Directors: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writer: Masashi Ando, Keiko Niwa, Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Cast: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura
Genre: Drama, Animation
The final production released before Studio Ghibli’s hiatus, When Marnie Was There is a stunningly animated film about, in typical Ghibli fashion, a young girl who is thrown into mysterious and strange circumstances. A combination of the nostalgia of 1991’s Only Yesterday and the more fantastical elements in Spirited Away, the film draws (literally, with a sketchpad) on the power of the past, and how it can continually inform and change a person. It’s a notch below Ghibli’s best, which, given Ghibli’s consistently high standards, is praise rather than criticism of its quality. Regardless of its minor flaws, Marnie is a fitting and bittersweet reminder that whatever happens with the studio’s future, its films will not be forgotten.
Marnie is a melodrama that follows Anna (Sara Takatsuki/Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage orphan unsure about her place in the world and in her relationship with her foster mother. After a severe asthma attack, she goes to live for the summer in an idyllic countryside village with her aunt and uncle. She becomes immediately taken with a dilapidated mansion across the shore from the village when she stumbles across it on her first day. That night she dreams of the image of a young, blond girl whose hair is being brushed by an older, greying woman. After Anna returns the next night, the mansion is lit and glowing, and gone are the dust and the emptiness. As she stares up at its grand beauty, the girl she dreamt of walks out to meet her, and introduces herself as Marnie (Kasumi Arimura/Kiernan Shipka).
The film develops Anna and Marnie’s relationship beautifully, with Anna’s uncertainty about who Marnie is paving its way into confidence and truth as they grow to rely on and find a home with each other. Anna is a refuge from Marnie’s unstable home life, and in turn Marnie gives Anna the love that she’s never felt that she had. The slow-burn transformation of Anna from a depressed, immature girl into a confident and smiling teenager is startling and heartwarming to watch, and there is an earnestness to the film is compelling and arresting.
Marnie, in all of its 2-D detailed beauty (save for the occasional distracting moments of CGI animation), is a wonderful juxtaposition to the current state of western animated film. Like Marnie’s mansion in the story, it seems like an artefact of a bygone era, standing out uniquely in contrast with the modernity of its world. Its fantastical elements, Spirited Away-esque in its nature, are grounded with the very real problems that both Anna and Marnie face. The film smartly holds its cards to its chest until the very end, taking its time in weaving its tale and capturing our emotions before hitting us with the ace up its sleeve. It’s a wonderful end to what is arguably the best of run of films of any studio in recent times. Studio Ghibli, you will be missed.