Cast: (voiced by) Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly, Grey Griffin, Catherine O’Hara, Ellen Burstyn, Vanessa Williams
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers: Masashi Ando, Keiko Niwa, Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Since Studio Ghibli doesn’t seem to have any movies in development at the moment, it looks like When Marnie Was There could very well be their final picture. This gives the film an added emotional weight as it marks the end of a significant chapter in world cinema. From the tragedy of Grave of the Fireflies to the enchantment of Spirited Away to the poetry of The Wind Rises, Studio Ghibli has certainly left its mark. It introduced an entirely different culture and new form of film to children worldwide and told incredible stories in fantastic ways that Western studios can only dream of emulating. Ghibli often treated its audience with the utmost seriousness and was never afraid to include challenging subjects, mature themes and moments of tranquillity and stillness. If When Marnie Was There does indeed mark the end of this astonishing movement in Japanese film, then it is to be sure a fine way to end nearly thirty years of cinematic magic.
Anna is an introverted orphan girl who feels like an outcast and suffers from severe depression. After collapsing from an asthmatic attack she is sent to stay with her foster-mother’s cousins in the countryside for the summer. There she still remains isolated and actively refuses to socialise with others or open herself up to anyone. She does however become fascinated with a mansion, long since abandoned, across a marsh from the rest of the town and spends her days drawing pictures of it. One night she ventures there and meets a free-spirited girl called Marnie and is immediately entranced by her. The two form a deep, affective friendship and spend their nights meeting in secret to learn more about each other and go on adventures. As Marnie opens Anna’s eyes to an entirely new world and way of living, Anna starts to wonder whether Marnie is even real or if she is simply a figment of her imagination.
Like many of the films Ghibli has produced, When Marnie Was There touches on themes of friendship, compassion and fantasy and depicts a young girl’s search for emotional strength. It is a tender film with an utterly moving relationship at its centre. Anna, largely due to being an orphan, has never felt like she has ever belonged and hates herself for not being “normal”. She separates herself from all the other girls her own age by cutting her hair short, wearing collared shirts and shorts, and refusing to participate in such activities as shopping and talking about boys. Marnie meanwhile has everything a young girl could ever want, a home, family and comfort, but feels just as lost and alone as Anna does. She is a playful, carefree girl with long blonde hair and pretty dresses who lives life with a certain whimsicality. Although they are virtual opposites, they find in each other what it is they want more than anything else. Anna finds happiness and Marnie finds security.
When I saw the trailer for this film I felt there was a strong suggestion that the relationship between Anna and Marnie would be a romantic one. This had me interested, as I cannot think of a single mainstream children’s film that has openly depicted an LGBT relationship as its central focus. However, without giving too much away, this idea is pretty much laid to rest by the film’s ending and its unambiguously platonic resolution. And yet, before the film reached its third act, I was convinced by the girls’ statements, expressions and gestures that their bond was an intimate one. I’m wondering now if this is something I’ve imagined or if their affection is rather indicative of cultural differences that my Western perception has failed to appreciate. Given the secretive nature of the relationship, the loneliness and isolation that they both feel when they’re not together and the way the act and speak when they are around each other, it seems to me that a romantic bond is perfectly within character for them both. If this was intentional on the film’s part then I applaud it for creating what I found to be a moving and tender portrayal of young love.
Even without the romantic connotations that may or may not be present, When Marnie Was There still works as a touching film about family, loneliness and the search for belonging and acceptance. The fantasy elements work to add in and extra layer of mystery and mystique in Anna’s quest to discover herself. As their relationship develops Anna finds herself unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. She doesn’t know if Marnie is a ghost or an imaginary friend she has created and finds that while she is with her she forgets details about her own life. All Anna really knows for sure is that she cares about Marnie more than anybody else and needs her and that Marnie feels exactly the same way. The journey they go through together and the discoveries they make all amount to a beautiful film. If this is to be Studio Ghibli’s swan song, then this lovingly written and exquisitely drawn film is a fine way to cement their legacy once and for all.