, but it does seem that both characters find resolution by the end of the film – so the film could be helpful for connecting with and working through painful emotions, even for people who will recognize aspects of their own stories in the movie.

Weak Points

In a couple scenes, Anna wakes up by the side of the road, dirty and disoriented. It’s initially unclear what has brought her there, and this could be concerning or troubling for some viewers.


What an emotional experience this film is. Some aspects of When Marnie Was There might make it too scary, or too slow, for young viewers. It seems like a better fit for kids ages 11 and up. There is a lot of relevance to foster care and adoption. Anna does not look like the other kids around her – her eyes are blue, “like a foreigner,” while her peers all appear to be Japanese. Kids who have been adopted cross-culturally may resonate with this. Anna also wonders about the meaning of the fact that her guardians receive money for her care. This could be a very real concern for many kids in foster care, or adopted out of foster care, or for people who question the role of money when it’s connected to care or adoption. The film’s message is, “we do receive money, but it doesn’t change the fact that we love you.” It could be a helpful tool in having that conversation with your kids, if this is something that they’ve been (perhaps secretly) wondering or worrying about. Finally, the film highlights the importance of honesty. Anna feels so much better and so much freer after she knows her own history and also after Yuriko openly talks with her about the issue of financial reimbursement for foster care. I’d recommend this one for kids age 11 and up, as well as for adults who are involved in adoption or foster care. It’s a good one for adults and kids to watch together or for adults to watch alone.

Questions for Discussion

How do you imagine Anna felt when she was sent away to Kushiro?

What places are important to you, before you came here?

Why is it sad to be in foster care? Why might it be sad to not have been taken into care?

How do you achieve a full, integrated acceptance of your story?

Related Films

The recently-released Disney/Pixar film Inside Out also examines the source of the emotions of a pre-teen girl. Click here for the Adoption Movie Review of Inside Out.

In Kung Fu Panda 2, Mr. Ping shares Po’s adoption story with him. Po finds it possible to integrate all parts of his identity, and he is helped by knowing the truth. Click here for the Adoption Movie Review of Kung Fu Panda 2.

In Closure, a young adult who was adopted from foster care as an infant travels across the country in order to find answers about the circumstances of her adoption and the identity of her birth family. Click here for the Adoption Movie Review of Closure.

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