Without learning from the past we can never develop our own future. The ghosts of lives long lost can still resonate and echo with the trials and tribulations of the present day. In When Marnie Was There (adapted from a 1960s British novel popular in Japan) protagonist Anna bonds with Marnie, a girl from decades ago. Their connection enriches them both, before dragging out some long buried secrets.
At the time of writing, When Marnie Was There is the final film from Studio Ghibli before they essentially ran down feature film production in 2014 (notwithstanding that director Hayao Miyazaki has yet again come out of retirement to make a final movie entitled ‘How Do You Live’). Anna, a young anxious girl suffering from asthma, is sent by her foster mother to spend a summer in the northern region of Hokkaido where the air is cleaner. Anna is absorbed into drawing sketches and reluctant to engage with other people, but when she discovers an old mansion across a salt marsh she finds the exuberant and mysterious Marnie.
Unlike other Studio Ghibli films where a protagonist may have a confidence lull and then learn to come through it, Anna is a nuanced and fascinating character. Right from the start she descends into a panic attack (chalked up to asthma) and her mental health is the unspoken undercurrent of the movie. This is combined with potential race issues (Anna’s blue eyes suggest a non-Japanese lineage) and commentary on the social problems of foster parenting. When looking for themes, When Marnie Was There throws a lot of ideas into the pot.
The basic bones of the movie are a summer friendship, with hints at romance. Although never explicitly said, there are implications that the connection between Anna and Marnie goes deeper than friendship with several ambiguous lines of dialogue. The time slip element keeps the mystery going and a strong focus on facial animation helps to covey complex emotions particularly with Anna. Similarly, the gorgeously drawn setting of thick salt marsh and tumultuous red and purple skies are representative of Anna’s emotional confusion, in stark contrast to the usual green grass / blue sky palette of most Studio Ghibli movies.
The film is hindered though by its admirable ambition because none of the themes dredged up are adequately explored. Anna’s anger at her foster mother is born from discovering that she receives financial support from the state, calling into question whether she is a daughter to her or a means of making money.
Anna’s disconnect with her peers could be due to her underlying latent sexual orientation, or mixed race background in a country with little ethnic diversity, or mental health struggles: none of which are dug into. Similarly, Marnie’s life consists of emotional neglect from distant parents and physical bullying from household staff which is just draped in as an unexplored backdrop.
Even if director Hiromasa Yonebayashi threw way more into the mix than there was time to do justice to, the desire to address these issues at all makes When Marnie Was There a fascinatingly different film in the Studio Ghibli cannon.
The info dump of an ending may jerk some tears from you but it also throws a massive spanner into the plot. Sure, this can make for a fun rewatch, but arguably the movie would be better without it. Taken on a basic level When Marnie Was There is perfectly serviceable as a summer romance with an interesting lead character who comes out the other side having maybe overcome some of her problems. It’s a film about emotions and how they can overcome you, but also set you free in the face of hardship.
Words by Michael Record