REVIEW by Alice Vernon

NWR Issue r10

When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There is potentially the last Studio Ghibli film, and I recently had the chance to see it in Aberystwyth Arts Centre. But knowing that it might be the last time I’d see the big blue Totoro logo on a cinema screen, I was already slightly emotional. When Marnie Was There was a thought-provoking, sensitive, bittersweet goodbye to my favourite film company. And a fair amount of crying happened.

Based on the 1967 children’s novel by Joan G Robinson, the film was a poignant, if at times quite dark, story regarding depression in childhood. It follows the story of Anna, a young girl who feels out of place in the world. After she suffers an asthma attack, her foster parents encourage her to spend the summer with her relatives in a distant coastal town. There, Anna comes across an empty, dilapidated manor house near the marshes. The house in itself becomes a key character; it is sometimes accessible, and sometimes completely cut off by the tide. But the house is also where Anna meets the mysterious Marnie. They are immediately drawn to each other in an almost symbiotic friendship built on mutual loneliness. Marnie draws Anna out of her depression, and Anna is a comforting presence to Marnie – who is shown to be neglected despite the grandeur of her home. But the more time Anna spends with her new friend, the less tangible Marnie seems. They begin to mis-communicate, and Marnie confuses Anna with other figures from her life. Yet Marnie’s existence is very real, and her presence seems anchored to the house and to the older residents of the town. Anna must overcome her own anxieties in order to discover who Marnie really is.

When Marnie Was There was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and deftly brought the newest animation technologies to Studio Ghibli’s distinctive style. The landscapes were beautiful, and the whole film had a very bright, airy colour scheme of blues, greens and whites. Water played a key role; it was at times a rather threatening presence – cutting off the mansion as the marsh tide, knocking down Marnie’s newly finished sandcastle, and reflecting the turmoil within Anna (also it was streaming down my face). Additionally, Yonebayashi highlighted the importance of imagination, something I think Studio Ghibli has always tried to remember.

When Marnie Was There was a testament to the overarching theme of Studio Ghibli. In many of their films, from the recent Princess Kaguya to the classic Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli has promoted the resilience of the independent girl. More often than not, however, the young protagonist has had to be strong against an external force. When Marnie Was There presents a wholly internal struggle. Perhaps it was this idea that made me so teary as the film progressed: where several of Studio Ghibli’s previous heroines existed in fantasy circumstances, Anna’s depression represents a very real situation. Yonebayashi didn’t gloss over or dismiss her emotions, nor did he romanticise her inner battles. Instead, he showed the power of honest communication and of forming relationships. The ending wasn’t without a small twinge of sadness, but Yonebayashi emphasised that hope can still be found in dire circumstances. It was an incredibly moving message, and one that beautifully reflected everything Studio Ghibli has achieved over the last few decades.

Not only was this the final Studio Ghibli film, but it also marked a farewell to one of the company’s key animators, Makiko Futaki, who passed away earlier this year. In many ways, then, When Marnie Was There acted as an appropriate final message to the audience who’ve followed and grown up with the stories of Studio Ghibli. And even though the company’s films are irreplaceable, their celebration of childhood will continue to influence future animations.

Alice Vernon is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.


previous review: Slowly Burning
next review: Seaside Donkey: A Wayward Walk Around Wales


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