By Don Simpson | June 15, 2015
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers: Keiko Niwa (Screenplay), Masashi Ando (Screenplay), Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Screenplay), Joan G. Robinson (Novel)
Starring: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima, Susumu Terajima, Toshie Negishi, Ryôko Moriyama, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Hitomi Kuroki
Twelve-year-old Anna (Sara Takatsuki) is severely depressed, perhaps even borderline suicidal. Antisocial and introverted, Anna would rather draw in her sketchbook than interact with other human beings. It is her vivid imagination that allows Anna to escape her emotionally harrowing perception of reality.
The root of Anna’s existential crisis seems to be her disconnection from the people around her. Anna considers herself to be an outsider because she does not look like everyone else. Anna’s parents died in a car accident when she was one year old, now she is a foster child with no connection with her biological family. For some reason, Anna feels like a burden to her foster mother (Nanako Matsushima); when Anna learns that her foster parents receive a stipend for taking care of her, that only makes matters worse. In Anna’s melancholy mind, her foster parents take care of her out of obligation or guilt, not love.
The restorative quality of nature is a very familiar narrative trope in Studio Ghibli films, and in Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There, Anna is sent off to rural Hokkaido to live with her aunt (Susumu Terajima) and uncle (Toshie Negishi) to recover from an asthma attack. The hope is that the fresh air and idyllic bayside setting will not only ease Anna’s asthma symptoms but also clear away the darkness from her mind.
Anna finds herself utterly mesmerized by a dilapidated English-style manor known by locals as the Marsh House. Though the home has supposedly been long abandoned, Anna sees a beautiful young girl with flowing golden hair through an upstairs window of the manor. It is not long before Anna meets the mysterious girl named Marnie (Kasumi Arimura) and the two girls commence a secret friendship.
With her flowing blond locks of hair, Marnie is essentially Anna’s idealized personification of beauty. Dressed in elegant dresses, Marnie seems to belong to another time and place. Marnie’s Barbie-esque femininity appears in stark contrast to Anna’s blandly tomboyish appearance. As Anna develops a schoolgirl crush on Marnie, a certain kinship between the two girls is revealed. First and foremost, they are both outsiders — even more so than Anna, Marnie looks like no one else inHokkaido. Also, Marnie’s parents show very little interest in her, so she has primarily been raised by the strict and loveless governess of the house.
Adapted from Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 children’s book, When Marnie Was There is the Studio Ghibli film that exists closest to the realm of reality. Portrayed with transcendent precision, the landscapes look like photorealist paintings and Marnie‘s mise-en-scene is significantly more classic and formal than most animated pictures. Yonebayashi establishes an eerily atmospheric tone that suggests an Alfred Hitchcock homage, skillfully utilizing scene construction and framing to heighten the inherent moodiness and tension of the film.
Yonebayashi’s infinitely sad film seriously contemplates the notion of identity in relation to ethnicity, sexuality and family. Existing in sharp counterpoint to the happily ever after animated fairytales of Disney and Pixar, Marnie takes on childhood depression with unwavering conviction and subdued intimacy. Studio Ghibli has never shied away from introducing serious topics that have historically been relegated to older audiences, but Marnie is the first to contemplate subject matter this devastating.
The fact that Marnie might be the final Studio Ghibli film solicits even more tears from the film’s conclusion. While Marnie ends Studio Ghibli’s illustrious run on an extreme downbeat, in retrospect the story seems like a fitting farewell. For the last few decades, Studio Ghibli has been our Marnie, our entrancing friend who taught us about the thrills of imagination. Following Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, now seems like as good of a time as any to go through the ordeal of a tear-soaked farewell to this dear friend.