Many an animation fan will scrutinise When Marnie Was There for being the last Studio Ghibli feature for a while, particularly in the wake of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement from the form with 2013’s The Wind Rises. They have nothing to fear with Japanese animation in the hands of Hiromasa Yonebayashi. While he departed the company late last year in search of a subsequent career step that Ghibli seemed unable or unwilling to provide, the way he continues their strong output (including The Wind Rises and last year’s ethereal Tale of the Princess Kaguya) shows no ill will. Like his 2010 debut Arrietty, here he adapts one of the fifty children’s books publicly endorsed by Miyazaki, but he infuses this one with a light surreality, at least when placed next to the old-world charms of past Ghibli. At the same time, it tells a touching story about reconnecting with the crucial familial bonds that adolescence obscures, placing it firmly in their canon’s spiritual tradition as a tender, engaging work.
Marnie thrives in its use of family relationships as a dramatic centrepiece, and makes this abundantly clear from the outset when its protagonist, twelve year-old Anna, is sent away from urban Sapporo to stay with relatives in rural Hokkaido. It’s ostensibly to treat her asthma, but given her detachment from her adult guardian and other kids her age, there’s clearly a deeper wound to heal that Yonebayashi and his story team keep under wraps for much of the runtime. As their heroine contorts in the new environment, she stumbles across a mysterious mansion across the bay, where she encounters a free-spirited young girl named Marnie that she makes startlingly fast friends with. More than a mysterious girl next door, Marnie catalyses in Anna a way of rekindling storge love, at a time when her parental absence and adolescent anxiety is blinding her to it. As elucidating as Marnie is, something about her isn’t quite rooted in reality – Anna keeps waking up in the dirt after their encounters as though she has been dreaming, which thankfully doesn’t prompt many questions from her forgiving aunt and uncle but has her grappling with the mystery of who Marnie really is, along with new ways of seeing the world and people around her. Later plot turns not only give her answers, but bring the film’s thematic arc to a close so fitting that any other is unimaginable.
The persistent withholding of the full story would be aggravating in less skilled storytellers’ hands, but not with Yonebayashi and his cohorts, who counteract it through masterfully subtle environment and character interactions. The bucolic Hokkaido countryside never fails to look stunning, right from the opening reveals from the view of Aunt and Uncle’s car, which should remind many of the serene opening to Spirited Away. Like that film, it becomes an important contrast to the Wonderland of fantastical scenes that Anna is pulled through later, in this case bourgeoisie parties that take place in Marnie’s home. Evocative as they are, the village Anna stays in has its charms as well. The warmth of her relatives’ home, the jangly crowd of kids running from door to door for the Tanabata festival, the placid low tide that Anna crosses to find the warm-lit mansion where Marnie lives; these are all sublime sights that make for a wonderfully understated milieu that Anna develops a mindfulness for.
There’s no lack of drama along the way, however. Anna is driven to Marnie’s presence by the stuffy traditions forced upon her, and that isn’t limited to an ill-fitting yukata. She is paralysed by the social environment dwelled in by her peers, who are designed to be as overbearing and snobbish to her as possible. “To her” is the operative phrase there, because as mean as those girls are, the cast are as are as diverse, winsome and understandable from an audience standpoint as they ever have been in Ghibli productions. Fans have been won over by Mononoke, Nausicaa, et al by their stillness as much as their motion, and the social encounters of Marnie are rich with awkwardness, humour and other humane inflections where the gaps matter as much as the words. They’re delivered here in a way that don’t just add weight to the emotional bonds between characters, but bring the studio’s unique style hurtling into a modern era and make Anna a deeply empathetic protagonist. Coupled with an arc that’s bitingly tragic but hopeful, she’s one of the strongest leads that the studio has ever produced.
Many will walk out of When Marnie Was There wiping tears out of their eyes. Indeed, its story content and earnest theme song by Priscilla Ahn seem to demand it. Ghibli has rarely been one to take the easy route though, and that remains true by the time they wrap on Anna’s story as well as its own. Through the on-screen weeping and declarations of love is a deep respect for ancestry and an radiant optimism in the future, making this a lovely yet understated note to finish on. “Don’t cry because it’s over…” they say, before humbly leaving the rest to you.