I was very eager to see what is tipped to be Studio Ghibli’s swansong, When Marnie Was There, and was fortunate enough to see the original subtitled version. Relocating the original novel’s British backdrop to Japan, the story follows Anna, a young girl who is sent to the countryside to live with some relatives as the city air is bad for her asthma. That’s her mother’s excuse, but the truth is that Anna has been acting increasingly quiet and withdrawn, and her mother hopes a stay in the countryside means she will come back “happy and healthy”.
The film’s opening is simple but powerful. We see Anna drawing at school, sat alone. She looks at a group of her female peers sat together and sadly reflects that some people are on the inside and some on the outside. Although the asthma attack she has is presented as a physical ailment, the frustrated way she snaps her pencil against her sketchbook suggests the suppression of her feelings is making her ill, and her quiet frustration instantly makes her a sympathetic character for anyone who has ever felt helpless and alone.
When Anna travels to the countryside, she meets her relatives, the Oiwas. Kind and caring people, they immediately welcome Anna and encourage her to befriend another daughter of the town. Anna hesitantly attempts to fit in, but a clumsy comment hits a nerve and she runs away in distress. I would have liked to have seen even more of Marnie’s interactions with her family, as the Oiwas are a little too laid back about Anna disappearing at late hours and insulting one of the local daughters – some kind of confrontation scene would have worked well to add further tension and insight into Anna’s thoughts and feelings.
At her lowest point, Anna meets Marnie who lives at the old marsh house across the lake that has captured Anna’s attention. Anna and Marnie instantly hit it off, which is helped by Marnie’s kind gentle demeanour, and her instant honest confession that she really wants to get to know Anna. The two learn about each other’s lives, and Marnie even takes Anna to a sophisticated party at the marsh house.
Anna is completely captivated by Marnie’s mystery and beauty, and attempts to see her whenever the tide goes down so that she can visit the marsh house. Her sketchbook, the only place she really opens up and expresses herself honestly, becomes filled with pictures of Marnie, and it is clear to see how Marnie represents freedom and safety at once for Anna.
Anna and Marnie’s relationship is really the heart of this movie, and as ever, Studio Ghibli tenderly and touchingly capture the heady excitement of a relationship that is exciting, intimate and safe all at once. Marnie and Anna go on moonlit boat rides, picnics and forest walks. They dance together, confide in each other, declare their love for each other and support each other unconditionally. To see tomboyish Anna blush in front of Marnie and sketch her like a lovestruck youth, and Marnie openly claim that their relationship is their “precious secret”, alongside all the hand holding and embracing – this is a pair that acts as much as, if not more like a couple than many of the actual couples Studio Ghibli have ever depicted before.
Whilst Marnie is visually interesting with her stunning blonde hair, old fashioned feminine dress sense and her open kind smiles for Anna – her personality remains somewhat lacking. She giggles and flounces and doesn’t offer much depth. It’s easy to be happy that Anna has found someone to open up to after seeing the depth of her sadness, but until we get more context to Marnie’s own backstory and life, we don’t know why we’re really supposed to love her. And that context isn’t fully given until the last quarter of the movie. With such an intense, borderline romantic build up between Marnie and Anna throughout the movie, the ending, whilst poignant in its own way, may feel like a big, queerbaiting slap in the face (I’ll let you make up your own mind though).
However, this is a movie about Anna’s journey and while Marnie is a little one dimensional for most of the film, it is nonetheless gripping to watch Anna’s journey from a withdrawn, depressed girl to someone actively exploring her surroundings, chasing for answers about her life and slowly opening up to the people around her. The twist ending reveals that Marnie’s love for Anna is every bit as powerful and resoundingly deep as we’re shown throughout the movie in each interaction between the girls, it just isn’t in the way you might expect. The healing journey we see Anna make from a lonely depressed girl with low self esteem, to someone gradually altogether whole again and happy is a painfully honest and moving depiction of what it means to grieve, seek love and acceptance and eventually come to terms with loss.
When Marnie Was There is a beautiful tale about accepting and overcoming the depression and low self esteem that tragedy and loss can create, and learning to recognise and embrace the support around you. I particularly enjoyed how cleverly the film visually emphasises Anna’s movement from being someone on the outside looking in, to someone in touch with and at peace with her surroundings, with a repeated window motif. This is a touching addition to the Ghibli collection with all the beauty and emotional honesty the institution is renowned for, a definite must see for any Ghibli fan.
Did you like Studio Ghibli’s latest release? Let me know in the comments!