When Marnie Was There Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi

[GKIDS; 2014]

Styles: children’s film, anime
Others: The Wind Rises, The Tale of Princess Kaguya

In the 30 years since its founding, Japan’s Studio Ghibli and its reigning geniuses Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have created a slew of animated films internationally renowned for their aesthetic beauty, at times unworldly inventiveness, and deep-rooted humanism. Films such as Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away and Takahata’s Grave of Fireflies and Tale of Princess Kaguya have balanced a seemingly genuine understanding of children and childhood with a pointed but never bitter commentary on larger cultural, economic, and environmental issues. With the retirement of both directors in 2014, Studio Ghibli announced it would be temporarily halting film production, and while the studio’s demise is far from set in stone, many have already labeled its latest film, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There, as potentially its last. Fortunately, When Marnie Was There proves to be a mature and innovative work, whether or not it turns out to be Studio Ghibli’s swan song.

The film centers around Anna, a painfully awkward and painfully asthmatic adolescent whose emotional and physical ailments in the large city of Sapporo lead her to move in with her aunt and uncle in the rural, marshy town of Kushiro. While Anna’s struggles to relate to her peers are a bit heavy on the pathos, it’s still an almost immediately refreshing experience to see anxiety and depression depicted in a children’s film. Indeed, while so many of Studio Ghibli’s films over the years have focused on the experiences of children, When Marnie Was There contrarily explores the lives of adolescents. The film is uncompromising in its depiction of Anna’s awkwardness and anxiety (“I hate myself!” she sobs at one point, while moaning “I don’t believe in anything anymore” at another), and deals even-parts with the parental confusion and accusation that are the other side of the coin of teenage angst. Anna is even called a “delinquent” by another girl’s parents at one point — just the sort of real-life grounding that has been notably absent from so many Ghibli films as children soar through the air and travel to fantastical realms.

The rural town of Kushiro provides a reliable backdrop for the sort of well-established dichotomies of nature and urban sprawl that Studio Ghibli fans have become accustomed to. It also provides the backdrop for some of the most gorgeous backgrounds that Ghibli has ever produced. The sleepy houses, grassy marshes, moon-filled skies, and ornate mansions interiors of the film are minutely detailed and masterfully beautiful, and the landscapes contain a sentimental, emotional truth that is almost literary in its poetic rendering and vividness. The care and love given to details like a crab scuttling through the water or a girl riding a bicycle down the road in the background makes every element of the picture plane appear to a candidate for attention and focus.

And yet the real focal point of the film’s maturity and richness comes when Anna meets Marnie, a blonde adolescent girl whom Anna befriends outside a mysterious mansion across the water. The relationship that develops between the two falls somewhere between fantastical wish-fulfillment and straight-up love affair. The former manifests itself in Marnie’s immediate adoration of Anna, as her whispered promises of unequivocal friendship and intimacy sound more like a depressive’s dark hopes rather than their genuine realization. The latter is, well, manifested pretty much the exact same way. It’s hard to ignore the tomboyish appearance of Anna paired with the flowing hair and dresses of Marnie, who puts a flower in Anna’s hair and regularly whispers phrases like “You’re my precious secret” and “I love you more than any girl I’ve ever known.” If the presence of anxiety and depression in a children’s film is like a refreshing breath of air, the presence of an adolescent same-sex romance in one is a refreshing breath of tornado. It’s a wonderful and exciting thing to see.

But beyond speculation as to where Marnie and Anna’s relationship falls on the platonic spectrum (which the internet has plenty of), the relationship that is at the heart of When Marnie Was There possesses other qualities that are foreign to an animated children’s movie. Both characters have real, unsolvable problems. Anna, beyond her insecurities, is deeply alienated from her foster parents. Marnie, meanwhile, is regularly abused by her family’s maids while her jetsetter parents are out of town. What develops between them is a mutual needing and fantasizing — the perfect pairing of two different teenage girls who both have and don’t have parents at the same time. And as the narrative grows in scope and complexity, the film ends as a treatise on the nature of parents and children, adolescence and rebellion, alienation and acceptance. It’s as though all the elements of a childhood fantasy story have been kept in place, but injected with the complexity and angst that the adolescent experience requires.

And so it is that after years of children’s films about wonder and freedom, Studio Ghibli’s potential farewell film is the story of growing older, of being reluctantly tethered to the real world when fantasy is calling your name. For 30 years, Miyazaki and Takahata have cinematically safeguarded the parts of childhood that are sacred. With When Marnie Was There, the studio completes its journey: a bridge from the real to the fantastical, and back to the real again.

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