Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando & Hiromasa Yonebayashi
When I first heard that my local theater was getting ready for a once in a lifetime presentation of the entire Studio Ghibli canon, one a week, in order of release, I knew I was in for a treat. I had not seen many of the famed studio’s feature films, but those I had were stunning, and those I hadn’t had reputations I couldn’t possibly ignore. With When Marnie was There, the series comes to a close, so I will do my best to actually talk about that film instead of just simply reflecting on the ride as a whole, which could be very easy to do. But I did get a sense of finality when I sat in my seat for the final time during this run, thinking back on what a special experience this has been, how many great films I have experienced either for the first time, or experienced again on the big screen. This state of mind, that of joy and of nostalgia and of a certain longing for what once was and perhaps could be again, was exactly what I needed for When Marnie was There, which, without a doubt in my mind, enhanced my experience of this last of the Studio Ghibli films.
Based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie was There tells the story of a mysterious friendship between the title character, Marnie, and an anxious, shy girl with asthma, Anna. Anna is an orphan girl, who lost her parents when she was young. After finding evidence that the government provides subsidies to her foster family to help care for her, Anna struggles with self-worth, retreating into a lonely, unsure world devoid of friends and social experience. After her surrogate mother, Yoriko, sends her to relatives who live in a small coastal town for the summer to get fresh air, Anna becomes transfixed by a desolate mansion and the mysterious young blonde girl who appears to still live there, Marnie. Anna begins to learn about herself and who she is after striking up a relationship with Marnie.
It’s likely a somewhat unpopular opinion to hold Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s debut film, The Secret World of Arietty, in as high regard as I do, so seeing his follow up, and the final Studio Ghibli film ever released (I really hope they make more, but we shall see), I certainly had my expectations, which were easily met with Yonebayashi’s deft touch for detailed worlds and fragile, yet strong female leads. In some ways I was reminded of my favorite Ghibli film from the series, Only Yesterday, as a “lost” character goes to the countryside to find who she is, relax, and remember where she came from. In so many ways, this is a film about friendship and family, but what is the most remarkable about the story is that it is able to focus inward in exploring those themes, which is to say that Anna, our lead character, must first explore her own identity, and come to terms with where she comes from, before then letting others into her life to love her and care for her.
It’s not every animated film which features such mature and grounded themes and settings, but that tends to be a lot of what Studio Ghibli has done so well over its 30 years of producing films, even if their most popular films are Miyazaki’s fantasy worlds. When Marnie was There is the type of film that does not necessarily scream “animated”, and yet the medium somehow still enhances the experience. The animation here is endlessly beautiful and at times very haunting, spliced together with perfect pacing. The first and third acts of the film are engaging enough alone to carry the film, and while it may drag slightly in the middle third, it is merely the illusion provided by the “can’t take your eyes off the screen” bookending sections. Consider me a Hiromasa Yonebayashi fan who is excited to see what he does next, whether with Ghibli or not.
As I said in the beginning of my review, my nostalgic mindset certainly aided my experience of this film, but When Marnie was There draws out such longing and appreciation for friends and family that I couldn’t help but get sentimental and thankful for my friends and family. I am at a different point in my life and personal development than Anna is here, but I think there is something there to relate to for almost anybody, at least to some degree.
When I was a college student I came up with a theory about the general population, which is basically that everybody has a story worth being told. Some may be more dramatic, or funnier, or larger-than-life than others. Some may be more relatable or more commonplace, but every person has a story. And with the right medium to express that story, everybody’s individual experience could be of help to someone else, or oftentimes larger groups of people. It makes me wonder sometimes when I’m driving down the road, trying to make up stories for the drivers passing by, or the people sitting on the park bench, etc. We all have a story to tell, and I am so glad that I got to experience Studio Ghibli’s story in this way, on the big screen. I am also so thankful that When Marnie was There became so impactful to me, inspiring both reflection and appreciation within me. It’s a truly great film if you let it wash over and engulf you in its experience. A fitting coda.