When Marnie Was There
Rumors are being whispered that When Marnie Was There is going to be the last film Studio Ghibli makes before it permanently disbands. The retirements of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the famed Japanese animation studio’s twin directors, ostensibly means the loss of virtually all of the creative and directing presence in the studio. Thus, how financially successful When Marnie Was There was stated to be crucial in determining the future of one of the world’s most illustrious film studios. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s second film evokes powerful emotions while skimping on characters and plot, and while it doesn’t come close to competing with Ghibli’s most memorable and inventive movies, it makes a good case for convincing the studio to stay open and keep entertaining the world.
A number of factors touch on the same motifs as other Ghibli movies, but Yonebayashi demonstrates that he possesses a unique style of his own, and is no mere imitator of his Ghibli predecessors. Anna Sasaki is a teenage girl who describes her melancholy mental condition bluntly: “I hate myself.” She is an orphan who rarely speaks, rarely smiles, and has no friends, viewing herself as shut out of what she describes as the invisible circle that surrounds people who are connected and have happiness and friendship in their lives. Her worried adoptive mother sends Anna to spend a summer living with two relatives in the countryside, hoping that the fresh air and solitude will help ameliorate Anna’s asthma and her persistent sadness.
As in Yonebayashi’s debut feature, The Secret World of Arrietty, also based on a British novel like Marnie, and Ghibli movies such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, a youth with poor health takes refuge in the country to heal, and encounters strange new people. Arrietty featured Borrowers, tiny people who quietly lived among regularly sized humans; the figure of fascination in this film is Marnie, a vivacious and enigmatic blonde girl who immediately strikes a rapport with the always-alone Anna. Spending time with Marnie gives Anna more fun than she has had in a long time, but she begins to notice some strange things about her new friend. Marnie appears and disappears quickly and quietly. She never leaves the mansion she lives alone in, which is abandoned and decaying during the day but is lively and resplendent at night. Who is Marnie, and what is her relationship with Anna? What is up with the mansion by the marshes that is alternately bereft and brimming with people?
Par for the course of any Ghibli film, Marnie is unfailingly beautiful, bolstering Ghibli’s claim as having the most talented and hardworking animators in the film industry. Every color bursts with life. Figures move and react with infectious energy, from limbs of people down to blades of grass. Even the minute appearances of mushrooms and the texture of tomatoes are rendered with painstaking care, and for the greatness of its animation alone, this film deserves to be watched. It’s unfortunate that its story and characterization are far less complex and have received less polish. The suspense is much lower than that of Arrietty, which is perhaps a consequence of this movie handling more subdued themes than Yonebayashi’s first film.
The reasons for Anna’s suffering are unclear at first, but the film gradually elucidates the traumas that have left her battered, and Marnie reveals her own struggles of being neglected by her wealthy parents and abused by her guardians. Marnie is a movie that deals with growing up and the lingering resentments and bitterness caused by keeping secrets. Anna and Marnie bond over their mutual suffering, since they have no one else they can divulge their issues with. This dilemma is constructed over a tepid plot and mystery that gets solved in a dull manner. Most of the film follows Anna summering in the idyllic countryside by the sea and having an escapade with Marnie every now and then. Occasionally, the film remembers to tell a story, but it only picks up serious momentum two thirds of the way in. Its method of crafting and unveiling the mystery of Marnie is frustratingly uncreative and too quiet to be praised as subtle.
For a movie that features Marnie in its name, Marnie only appears in earnest about half an hour into the movie, and overall is present for too short a time to be a fully fleshed out character. Any character who isn’t Anna or Marnie receives even shorter shrift; a lot of minor supporting characters are mere props driving the plot along at certain points. One character exists primarily to serve as a conduit for solving most of the mysteries and for delivering formerly unknown backstory. She pops up on a few occasions early on and then then gets the lion’s share of her speaking role during the third act, telling most of the story and filling in crucial gaps. In this way, the film’s script takes a lazy storytelling route, and the hurried explanation of the history between Marnie and Anna has the unintended effect of making the first hour feel even less interesting and purposeful.
While not as aimless as From Up On Poppy Hill, When Marnie Was There is nowhere as memorable as Whisper of the Heart, Almost Yesterday, or any of Ghibli’s best slice-of-life films. It combines gorgeous visual palettes with profound meditations on human relations, but disappoints with its featherweight story. Ghibli devotees will absolutely enjoy this film, while non-fans may be left yawning. Everyone, however, should be hoping that this is not the last hurrah for a studio that has demonstrated it has many tales left to tell.