Over the weekend I had the chance to sit down and watch Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There. When it was first released, I was very excited to see it, however when I learned that Hiromasa Yonebayashi had directed it, I was ecstatic! Yonebayashi also directed The Secret World Of Arrietty which I thoroughly enjoyed and is probably my favorite Studio Ghibli Film.
This film, like Secret world of Arrietty, is about a lonely sole finding friendship during the summer. But even though there are similarities between the two films, When Marnie Was There is very different, and in a way, more elaborate and deep.
The film revolves around Anna, a lonely girl who has a hard time fitting in. It’s difficult for her to make friends because of her past and constant battle for acceptance and love. On top of this, she suffers from asthma and is ultimately sent to live with her aunt and uncle for the summer.
Upon arrival, Anna is warmly embraced by her relatives and is encouraged to relax and enjoy a stress-free environment. Her aunt and uncle are the pretty much the care-free spirited couple every niece or nephew wished they had.
As Anna begins to explore the area, she happens upon a house that is familiar to her. Not quite able to pinpoint why it’s familiar, Anna ventures to the house by crossing a dried up marsh. To her discovery she finds the mansion abandoned. After exploring the area a little more, Anna experiences just one of many blackouts throughout the film. Upon waking, she finds the marsh flooded with water and unable to return to the other side – tribute to Spirited Away, anyone? Even if not, there are plenty of subtle references that would appear Yonebayashi is paying respect to his former boss and idol, Hayao Miyazaki.
Anna eventually gets back to her Aunt and Uncle’s house. Excited, confused, and in a way unsure of whats going on, she can’t stop thinking about the mansion. Upon returning to the big house she meets a girl there named Marnie. We, as the audience, know nothing about her and as the movie goes on, the mysteriousness delves even deeper. We don’t know if this girl is a figment of Anna’s imagination, or if the girl is real, or if she’s a ghost.
Yonebayshi does an exquisite job keeping us guessing at who or what Marnie is. As the story moves along, Anna’s relationship with Marnie deepens. This relationship is pure to it’s core. We see them grow in their trust and we see them grow in their love and need for one another.
As their friendship developed, it really made me think how I mentally responded to what was being displayed. Screenplay aside, I could feel the cultural mindset of present day trying to persuade my thought process. In order to keep on point for this review, I’ve designated another blog post to share about this in an observationally candid way.
As their relationship deepens, so does their connection to one another which ultimately becomes the big mystery. Marnie randomly vanishes and returns, vanishes and returns, and we come to understand that the experiences Anna has with her might be connected to Anna’s familiarity with the mansion.
After Marnie disappears again, it’s quite sometime before Anna is reunited. During Marnie’s absence a new family moves into the mansion. The young girl who lives there now approaches Anna with Marnie’s diary. After reading it Anna finds that Marnie wrote about their experiences. Now Anna and the new girl are even more intrigued at who Marnie is.
As we reach the conclusion, it’s revealed that everything Anna experienced with Marnie was in her head. But that doesn’t mean Marnie isn’t real. Going back to the origin of Anna’s struggle for acceptance, we learn she is adopted and doesn’t fully realize the love her foster parents have for her. Anna has blue eyes and short brown hair, quite the distinction from the Japanese people. But when Anna and Marnie became friends, Anna felt so strongly towards their relationship because she felt needed, loved, and ultimately a sense of familiarity. Why did she sense familiarity? That’s what this film is really all about. Was their relationship in Anna’s head? Yes, but it also was in real life, just in a different time. Confused? Good, because so was I…until the climactic reveal. Marnie is Anna’s Grandmother. Yep. Marnie took Anna in after her parents died and told her stories as an infant. Stories of Marnie’s childhood, which stuck with Anna so vividly that she felt Marnie’s presence and relived Marnie’s stories while visiting the same mansion where Marnie lived as a kid.
After all this is revealed, Anna finally feels like a whole human being. As she leaves to go back with her foster mom, it is evident that for Anna now knowing her past and her origins, she can finally be confident in who she is. Which is true for all of us. When we don’t know the origins our past, family, or any scenario, we’re typically lost until the missing piece is revealed.
I really enjoyed this film. There are multiple layers to the movie that can be somewhat daunting at first. But even if that tempts you to stop watching, the beautiful artwork studio Ghibli never fails to bring, will keep you watching to the end.
This is the first film without Miyazaki at the helm. Yonebayashi is said to be Miyazaki’s favorite disciple as they have worked on numerous projects together. I’m excited to see what Yonebayashi brings to Studio Ghibli and have a sense that he could become the new face of the studio.