*Sniffle* Oh! It’s you! Don’t mind me – I’m just balling my eyes out after having watched When Marnie Was There. But Airman Xley – you don’t show emotion! You’re like film critiquing robot! I know, I know! But what am I to do? Studio Ghibli is the cynic’s kryptonite! If they’re not beating me with the one-two punch of raw emotion and humility, they’re finishing me off with an uplifted disposition on my formerly humdrum life.
Excuse me while evacuate my tear ducts – err – I mean, damn that [insert random allergen]! Oh who am I kidding, I’ve already admitted many times to being a hopeless romantic, and that in and of itself is just a guise to cover up the fact that I’m a big softie.
It’s sad to see legendary director Hayao Miyazaki step down from the company he co-founded, but rest assured, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has confidently picked up the reigns of my heart and spurred it forward to enjoy the next generation of Ghibli animations (assuming they continue).
There will no doubt be an ongoing period of uncertainty for the celebrated studio, but it’s refreshing to note that Yonebayashi and co. carry on the hand-drawn traditions and signature artistic stylings we’ve grown to adore.
I will not delve into rampant speculation about the future of Studio Ghibli simply because I know in my previously icy heart there will always be a call for the poignant storytelling and the craftsmanship of traditional animation.
While Marnie isn’t an original screenplay for the studio – rather an adaptation of the 1967 Joan G. Robinson novel – it does harken back thematically to the more defining gems of the elder Miyazaki era (his son Goro still remains at Ghibli).
After she suffers from an asthma attack at school, the 12-year-old Anna is sent by her foster parents to live in the country with relatives. The girl is antisocial, self-loathing, and low in self-confidence all in spite of having the unconditional love of her adopted mother. Her isolation and introversion are simply the byproducts of rampant feelings of anxiety and abandonment I suppose. Maybe she’s just angsty?
As it would happen, the change of environment is good for Anna, and she benefits tremendously from the simple daily rhythms of living with her Aunt and Uncle in a small coastal town. She quickly becomes enamored with a nearby mansion that seemingly has been abandoned for many years. Known simply as “The Marsh House”, the mansion increasingly creeps into Anna’s dreams along with images of a beautiful young girl who is perhaps a few years her senior.
Upon being drawn to the mansion once again, Anna proceeds to row across the marsh only to nearly capsize before reaching the dock. She is rescued by and subsequently introduced to the girl with flowing blonde hair from her dreams – Marnie. To Anna’s astonishment Marnie and her family live in the Marsh House, although by now it has apparently transformed to look as though it were only recently built.
Marnie is the complete opposite of Anna in that she is outgoing, fearless, and immensely confident in everything she does. Although she carries with her a similar burden of loneliness, Marnie also desperately wants to be Anna’s friend and learn everything there is to know about the transplanted young introvert. The girls’ friendship quickly blossoms and they share with each other all the secrets and details of their respective lives. They explore the rural countryside around them and treasure the time they have together. However, Marnie is not without mystery as Anna soon discovers.
Marnie claims to only be able to go so far from the mansion, and will frequently disappear as though she were an apparition. What’s more – the Marsh House itself will regress to its former dilapidated state from time to time leaving Anna searching for her beloved friend. Naturally it begs the question of who or what Marnie actually is, and whether or not she’s some form of ghost or simply a product of Anna’s imagination.
In spite of herself (and the growing mystery), Anna comes to find solace in Marnie’s presence and grows surer of herself with each passing day. In contrast, Marnie becomes increasingly fragile and tormented as she parallels the inevitable reveal of who or what she actually is.
The girls’ growing friendship and shared loneliness is sweet and tender to watch, and it really complements the poignancy of the end of the film. More seasoned movie-goers will probably guess the reveal ahead of time, but I would say for the record that it does not lessen the emotional unfurling in the least.
I imagine those of you familiar with Ghibli and their masterworks like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro want to know all about the ‘dubbing’ of the film (for those unfamiliar – Ghibli is a Japanese studio). Unfortunately, I have nothing for you since I – quite indifferently – just said ‘I’d like one ticket to the 7:30 show please!” and did not question the language barrier. Come on guys and gals, subtitles really aren’t the enemy here.
Regardless, I feel with actors like John C. Reilly and Kathy Bates lending their voices to the dub over, you can’t really go wrong. Hailee Steinfeld is apparently the voice of Anna, and after having seen Pitch Perfect 2 recently, I think this is a decent enough casting choice (though I can’t comment firsthand). Oh and Geena Davis! What ever happened to her? Well, I guess she does voiceovers now. A pity about Cutthroat Island isn’t it Davis? I certainly watched the hell out of that movie as a kid and am not ashamed to admit it.
I would love to claim I’m a Ghibli enthusiast who knows everything there is to know about the studio, but I must admit I’ve only seen about three of their films. That being said – I do enjoy how director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is taking the appropriate strides to distinguish himself from animation heavy hitters like Miyazaki.
Gone are the wispy clouds of Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises, but the beautiful ocean canvasses are still as vibrant and masterfully drawn as ever. I defy any of you theater trolls out there to even question the skill and craftsmanship that the Ghibli team exhibits with each and every one of their films.
If I was going to fault When Marnie Was There for anything in particular, the only real negative I’d be able to come up with is the underdevelopment of the title character. Obviously this can’t be avoided since the title character is not the main character, but it would have been nice to maybe stretch the story to include more of those revealing and beautiful scenes shared by Anna and Marnie.
If this is to be Studio Ghibli’s last film, I can say with great enthusiasm (and sorrow) that they ended on a high note with Marnie. The art and sound direction are as beautiful as ever, and it is my sincerest hope that future generations never come to know a world absent of such quality and timeless films. Between Ghibli and Cartoon Saloon (Song of the Sea), I have my proof that there still exists some remaining magic in onscreen storytelling.
The Bottom Line:
Don’t like studio Ghibli and their films? I wouldn’t stand next to any open windows while aboard the Zeppelin if I were you. Graf [and possibly yours truly] are likely to push you out for such blasphemy.
In all seriousness though, When Marnie Was There is a powerful symbol for continuity beyond legacy for a widely celebrated studio. Hayao Miyazaki may have retired, but director Hiromasa Yonebayashi wastes no precious second in crafting this compassionate examination of friendship and isolation.
You should be warned though – this’ll more than likely get the waterworks going. I mean Christ – just listen to how depressing, yet uplifting, the theme song is.
It would be easy enough for me to recommend Marnie and then quickly dispel it as a ‘lesser’ Ghibli work, but that would be unfair to scoff at a sapphire in the world of diamonds. Marnie is a beautiful film in every sense of the word, and may have finally inspired me to actually sit down to revisit the beloved Ghibli films I’ve seen before and to become enamored with the ones I’ve not.