Since Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement a few years ago, speculation has run rampant about the future of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation titan he helped spearhead with such films as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. A hiatus is most certainly on the horizon, and with no clear return in sight, we may not see another Ghibli movie in theatres for a while, if ever. It’s fitting then that Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a man who came up in the industry doing clean-ups and key animation on the films I mentioned, is tasked with the company’s final outing. Hiromasa, or Maro as he’s affectionately known, became the studio’s youngest feature director with The Secret World of Arrietty in 2010, and he wields that same eye for verdurous mysticism in When Marnie Was There, a beautiful tale of letting go.
Magical realism has always been a cornerstone of Ghibli’s oeuvre, and while Hiromasa’s brand of fantasy is relatively grounded when compared to Miyazaki (though not quite as stark as Isao Takahata), he employs the same tenderness in his approach. While the film manages to undercut a significant chunk of its narrative thanks to a bizarre and almost lazily conventional story turn, there’s a lot to be loved, and enough impetus behind the decisiom (despite having annoyed me) that it may even end up a cherished memory for some, which is fitting since the film is about our relationship to memories in various forms.
High-school aged Anna, a reclusive, self-loathing girl with plain and boyish features, spends her time at the park sketching the other kids instead of joining them. When a teacher asks to see her work, her social anxiety triggers an asthma attack, a continued problem that leads her foster mother Yoriko to send her to live with her aunt & uncle in the countryside for the summer. Unbeknownst to Yoriko, Anna is aware that she’s adopted. Since finding out, she’s not only been socially withdrawn, but largely emotionless in her interactions with her foster parents, who she now refers to as her aunt and uncle when they aren’t around. The country air is most definitely good for her, but she finds it hard to adjust, especially since the kids all notice she’s of mixed ethnicity (she has blue eyes) and they make sure to point it out to her. It’s not so much mean-spirited as it is observant while lacking a filter, as is the case with most kids, but Anna lashes back at them with insults. She’s on edge when she’s around other people, fending off anyone she might grow close to. She decides to wander off on her own, at which point she discovers an abandoned mansion on the other side of a marsh.
She makes her way over to the house during low tide. There’s something uncanny about it, something familiar that she can’t quite place, and she begins to have dreams and visions of a young blonde girl, waving at her from the window. A mute fisherman named Toichi rows her back to the shore when the tide is high, and she begins to sketch this girl from the comfort of her bedroom. The kids in the village make fun of Toichi, who mostly keeps to himself. Anna knows what that feels like, so she begins spending time on his boat, sketching away while he fishes in silence. When he isn’t around, she sketches on a hill top alongside an old lady named Hisako, who also paints the mansion, and they complement each other’s work. As the days wear on, the allure of the mansion grows stronger, and she makes her way back only to find that the girl is real. Well, kind of. She’s corporeal at least.
Marnie isn’t dressed like someone would today. She wears clothes reminiscent of the 1950s, and when she takes Anna inside, the mansion is no longer abandoned. It’s filled with the aristocracy of yesteryear attending a fancy party thrown by Marnie’s parents, who take to Anna instantly (she shows up disguised as a flower girl) and the two girls dance together and have a wonderful time, but their enjoyment is cut short when her nasty nanny tries to lock her up in her room. Later, Anna asks Marnie about the boy she was talking to at the party, and Marnie assures her that Kazhuiko is just her friend, but that doesn’t stop her from being jealous.
Anna and Marnie spend more and more time together, growing closer and helping each other through their loneliness. Marnie’s parents go off on a trip, leaving her at the mercy of her nanny and a pair of equally nasty maids. Anna on the other hand, resents her birth parents (and grandmother) for having died and left her in foster care, and she even resents her foster mother for getting money from the state in order to take care of her. The two girls even confess their love for one another in a way that feels more than just platonic, and the scene where they embrace in the moonlight is as beautiful as it is romantic, though as it turns out, this may have been by accident.
Spoilers to follow.
When Anna visits the mansion during the day, she sees that it’s undergoing renovations, and that a new girl has moved in to what was once Marnie’s bedroom. This new girl finds Marnie’s diary from many years ago, which mentions not only the party, but having danced with a flower girl as well. Whether or not the present is somehow changing the past, Marnie did in fact dance with a flower girl at the party, and she was subsequently bullied (quite severely) severely by the maids for reasons left unexplained. To me, that screams bigotry. However, when Anna and the new girl go about investigating, they find pages that were missing from the diary that mention Hisako, the old lady from the hill, revealing her to be Marnie’s childhood friend. They ask her about Marnie, and Hisako reveals that Marnie eventually left the mansion and moved to Sapporo where she had a daughter with Kazhuiko, the boy from the party. That daughter then grew up and had a child before she and her husband died, and Marnie cared for the little girl for a few years before dying as well before she put her into foster care, and Hisako also mentions that she cared for her granddaughter so much that she promised she’d never be alone, even once Marnie died.
At this point, after Marnie’s backstory is explained in unnecessarily lengthy exposition, it’s entirely clear who Marnie is, and what connection she has to Anna, and yet Anna spends the last 20 minutes of the movie completely unaware of it until her foster mother comes to pick her up and shows her a photograph of the mansion that she used to hold on to as a child. It’s here that Anna realizes who Marnie was all along, and the film treats this moment as a major plot twist. The possibility of Marnie being the ghost of Anna’s grandmother exists from the moment the grandmother is brought up in conversation early in the film, but knowing what’s happening before the ‘big reveal’ isn’t so much a matter of getting ahead of the narrative as it is Hisako all but saying “And YOU are that little girl, Anna!”
The relationship between the girls then feels somewhat out of place. Of course arguments can be made that how they interacted physically was just a manifestation of their spiritual relationship, but the film doesn’t ever set any of these rules, and Anna never has a clue about who Marnie is until the very end. There also exists the possibility of cultural differences leading to my interpretation being different, though I know for a fact that the other people I watched it with thought the same thing.
While this one decision is executed poorly and results in a minor narrative conundrum, the fault seems to lie less with the idea that Marnie is Anna’s grandmother, and more with the scenes between them that felt romantic. Throw a guy in there instead of Marnie, and the same reveal would make you feel like you had just watched Tomorrowland. That being said, the story as it stands does still make sense despite what feels like an out of place zig-zag. Anna’s faded memories of her grandmother come back to her, and she doesn’t quite feel so alone anymore. In waiting for Marnie during the day, she’s also learned to be by herself without being lonely, and when her foster mother comes clean to her about her being adopted, she doesn’t hold nearly as much resentment towards her as she once did. And, after referring to her as her aunt for the entire film, she finally introduces her to people as her mother.
On the other side of that narrative road bump lies a series of sweet goodbyes, as Anna thanks everybody she met in the village, and even apologizes to the girl she was once rude to. During her drive away, she takes one last look at the mansion, and sees young Marnie waving at her from the window. There’s an expected melancholy to this moment, but also a certain sense of contentment. Marnie, having started a new life once she got past her own abandonment, has fulfilled her promise of taking care of Anna, readying her for her return to the world. Anna drives away prepared to meet whatever challenges await her, finally having realized that no matter the circumstance, the people in her life lover her and are on her side. What guided her during this period was the passing down of aged and experienced wisdom, manifesting itself in the form of a childlike story. As Marnie waves goodbye, it’s as if the studio itself is bidding farewell to all the young boys and girls it helped usher into adulthood these last 30 years. Marnie disappears into the distance, but she’ll forever be a memory to Anna, perfect and pristine. And maybe people who grew up with these films might one day look back on them the same way, as a time when they could escape, and find comfort, and learn to be strong.
A time when Ghibli was there.