The legendary Studio Ghibli have done it again with the stunning When Marnie Was There. The film was released in Japan back in 2014 but was only widely released in June 2016. The film’s reception has been mostly positive, which is really what you’d hope for when it comes to the last Ghibli film to be released before the studio’s indefinite (and heartbreaking) hiatus.
The film begins in much the same was as many other Ghibli films – a young girl has moved to a strange new place. In this case, the young girl in question is Anna (Sara Takatsuki), a shy 12-year-old whose asthma has been made worse by the dirty city air.
Hoping to improve her health, Anna is sent to a rural town to stay with relatives of her foster mother, Yoriko (Nanako Matsushima). As a very reserved young girl, Anna struggles to engage with these near-strangers, making the first few days of her stay rather awkward. After a while, however, Anna meets a girl named Marnie (Kasumi Arimura) who appears to be about her age. The beautiful Marnie, with her stunning blonde hair, old-fashioned wardrobe and vacant home, could be Anna’s key to learning how to bond with people again.
While many feel let down by the film’s lack of spirits, monsters or any other form of weird and whacky creature, the main strength of this piece lies in its clever characterisation. Each character in this film is unique and believable – charmingly human, suitably likeable (or dislikeable) and unmistakably flawed. Anna is pleasant and talented, but very insecure. Yoriko is kind and loving, but worries too much. Marnie is beautiful and full of life, but has been left badly damaged by a life of neglect. The film creates an incredibly real network of people who love each other, with or without their flaws.
When Marnie Was There appears to stem from the studio’s subtle Anglophilia, its enchantment with England and English culture. Like a number of other Ghibli films – such as Arrietty and Howl’s Moving Castle – Marnie is an adaptation of a classic children’s book from England. Joan Robinson’s 1967 novel When Marnie Was There was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal the year it was published, Ghibli’s co-founder Hayao Miyazaki listing it as one of his fifty favourite children’s books. Although the setting of the story has been moved from Norfolk to Sapporo, aspects of the story’s western roots can be seen in Marnie’s long, blonde hair and blue eyes.
The film’s plot strikes a perfect balance between simplicity and intrigue. We find ourselves mystified by Marnie – Who is she? Is she a ghost? A flashback? A dream? – yet this mystery manages not to teeter over the edge of confusion. Our enjoyment of the film is not marred by frustration at the complexity of the story’s many layers. Instead, it’s enhanced by the depth that these layers contribute to the viewer’s experience. There are no loose ends which the ending fails to tie up, only a pleasing open-endedness. While the events of the plot do not transform the lives of every character they touch, we are left in no doubt that these lives have been, at the very least, enhanced by the experience.
Another strength, contributing to the film’s mystery, is found in the ambiguity surrounding the nature of Marnie and Anna’s relationship. Of course it does not help that Marnie is, by nature, a deeply complex character who transfers this complexity onto everything she touches. Their friendship, if that’s how we are to read it, is one which overflows with tension, jealousy and codependence, so the viewer can be forgiven for reading this as more of a romantic relationship.
While revelations which come later in the film seem to destroy any argument for this as a romantic entanglement, it’s important to note that this may be intentional. Consider the time of the original novel’s writing, and indeed Ghibli’s status as a company which produces “family-friendly” films (let’s not talk about Pom Poko). This is the closest either context would allow to a genuine romantic attachment between two young girls. The romantic story, then, becomes hidden in the subtext, while the primary plotline switches its focus to a lonely child who finds a supernatural friend in her time of need.
Even outside of the potential romance, When Marnie Was There raises questions of what “love” is. Anna finds herself growing jealous of Marnie, who still knows her birth parents. They are shown to be a generous, popular couple who throw lots of parties and buy her presents and pretty dresses. However, all is not as it seems, as in reality Marnie is suffering from neglect, her parents often leaving her with her cruel nanny and twin maids who abuse her. Marnie, then, is jealous of Anna because although her parents are dead, at least she can know for certain that her foster mother loves and wants her. The film begs the question of what family truly means. Are your family the people with whom you share your genes, or the people who take the time to love and care for you?
Needless to say, like every other Ghibli film out there, this film’s animation is absolutely stunning. It isn’t Ghibli’s finest by a long shot but in the grand scheme of animated films, it is still part of the cream which rises to the top. And this is a summary you can apply to much of the film:
When Marnie Was There is truly wonderful, an absolute pleasure to watch and easily one of the best animated films to reach the UK this year. When considered purely on the grounds of its own merits, there are very few faults to find. However, it is almost impossible to judge a Studio Ghibli film in isolation. This film falls just short of the bar which has been set unattainably high by the studio’s previous productions.
Despite this, Marnie is undeniably a good film. It may not become your new favourite Ghibli film, but it won’t be a disappointment either. It isn’t a film you’ll regret watching, but it might be one you’ll regret missing.