When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mani) (2015): Written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Starring: Sara Takatsuki and Kasumi Arimura. Running Time: 103 minutes. Based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson.
There is a wonderful way in which movies produced by Studio Ghibli seem to breath, move, and live at their own special pace, even as you are watching them. This is especially true for their quieter works that are consciously set in very normal, real-world settings, and many of which are lesser-known as a result. Films like Whisper of the Heart, My Neighbor Totoro, Only Yesterday, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Arrietty, while perhaps containing some fantasy or fairy-tale characters or elements, eschew the more overtly-astounding visuals and grander themes of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, or Grave of the Fireflies, choosing instead to focus on small stories in times and places you could easily imagine yourself occupying. They are meditative, lavishing an almost heart-rending level of attention to every detail of the postcard-perfect worlds they create, making every frame seem like a home someone has lived in for a very long time. When Marnie Was There, possibly (though not yet certainly) the last feature-length movie Studio Ghibli will gift to the world, falls into this category. If it really is to be their last act, what a beautiful final movement it is.
As is overwhelmingly the case where Studio Ghibli is concerned, our main character is a young girl, a 12-year-old orphan named Anna. We first meet her in the city of Sapporo, where she lives with her foster parents. Anna is, to put it very mildly, not your usual innocent-and-happy-as-a-clam preteen Disney protagonist. She struggles with depression, passive resentment towards her dead parents, and (this is hinted at later) a strong dislike of her somewhat-foreign physical appearance. She sits apart from the other children at school so she can draw out the fantasies in her head, seeing herself as outside a circle occupied by everyone else. Worried that the environment of the city is too much for her (she has asthma, and the film opens with her having a particularly bad attack), the mother decides to send her to spend the summer with some relatives of hers in a small seaside town, thinking a few months of fresh sea air will be just what she needs, both physically and mentally.
The place is charming enough when Anna arrives- the couple she is sent to stay with is jovial and friendly, and her room has a stunning view of a nearby cove. When she first goes out to explore, she notes a grand, but aging, mansion across a marsh, and runs over to check it out. Finding that is has clearly been empty for years, and noting that evening is upon her, she turns to leave, only to realize that the tide has come in and she is cut off from the other shore. Thankfully, a local fisherman (known, we later learn, for almost never speaking) happened to be coming by on his way in, and he takes her back with him on his small boat. Relieved, she turns back for one last glimpse of the house and….wait, are those lights in the upper bedroom window???
This is the first of a number of major twists in the story; each one is expertly executed and, bit-by-bit, they build up a remarkably multi-layered mystery yarn. When Anna goes back to the house, at first abandoned but then suddenly lit-up and new-looking again, she meets a cheerful, vivacious, blond-haired girl about her own age, named Marnie. Marnie is everything Anna is not- lively, outgoing, and endlessly cheerful- but they immediately feel drawn to each other (indeed, Marnie drops hints she’s been expecting Anna), and as the days go by Anna starts to think only of when she will see Marnie next, and what sort of new adventures they will have together.
If an empty house suddenly coming alive with apparently real people only at night wasn’t enough of a tip-off for you, all is not as it seems. Is Marnie a ghost? An angel? Something worse? Or is Anna hallucinating the entire time? As simple as the core narrative of the film is, much of its brilliance lies in how all but the best guessers will feel in the dark about what’s really going on right up until the scene of final revelation comes about at the end.
Tied into the central mysteries of the main story are a lot of side themes that, unfortunately, are for the most part only hinted at- issues surrounding depression, emotional abuse, crisis of identities, passive xenophobia, the struggles of being an orphan, and even sexuality can be glimpsed in scenes here and there. Most of them ultimately center on Anna’s crisis of identity, and that is the main focus of the film by the end. One of the biggest things she wrestles with throughout is her complicated feelings about not knowing her real parents, which are tied up into her equally complicated feelings about her foster parents. Her foster mother, despite only appearing at the beginning and the end, leaves an especially big impression- we see so clearly how much she loves Anna, and how hurt she feels that she doesn’t know how to help her more. A crucial moment at the very end between her and Anna (which I will not dare spoil here) is one of the film’s most powerful moments, an incredible example of brilliant character animation.
Speaking of the animation itself, this movie is, of course, visually stunning; this is Ghibli, after all, so what else would you expect? Blues and greens are the order of the day, with the sea and sky combining with the greens of the island marches and forests to create a calming effect, which aids in the dreamy quality of many of the film’s best scenes.
Sadly, not all of the potential threads or problems the film sets up are brought to play at the end. The silent fisherman, for example, looks like he might end up being someone important to the story of who (and what) Marnie really is, but whether or not that is the case is never really resolved. And while the scene that, for the audience, answers all hanging questions is great, it’s undercut a bit by the fact that Anna herself apparently only puts the pieces together in another scene 5 minutes later. It’s not a flaw or failing of the film, per say, but arranging the scenes that way was an odd choice, to say the least. But with that said, even if you are ultimately not entirely satisfied (or maybe even more confused) by what explanations are offered by the end, When Marnie Was There is nonetheless an incredibly moving and beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale, easily one of the best animated films of the year thus far, and if it must be so, a graceful last note by the Meisters of Studio Ghibli.