by Byron Bixler
From the December 2015 IssueWhen I think of Studio Ghibli, I think of the magic its stories evoke. I think of the wondrous worlds its directors create and the deep, emotional wells they draw from. I think of its uniquely youthful perspective and the delicate earnestness with which it expresses its truths.
I also think of my preteen years.
Kiki’s Delivery Service was the first Ghibli film I ever saw; first viewed on a VHS tape I still own. It wasn’t until I reached age ten that I began to watch more from the Studio. I recall Cartoon Network playing a selection as part of a series of weekend Anime screenings. It was Spirited Away, and stumbling upon its lush imagery and equally enchanting story one evening, I was utterly hypnotized by what I saw. I’d never seen films like this and I needed to seek out more of them. Of course, the others all followed.
Upon entering the theater this summer to see When Marnie Was There, I believed I was about to watch the Studio’s final film. With the rumors swirling in my head, the prospect of saying goodbye to the artists that brought such joy and poignance to my adolescent years stung terribly as that great, blue opening logo popped up onscreen. But luckily, the announcement of Ghibli’s closing has since been proven untrue, and rather than lamenting a terrible loss, I am left rejoicing, because if When Marnie Was There is the standard of quality going forward, Ghibli’s future is sure to be very bright.
This is a ghost story, but one where the residuals are tender rather than frightening. At the beginning, a young girl named Anna is sent to live with her aunt and uncle. She’s a foster child and she hates herself—bitterly saying she’s stupid and ugly, a burden and unable to fit in with everyone else. But she isn’t ugly and she isn’t stupid. Anna is just a misunderstood kid—sometimes lost and sometimes awkward, but highly observant, sensitive and troubled by the idea of not being genuinely loved. Always living on the edges of the frame, she withdraws into herself, sketching all the time, perhaps because a small, personalized rendering of the world around her is more bearable than the actual thing.
Upon reaching the idyllic seaside town, Anna is drawn to an abandoned mansion nestled in the trees and overlooking a marsh. A golden-haired girl lives there, appearing in Anna’s dreams and materializing by the light of the moon. Her name is Marnie and she befriends Anna unconditionally. The girl’s history is ambiguous, but Anna seeks her out anyway, as she might be the only one who understands her.This is a tremendously powerful film, but not in the way one might expect. It unravels at a slow, but natural pace and doesn’t force-feed plot points or character beats. It’s easy to miss the meaning of things, grasping for guidance at times, but that’s because When Marnie Was There doesn’t give you easy answers, at least not immediately. We’re allowed to be as lost as the protagonist (whose shyness and positioning as an outsider I thoroughly resonated with) and the questions posited in the meantime are compelling enough to keep us on board. It gives the audience just enough before unloading a late revelation that puts everything into perspective and packs an emotional wallop. A film of such patience and sensitivity is rarely seen, especially for the young audience it’s intended for.
When Marnie Was There is what a real family film looks like. The issues its characters struggle with are real (sometimes to a startling degree) and intelligently handled, free of pandering and overbearing low-brow humor. A child’s feelings about their parents, the perception of being an alien to the world around you and problems with self-esteem and the crippling fear of abandonment: all themes that are present and beautifully honest in their presentation. That’s not even mentioning the suggestions of mental illness and the light implications of sexual awakening. This is deep, heavy stuff and when filtered through the prism of a mysterious spectral tale, it becomes amazingly accessible. Entertaining in its imagination, but thought provoking as well: a Ghibli trademark wonderfully upheld.
The picture has a beautiful heart and personally, it managed to stir feelings and memories in me that I haven’t thought about in years. One doesn’t need to have an emotional history with Studio Ghibli to engage with this film, though. For anyone who takes it at its own pace, who was ever a child that coped with loneliness, that ever sought refuge from a seemingly hostile world or ever flirted for even a moment with the terrifying (and false) notion that they were unloved, this film is sure to evoke thoughts that will linger for a good while afterward. When Marnie Was There challenges the mind and warms the soul, powerfully capturing the complex wonders and pains of youth.
4 out of 5 stars