When Marnie Was There isn’t a perfect Ghibli film, but it has enough heart and charm to carry it through
“Marnie adored that mansion. She loved seeing the marsh from her window. She said it felt likethe birds spoke to her. She had a lonely life, but she lived it fully. Always with a smile, determined to be happy.”
When Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement to the world a couple of years ago, there was a collective, mournful silence from the world. It would leave a huge hole in the world of both Japanese animation and filmmaking as a whole. But at least Studio Ghibli would still be creating content, right? The studio then announced it was going on an indefinite hiatus due to Miyazaki’s retirement. When Marnie Was There is, for all intents and purposes, their final film. So how does it look?
When Marnie Was There starts the same way a lot of Ghibli films do: with a girl in a new environment. Anna is a foster child in Sapporo, and despite her comfortable life, is unhappy. One day, after collapsing at school from an asthma attack, she is sent to live with relatives in the country over the summer, for her health. While she has trouble fitting in with the other girls, she finds solace in an abandoned, old European-style house across a marsh. Briefly, in a glowing window, she spies a girl, looking out.
This blonde, blue-eyed girl is Marnie, who lives there with her parents and maids. Anna sees the derelict house now full of furniture and people, and is immediately taken with her, believing she has met Marnie before. The two form a friendship, and Anna finally finds someone she can confide in. Fascinated by the girl, Anna seeks to find out all she can, encountering along the way a young girl who has moved into the house, and someone claiming to have once known Marnie.
When Marnie was There is a strong (potentially) final film for the studio. While it may have a lot of the elements that make for a true Ghibli classic, it also lacks some key ones. Anna, for example, is not quite the most likeable of leads. It takes time for her story to be fleshed out, and in that time she comes across as brash and a tad annoying. But even when we do find out the source of her angst (she learns her foster parents are receiving money from the government. Gasp!), it’s somewhat lacklustre. Especially when it’s followed by Marnie’s story of emotional neglect and torturous maids. As a result, Anna won’t be able to find a spot in the list of top Ghibli leads, like Chihiro or Nausicaa.
I find it particularly interesting that while the film keeps a consistent style and tone throughout, there are weird moments when it feels like you’re watching the set-up to a psychological thriller, or a horror film. It’s immediately evident that Marnie isn’t physically there; the abandoned house being the first clue, but what she is is never really touched upon. Who she is is answered and clear by the end of the movie, but what Anna is experiencing is left up to the viewer to piece together.
So maybe cohesion isn’t When Marnie Was There’s biggest strength. But that’s not where it puts most of its efforts. The characterisations are strong, even in minor roles, and the village presented feels almost real. Ghibli is known for its rich world building, even in small, real-world places such as the ones presented in Whipser of the Heart and Marnie. It helps that the art throughout is some of the studio’s finest, presenting their trademark landscapes with the saturation only an animated piece could have, but with little details that add a level of realism. Ghibli films exist in a world where even grey, miserable day is a work of art.
It’s easy and recommendable to let yourself be swept away by this film, like the incoming tide washes over the marsh to Marnie’s house. The logic doesn’t matter, not really. It’s the emotion present here that counts and Ghibli once again proves that an animated film doesn’t need to be about the out-there and fantastical. All it needs is a strong story, a sense of wonder and a cast of characters you like watching for an hour and a half, and this film has all of it. Topped off with a quite endearing and sincerely sweet final act, and When Marnie Was There ticks all of the boxes for good, even great, film. To say that this isn’t Ghibli’s best film is less a comment on the movie and more a statement to the wonderful work the studio has brought us over the years.
If this really is their last piece, Studio Ghibli will be sorely missed. Creators of gorgeous worlds, stunning animation and highly compelling characters, their contribution to Asian cinema, and in bringing it to the west, will not be forgotten, but they also leave behind a collection of films that have set the standard for animation and filmmaking as a whole. When Marnie Was There might not be the perfect Ghibli film, but by looking at the ghosts of the past, and reconciling with the present, it’s the most fitting.
Verdict: Sweet and poignant, When Marnie was There makes another great addition to the Ghibli roster.
When Marnie Was There (2014)
Also known as: 思い出のマーニー (Omoide no Māni “Marnie of my Memories”)
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall enjoyability: 8/10
Lingering shots over gorgeous scenery: Tonnes
The sense that it’s going to turn into a psychological horror at any point: 10/10
Sex: This is a Ghibli film about a 12-year old girl/10
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers: Joan G. Robinson, Keiko Niwa
Sara Takatsuki – Anna Sasaki
Kasumi Arimura – Marnie
Nanako Matsushima – Yoriko Sasaki
Susumu Terajima – Kiyomasa Oiwa
Toshie Negishi – Setsu Oiwa
Ryôko Moriyama – Elderly Lady
Kazuko Yoshiyuki – Nanny
Hitomi Kuroki – Hisako