“I don’t care who Marnie really is… I just want to help her.”
After three decades of film making and the retiring of its founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli has reached its final film: When Marnie Was There.
I watched it with a great heaviness on my heart. It was the last and only movie of theirs I hadn’t seen. I was glad to see some lavish artwork. Though it was no less beautiful than anything I’d expect from the animators at Ghibli, I somehow wish they had bowed out with The Wind Rises and Princess Kaguya. There’s something missing from When Marnie Was There.
Was it Ghibli whimsy? Strength? Character? Personality? Patience? Serenity? Adventure? The nebulous thing we call “magic”? I don’t know and I can’t be sure. When Marnie Was There had some of these things, but none of them in droves. Maybe it’ll come out somewhere in the review.
When Marnie Was There was the second film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously directed The Secret World of Arrietty under the watchful eye of Toshio Suzuki as producer and with the guidance of Hayao Miyazaki as writer of the screenplay. On this project, Yonebayashi had no help from Miyazaki. Screenplay credits go to himself, Masashi Ando (animator on several films) and Keiko Niwa (writer on Arrietty, Earthsea, and Poppy Hill). Could the man eyed as a possible heir to the throne of Miyazaki ultimately prove himself when on his own? The answer is yes but it would be a different work than Miyazaki would’ve done. When Marnie Was There fits comfortably into the niche of Ghibli films which weren’t directed by either Takahata or Miyazaki.
The film is an adaptation of a novel by the same name written by Joan G. Robinson, British author in children’s and young adult’s fiction. The adaptation transposes the setting from England to Japan. In making this change, Yonebayashi created a world which doesn’t entirely seem Japanese, nor entirely British, but something which exists in some space between.
Anna Sasaki is our titular heroine, so on that note we’re right on track with Ghibli’s fondness of female protagonists. However, Anna isn’t like the strong Nausicaä, Kiki, San, or Kaguya. Each of those were characters with flaws but Anna begins as a broken character paralyzed with social anxiety, suffering from asthma. Her first uttered words in the film are not uttered at all. They’re merely thought. She observes that there’s a magic circle and she notes bitterly that she is outside of it, watching life happen around her but not sharing in the lives of others. Then she says she hates herself. The movie begins with that kind of sharpness.
Anna lives with her “auntie”, her foster mother, who thinks to send Anna away to the countryside to take in some fresh air, hoping it’ll relieve her asthma and heal her in more ways than one. When visiting the Oiwa family in the countryside, Anna becomes fascinated by an abandoned house on the other side of a marsh.
In its window, she’s sees the image of a golden-haired girl named Marnie and the two eventually become close friends, clearly a first for Anna.
Marnie is always laughing opposed to the wooden-faced Anna. Marnie is one who loves parties and dancing, who doesn’t shy away from the touch of another person. Through interacting with her, Anna, a girl that was once the typical introvert, slowly begins to become accustomed to human presence, then to crave it, and finally to be free.
However, it’s also clear that Marnie isn’t everything she seems to be. She is no ordinary girl. We’re talking about a Planet of the Apes level of twist ending, so since it’s so spoilerific, we’ll go ahead and reserve discussing Marnie’s true nature in the Narrative and Themes portion of this review. Suffice it to say, this is Studio Ghibli’s only true mystery drama. They withhold all the answers right up until the very end and keep you guessing.
This may be slightly spoilerishistic: happy ending in sights.
Anna’s character development is front and center in When Marnie Was There, and I think it’s the greatest thing the film has to offer its audience. I don’t know. Maybe I just have too little faith in humanity? But then, how many times have you seen those BuzzFeedish articles, posts like “Things only introverts can understand”, and those personality quizzes on Facebook where people lament being introverts, treating themselves as victims and demanding, begging to be pampered and accommodated with understanding by the fierce, lionesque extroverts of the world.
Now to clarify, I am referring to the general consensus and widely held misconception that equates anti-social behavior with introversion. I don’t think that’s accurate, but I’d like to speak to it anyway. Thank you to the helpful commenters below who made this discussion more lucid.
Into this world of victimization by introversion, Anna’s story leaps. She doesn’t remain the way she is forever. She’s happy to grow out of it. For her, being an introvert wasn’t something to be a proud of. It was something she hated. And it wasn’t something she wanted to cuddle and hold on to. It wasn’t something she asked others to accommodate. She made the choice to be free of it, with a little help from the loving and energetic Marnie.
I don’t know how many of our readers would consider themselves introverts or anti-social, but I think that When Marnie Was There would say this to you: You don’t have to be that way forever. Anna had valid reason to distrust people and be anxious around them, and maybe you do or maybe you don’t. Right at the beginning of the film, a teacher asks to see Anna’s artwork and the frame pans down to the adult’s open hand. He reached out to her. He was asking if he could invite himself into her life. Would he judge her? Dismiss her? Ridicule her? Possibly. But probably not. More likely, he was an educator who cared about his students.
The point being, I think that introverts would greatly benefit not from being converted into extroverts… but by being aware of the people around them who reach out to them. Rather than beg for alms, as it were, act upon the opportunities people, family, friends give you to share in the experience of life. Courage is a virtue that can be learned.
I don’t say this as an extrovert but as a former introvert myself. Now I’m comfortably in the middle. I identified with Anna and not because she stoked the flames of my pity-party, but because she reminded me of my younger self. It wasn’t until I was in college that I began opening up to others and being excited about meeting new people and talking to them. When old friends began to tell me that I’d come out of my shell, I suddenly realized that indeed I had. The years of loneliness (but not awkwardness) were over. I didn’t become some kind of dude-bro extrovert. I became myself without introversion.
Someone might say I was never a true introvert in the first place if I managed to step out of it. I would say to such a person: You won’t know until you try it for yourself. Which is more important, to be identified as an introvert or to have meaningful, lasting relationships (plural) in your life?
When Marnie Was There is about friendship and finding a friend means being friendly. It’s not about becoming an extrovert. They may seem like two sides of a coin, but Anna never becomes Marnie. Neither personality is better but Anna learns not to shut herself out form the world. She wants to become “normal” in her own words, less self-deprecating and miserable.
She breaks the magic circle. She makes friends in her own way on her own terms but is no longer a victim of herself. She ends up becoming happy. And in the final film from Studio Ghibli, it is indeed appropriate that happiness gets the last word.
The 8-bit Review
When Marnie Was There manages to strike a balance. It maintains the visuals which are characteristic of the Ghibli appeal while at the same time seeming modern, employing modern techniques and modern anime “sharpness”. You can instantly tell it’s not a Takahata or a Miyazaki. It even looks different than Yonebayashi’s Secret World of Arrietty.
However, the animation is still top notch. If anything, When Marnie Was There proves that Studio Ghibli can still produce animation of the highest quality even without the perfectionist scrutiny of its retired master. Though it remains to be seen whether proving that fact will be enough to keep the studio going. As it stands, Marnie is visually captivating, on par with many Studio Ghibli films and even exceeding some of them in this department.
My wife and I watching this film took great delight in pointing out the numerous visual quirks which mark the work of this studio. They just love to animate little details which help to enliven their worlds and make them feel more natural and tangible. Things like Mrs. Oiwa catching a cherry tomato that rolled off her plate, Anna struggling to regain her balance as she steps into a rowboat, or something as simple as cutting produce. Observe this animation of the human hand. It’s so realistic! Every finger on Anna’s hand applies pressure in varying amounts. I have no idea how long it took to animate such a short and seemingly pointless sequence like slicing a tomato, but it subtly enriches the scene.
The backgrounds do not disappoint, either. By this time, Studio Ghibli animators have had decades to perfect painting natural backgrounds, woods, forests, grassy fields, and here marshes. These remind us that Ghibli’s backgrounds are the best in the world. That’s not hyperbole. No wonder the film takes every chance it can to highlight stills like this one:
I didn’t really care for the score in this film. Call it because of the absence of Joe Hisaishi, who seems to have scored his last Ghibli movie, but the efforts of Takatsugu Muramatsu just weren’t up to the task of carrying the emotional weight of the film in every nuance and inflection. If I noticed the music at all it was only when it sounded so happy it was sappy, like carefree ignorance. It was sentimentality without build up, without reason. Considering everything which happens in the film and the great personal journey which Anna undertakes hand in hand with Marnie, this seems like a missed opportunity. There might’ve been tracks that were dreadful, sorrowful, suspenseful, and sentimental.
I couldn’t find too much of the soundtrack on YouTube, anyway.
The one saving grace is the closing credits song sung by Priscilla Ahn. I’ll be candid. I was apprehensive as soon as the song began. The airy folk tune seemed all too cliché but once I heard the first few verses of lyrics, I was certain that it was the perfect song to close out this movie. It tells the tale of Anna’s pining for escape, how she was all but fine on the inside, how much she needed Marnie’s help. “Would you cry if I died? Would you remember my face?” It’s a yearning for more, for valued relationships with others, instead of sinking deeper in the mire.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film, please Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip both the Narrative and Themes portions of this review.
Anna Sasaki, the 12-year-old introvert of Sapporo, Japan lives unhappily with foster parents. She’s unable to make any real friends and suffers asthma attacks. Everyone around her talks about her as if she isn’t even there. Her foster mother worries about her, describing her in the next room, within Anna’s earshot, as having an ordinary face, a wooden expression like she hides her feelings. Neither happy nor sad.
Her foster parents decide to send Anna away for the summer to live with their relatives the Oiwas in the countryside, hoping that the fresh air will help Anna. The Oiwas are an odd couple, a loud and boisterous pair that seem to cause Anna to bristle but they’re kind to her and invite her into their home. As they drive up to their house, Anna spots a ruined tower and Mr. Oiwa explains it’s an old silo that is probably haunted by ghosts now. Anna goes out to explore the town and notices an abandoned mansion across a marsh beside the shore.
When she walks up to the mansion across the flats, she peers in through the windows and sees that everything is covered in sheets and dust. Nobody has lived here for some time. She idly looks up at one of the second-story windows and before she knows it, she falls asleep. When she wakes up, the tide has come in, trapping her at the mansion. Luckily, an old fisherman named Toichi arrives in his rowboat and shakes his head at her, warning her against the place. He takes her safely back to shore. But she glances back and thinks for a moment that the house is all lit up, as if full of people. Was it an optical illusion of the fading sunlight?
Anna soon begins to have dreams of a young girl living in the mansion having her hair harshly brushed by an old lady.
Unfortunately, Anna’s anxiety is exasperated by Mrs. Oiwa who arranges for Anna to participate in a coming festival with another neighborhood girl named Nobuko. Anna reluctantly dons the appropriate garb and attends the Tanabata Star Festival, celebrating the meeting of the deities Hikoboshi and Orihime, two lovers who can only meet once a year. At the festival, Anna is pushed over the edge by Nobuko who snatches the wish Anna wrote on a slip of paper and reads it without asking. It says she wishes for a normal life. Nobuko then remarks that Anna’s eyes are blue. It’s pretty but Anna never knew her parents so it’s only a reminder that she’s an orphan. Anna calls Nobuko a fat pig and then flees the festival.
She runs down to the shoreline and discovers a rowboat at the ready. She takes it across the marsh and heads for the mansion. But she’s unfamiliar with rowing and is about to crash when a young girl with blonde hair rushes out and helps her safely to ground. Anna is embarrassed by the other’s thoughtless laughter and closeness, but she hides with the blonde girl from her parents in the mansion and the two of them agree to keep each other a secret.
Anna later returns to the Oiwas just in time to overhear Nobuko’s mother reprimanding them for Anna’s behavior. The Oiwas welcome Anna back in anyway. Anna soon meets the blonde girl again and discovers that her name is Marnie. They take the rowboat out over the water and Marnie teaches Anna how to row, then reveals that she’s prepared a picnic for them, despite it being sunset. They ask each other questions until Anna blacks out and Marnie discovers her in the boat again.
Later, Anna follows Marnie into the mansion to attend a party being thrown by her parents, disguised as a flower girl. Inside, they outrace and outwit Anna’s old nana and then burst into the party. Marnie abandons Anna to dance with a boy named Kazuhiko. Left alone, Anna is overwhelmed by the other partygoers and goes outside to watch for the blonde. When Marnie finally shows, she teaches a reluctant Anna how to dance.
Anna is then discovered by the side of the road, filthy. Unsure what’s happened, Anna goes back to the mansion as soon as she can but it appears to be abandoned again. There’s no sign of the opulence of the party she’d experienced. As time passes, Anna cannot shake the mystery and fascination of the mansion and she begins to sketch portraits of Marnie. When she goes out to look at the mansion across the water, she sees an artist painting on the shore. It’s an elderly woman named Hisako who is painting the mansion herself. Hisako recognizes the girl in Anna’s sketches as one she used to play with when she was younger. When she mentions that the mansion is being renovated because a family is moving in, Anna rushes there.
She meets a little girl who has moved in named Sayaka. The little girl has discovered in the house a diary belonging to someone named Marnie. At first, she thinks that Anna is Marnie, which Anna denies. The mystery deepens as Anna reads the diary and finds a passage describing Marnie at the party and dancing with a flower girl. But there are pages missing from the diary.
Marnie soon reappears the next day and Anna opens up to her about how closed she is toward others, how it stems from the trauma of feeling unwanted by anyone after her parents died when she was very young. She discovered that her foster parents receive money from the government to care for her and so she even doubts that they love her. Marnie opens up to her as well, not everything about her life is idyllic, and the illusion of reality begins to tear apart. Marnie steps off a cliff into thin air and appears to be fine. The blonde explains that her parents are rarely in the mansion, how she suffers under the care of the nanny and the maids. Once the maids threatened to lock her up in the terrifying silo which clearly represents both Anna and Marnie’s fears.
Despite Anna wishing for everything that Marnie has (family, security, a home), it is Marnie who wishes she was in Anna’s shoes. Anna decides to help Marnie face her fears by taking her up to the ruined silo. She sees Sayaka on the way, who says she’s discovered the missing pages of the diary, but when Marnie disappears Anna pursues her into the spooky silo. It begins to rain and Anna does her best to comfort Marnie, who has taken to calling Anna Kazuhiko. Embracing each other to keep warm, they fall asleep. When Anna awakes, she finds herself alone. Furious and heartbroken that Marnie would abandon her in the silo, Anna races angrily across the countryside, tears mingling with the rain. She collapses and is found by Sayaka and her brother.
Anna develops a fever and has another dream about Marnie. The girl begs for her forgiveness, saying she must soon depart. Anna cannot forget the true friendship they shared and she forgives Marnie, vowing that she’ll never forget her. Then Anna is carried away by the waves. When she wakes from the fever, Sayaka is there to show her the missing pages. The two girls go to Hisako the painter who finally explains Marnie’s story.
Marnie lived a long time ago. She grew up in the mansion and was a friend to Hisako as a child. She married her childhood sweetheart Kazuhiko and they had a daughter. Kazuhiko died young however, and Marnie was forced to go to a sanatorium for an illness. She had no choice but to place her daughter in a boarding school at a young age. Years later, when Marnie recovered, she went back for her daughter but their relationship was ruined. Her daughter left and married, had a daughter of her own and then was killed with her husband in an accident. Marnie tried to raise her own granddaughter but she was old and eventually passed on. Her granddaughter was placed in a foster home. Anna thinks she understands now and the story moves her. She knows her meeting with Marnie was profound.
With summer over, Anna’s foster mother comes to take her home. She confesses to Anna that they were receiving money but even if they weren’t, they would still love her like their own daughter. After that, her foster mother shows her an old photograph of the mansion that had Anna so fixated. The photograph belonged to Anna’s grandmother. She realizes that she is Marnie’s granddaughter.
As Anna says goodbye to Hisako, she calls her foster mother her mother for the first time. She waves farewell to her new friends as she returns to Sapporo. She looks truly happy. She’s learned to be comfortable around other people. She’s no longer tormented by anxiety. She sees Marnie one last time in the mansion, waving back at her.
Several big themes in When Marnie Was There and several which seemed underdeveloped. I’ve already discussed Anna’s place as an introvert earlier, so let us leave that aside for now.
One of the big questions which still remains after the film is what exactly was Marnie? A ghost, sure yeah, but that doesn’t seem to explain absolutely everything. For a while, it seemed like they were going in a direction with Marnie where she would’ve been this dual-personality, a figment of Anna’s imagination and a projection of everything Anna wanted to be: a beautiful, elegant, funny, happy girl instead of the stupid, ugly one she calls herself out to be. Even though that’s thrown out the window, it still remains that Marnie seemed like such a polar opposite of Anna. Then there’s the old fisherman Toichi who seems to know about Marnie as well. Has Anna’s grandmother revisited everyone in the town?
Rather than over-explaining as many other films have done, the mystery remains intact. There’s no admission by Marnie that she was sent from the other side to protect Anna or guide her out of her despair. She is simply there, figment or apparition or both.
Marnie herself seems to need Anna just as much as Anna needs Marnie. It is reaching out and helping someone else which puts Anna’s self-deprecating tendencies to rest. There’s a nugget of truth there. Others first is one of the routes to happiness.
As for the much discussed pseudo-romantic relationship between Anna and Marnie, this is what I make of it. There are scenes in When Marnie Was There which look distinctly romantic. The rowboat scene at sunset with the two girls is one such example. Anna blushes every time that Marnie embraces her or grabs her hands and presses them.
In retrospect, this may be because Anna is so unused to human touch, a healing factor in its own right, that she is embarrassed by it. It may just be that this is Marnie’s plan to “cure” Anna. There is also the Star Festival that marks Marnie’s first appearing, with its celebration of two celestial lovers who can only find each other annually. That would seem to highlight a clear subtext of romance between Anna and Marnie. Yet by the end of the film it is obvious that this isn’t the case.
Marnie is the spirit or projection of Anna’s grandmother. Though they confess their love for each other, there are no kisses or sensual romance. They care for each other as fast friends but that’s evidently it. I think that boiling the whole thing down to a lesbian film is dishonest and unfair to the film’s conclusion. Choosing to stick with broader themes like environmentalism and the value of life, Ghibli has never touched on the more controversial elements of the culture wars before. Doing so here with its last breath would’ve been out of place. Even their female heroines are ones who can be embraced by everyone, innocent of pandering.
So no, I don’t believe that Marnie and Anna shared a romantic relationship. In the hands of a more capable director, perhaps this wouldn’t have been a deception. They shared a profound friendship instead, like David and Jonathan of the Old Testament. Marnie teaches Anna about life, as any good friend does. Anna learns how to spend time with others, how to deal with feelings of jealousy, how to share, how to open up to others, how to help others and put their needs first, and ultimately how to forgive others. Perhaps indirectly, perhaps not, Marnie has taught Anna how to be a better human being.
Was this Marnie’s plan the whole time?
Family Friendliness: 9/10
Even though there are some spooky elements, there’s nothing that should be too off-putting for general audiences. Some families may be made uncomfortable by the seeming direction of Marnie and Anna’s early meetings, but it all gets explained in the end.
That doll! What a red herring.
Truth be told, I thought this film had a less than satisfactory voice cast. It seems like Ghibli has stepped into the field of forgettable English dubbing. Long live the subtitle purists, eh?
Hailee Steinfeld delivers her depressing lines too harshly in my opinion and she sounds often like a bitter woman rather than a confused and scared little girl. Let’s remember that Anna is supposed to be twelve in this movie but her voice actress was eighteen or nineteen at the time. It’s obvious. Marnie is even worse. Keirnan Shipka was fifteen or so when she voiced the part but she sounds far too old for the part. Her tittering, closed-mouth laughter and girlish giggling is abrasive rather than endearing. I understand why they went with her voice as it carries a lot of comforting warmth, but it seems like there’s just too much of it.
As for the rest of the cast, there are many minimal parts. Somebody found Geena Davis and gave her the part of Anna’s foster mother. Best performance would probably be… Vanessa Williams as Hisako or John C. Reilly and Grey DeLisle as Mr. and Mrs. Oiwa? At least they sound natural.
This is a film which seemed to constantly be turning itself on its head. A third of the way through I was convinced I was watching a LGBT film… and then another third of the way through I thought that that interpretation no longer made sense, until finally I was left with the ending that explains almost everything. When Marnie Was There shares much needed wisdom on being an introvert and an outsider, and changing rather than asking others to change. It’s a very different take on the subject than virtually anything else we hear in today’s entertainment. Change for others? Why? Because putting others first is a secret to happiness, theirs and yours. Friendship, you’ll find, is one of the most valuable things in the world.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
I enjoyed this film even though it seemed to be missing something. Others have noted that it seems to change its mind about what it wants to be as it tells its own story. As my wife remarked, it is one film which I think deserves a second viewing once you solve the full mystery. I don’t know but it may be a little while until another viewing. If Miyazaki’s last film was an elegant whisper, this was a beautifully animated and emotional whimper. A drop in the sea. There are moments which may tug at heartstrings but the threat of sobbing is exaggeration on behalf of over eager reviewers. Unless you sobbed. Which is totally cool.
Did this film need to happen? I’m not convinced that it did, at least not as the last film in the Ghibli canon. It was okay and all but it seemed like it was just anime.
Aggregated Score: 7.4