Hot damn will you look at the typography on that poster
If you’re clued into the anime-o-sphere you probably noticed that Studio Ghibli went through a bit of a rough patch last year. Their future is still up in the air, but the upshot is that they currently aren’t producing any films. There had been rumblings for a while of financial trouble- they were pretty much the last studio to retain a full salaried staff working exclusively in Japan, both of which are incredibly expensive- but the news still came as a shock to many. Studio founders Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki had both just retired. People were looking forward to Ghibli’s future, a future that seemed to include younger upstarts like Hiromasa Yonebeyashi, who directed Arrietty a few years earlier.
Then the plug was pulled, putting Yonebeyashi (who has since left the studio alongside the other Ghibli animation staff) in the unenviable position of having possibly directed Ghibli’s last movie. That would be a difficult reputation for any movie to shoulder, but it’s especially unfortunate for one that’s as quiet, unambitious and unexpected as When Marnie Was There is.
Based off a British novel of the same name from the 60s (one that Miyazaki put on his list of top 50 children’s books, which probably explains why Ghibli decided to turn it into a movie), WMWT tells the story of Anna, an introverted and troubled eleven year old girl living in Tokyo. Her peers are all making friends and having their first crushes while Anna is left on the outside of the social circle, hiding behind a sullen mask. The fact that she suffers from some sort of asthma-like condition that triggers in response to stress doesn’t help matters.
Anna’s foster mother sends her off to stay with family friends in a rural part of Hokkaido for the Summer, in the well-meaning but deluded hope that this will help alleviate both issues. It doesn’t, and soon Anna is more isolated than ever, surrounded by strangers who are even more pushy than the city-folk about not giving her room to breathe (so to speak). But then one day she meets Marnie, a girl who wears old fashioned clothes and lives in a stately European-looking house across the lake. Marnie more or less declares that they’re going to be BFFs from now on and after some initial trepidation Anna is happy to finally have a friend… but things aren’t quite what they seem, and Marnie’s presence is ephemeral at best. Anna scrambles to try and find out who or what Marnie is and in the process faces up to the true cause of her loneliness.
So this movie is probably not what you’re expecting it to be, for both good and bad reasons. The plot description sounds like one of those Newberry medal-winning children’s novels about a lonely kid who meets a Something and learns to believe in themselves, only for the Something to then die/move away/vanish at the end, and in its broad outline WMAT is kind of like that. But it’s also a fair bit more complex and sophisticated than many stories of that kind, and the film’s mood is not the cutesy sunny tone that its marketing presents. There’s a bleak undercurrent here, Anna’s issues being presented more akin to severe self-loathing and depression than simple child-friendly loneliness, and the scenes with Marnie in them can take on a downright eerie tone at times. Anna isn’t always sympathetic; her frustration causes her to mentally lash out at people in cruel ways, even when they’re showing her every kindness in the world. That this behavior never crosses the line into making her seem like a complete asshole is a testament to the careful balancing act the film plays and the ways the script is willing to impart nuance into its characters.
You probably think you’ve already worked out what Marnie’s deal is based on the synopsis; the film pulls a switcheroo by not actually giving much importance to the “is she a ghost or a figment of Anna’s imagination” question, and in fact doesn’t even really answer it. Marnie’s actual significance to both the plot and Anna comes from another direction entirely, delivered via a twist that was genuinely surprising and which instantly contextualizes a lot of things about the movie that had been obscured up to that point, such as what the actual root cause of Anna’s isolation is and what specific issue she’s overcoming during her time with Marnie. Quite a lot of this is never explicitly spelled out to the audience, which is a level of complexity you don’t often see in media aimed at younger audiences.
Anna and Marnie themselves make for an interesting duality. They’re both wrestling with parental issues: Anna’s parents died before she ever got to know them and Marnie’s are absent for most of the year, leaving her to be raised by a trio of cruel servants whose abuses she can’t get anyone to believe in or take seriously. In both of their lives the people who claim to love them do so with awkward strings attached: everyone wants Anna to be someone she’s not before they’ll go near her and her foster mother, while undoubtedly meaning well, seems to be pushing Anna to overcome her introversion more to assuage her own guilt over being an inadequate parent. Marnie’s parents seem to treat her as more of a fashion accessory than anything else and clearly can’t wait for her to get over the whole inconvenient “being a child” thing. Anna and Marnie both want someone to love them unconditionally, for who they are right now, and they seem at first to find that in each other; Marnie claims that she’s always been at the lake house, waiting for Anna to arrive, and now that that day has come they’ll be together forever (and not in a creepy ghost way where “together forever” means “dead”).
Unfortunately, from the very beginning there’s a feeling that this can’t last, that they’ve created a dream-like bubble that won’t sustain itself for long. Marnie’s sudden and inexplicable appearances become less and less frequent, and fairly early on Anna discovers solid evidence that their encounters can’t possibly be happening the way she remembers them. It’s a melancholy and bitter thread running through the film, and one of the movie’s biggest flaws is that it starts as early as it does. Some unfortunate pacing issues in the opening half hour mean that Marnie isn’t actually in the movie as much as as you’d think, and we don’t get to see very much of her and Anna interacting before reality starts to intrude. I would have liked more of a slow build up, as opposed to the situation we actually get where it starts to become apparent almost immediately that there’s something seriously weird about Marnie.
Ghibli’s animators don’t get to fully flex their muscles here, since the film doesn’t include any of the spectacle that the studio’s more action-oriented movies have traditionally featured, but it’s still a pretty gorgeous production. Anna’s marshy country surroundings are rendered beautifully and the few moments of kinetic action (like a character tumbling down a steep slope) really serve to highlight how smooth and fluid animation can be when you throw a theatrical budget at it. The animators also clearly had a fun time with Marnie’s voluminous hair and dresses, both of which regularly blow around dramatically in the wind. I also liked that for Ghibli’s (possibly) final movie they broke from tradition with the character designs, giving Anna and Marnie more realistic proportions and features for their age, as opposed to the chubby-faces cutesy designs a lot of previous Ghibli films have had.
So let’s address the elephant in the room for a minute: when the marketing for this started up some people (myself included) started to wonder if Ghibli was going to do something really bold and make it a straight-up love story between Anna and Marnie. Admittedly there was a strong element of wishful thinking involved- how cool would it be for an entity as mainstream as Studio Ghibli to take a step that radical?- but the trailers really did seem like they might be pointing in that direction, and for a large portion of its runtime the movie itself follows suit. The very first scene is of Anna’s classmates talking about their first experiences with boys while Anna sits off to the side looking dour and resentful about something and talking about how she hates herself because she doesn’t fit in with her peers. When she first meets Marnie Anna gets kind of obsessed with her, drawing her constantly in sketchbooks and literally counting down the hours until their next meeting. When Marnie drags Anna to one of her parent’s ostentatious parties they end up dancing together in one of the movie’s most heartwarming scenes. I could go on; basically, for most of its runtime you could present WMWT as a romance while changing literally nothing at all.
And then the ending comprehensively rules that out even in terms of subtext, or at the very least makes it so that continuing to push that interpretation would be extremely weird. Obviously you can’t say that that’s a fault with the movie itself, and the whole situation is likely a result of the source material presenting the now largely defunct romantic two-girl friendship trope as it would have been understood by audiences from a bygone era- which makes sense, given that Marnie is herself from that era. Still, it’s hard not to wonder about the sort of story we almost got from a big, mainstream studio. That taboo around LGBT issues in children’s media (which is not actually as strong in Japan as it is in the west) is starting to crack, but it’s nowhere near coming down yet.
That digression aside (I wanted to bring it up because nearly all of the discussion around the film pre-release has touched on it), what we’ve actually been presented with is a poignant movie about some of the darker aspects of childhood, told in a way that’s got just a bit more meat on the bone than you might expect and marred by some pacing issues.
It’s not going to be remembered as one of Ghibli’s greats, but it does deserve to be remembered on its own merits. In an increasingly cash-strapped and risk-averse animation industry, it’s a minor miracle that it got made at all. We might not see anything else like it for a long, long time.