Upon being sent to live with relatives in the countryside, an emotionally distant adolescent girl becomes obsessed with an abandoned mansion and infatuated with a girl who lives there – a girl who may or may not be real.
Potentially the final film from the world famous Japanese animation house ‘Studio Ghibli’, ‘When Marnie Was There’ is a sombre and melancholy tale about a young orphan coming of age. If this is indeed a swansong, it does seem a fitting ending, even if this film lacks some of the more wondrous elements often associated with the studio’s output. The story is adapted from Joan G. Robinson’s novel of the same name, with the setting transported from Norfolk in England to Sapporo in Japan. It focuses on a young girl, Anna, living with her relatives in the seaside town, where she meets the titular Marnie, a mysterious girl who lives in a seemingly abandoned mansion across the marsh. Marnie is fun and carefree and the introverted Anna immediately connects with her, but as time goes on it becomes clear that Marnie is not all that she seems.
Beyond Disney and Pixar, there’s an argument to be made that Studio Ghibli is the most successful animation house in the world, with countless awards and critical acclaim for virtually all of their films. Their last three films (including this one) have felt like the end of an era, with the legendary Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘The Wind Rises’ and this film in particular marking a more grounded and less fantastical approach as seen in many of their earlier films. Whilst these films have lacked the innovation or sheer wonder of ‘Spirited Away’ or the heartbreak of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, they’ve evoked a certain nostalgia about the extensive filmography of the studio, and if this is indeed their final bow, it’ll be sad to see them go.
‘When Marnie Was There’ is a slighter effort when compared with the studio’s best features but it’s still a worthwhile watch, mainly driven by the beautiful painterly visuals we’ve come to expect from the animators, and a tale that captures enough beauty and sadness to draw the audience in. Anna is an immediately relatable Ghibli character, an outsider who struggles to connect with ordinary people in the ordinary world, and in Marnie she finds someone to truly connect with. The narrative developments did not surprise but they still connected, and I found great beauty and satisfaction in the way the film ties everything together.
Perhaps ‘When Marnie Was There’ could have stretched more into the fantastical elements of its story, but that would likely have detracted from the power of Anna and Marnie’s bond and the ultimate payoff. In any case, lesser Studio Ghibli is better than most, and ‘When Marnie Was There’ is a suitably nostalgic and moving way to finish up.
Directed By: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Starring: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Hana Sugisaki, Hitomi Kuroki, Ryoko Moriyama, Nanako Matsushima, Susuma Terajima, Toshie Negishi, Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Ken Yasuda