Review: When Marnie Was There

If the heartbreaking news is true, then When Marnie Was There represents quite probably the final feature film to be released by the long-standing animation house Studio Ghibli, who for nearly 30 years have been producing rich and beautiful films, many of which have become beloved across the globe. This title, released in its native Japan back in 2014, is the second directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi following his superb debut with the quietly underrated Arrietty.

It’s another adaptation for Yonebayashi. This time he takes his cue from a slightly less familiar source; the novel by Joan G. Robinson. Viewing it as a ‘final film’ seems foolhardy – there is no feeling that Marnie is intended to represent any summation of the Ghibli ethos – but knowing that this is likely the end of things colours Marnie all the same. It fits easily within the studio’s regular thematic remit,  as intrinsically ‘Ghibli’ as anything else that bares the venerated name.

We meet Anna Sasaki (Sara Takatsuki); a classic young Ghibli heroine, if not an absolutely typical one. Twelve years old, Anna is outcast among her peers. She’s introverted, suffers from asthma and is prone to quite sincere self loathing. Concerned for her well-being, her guardians ship her off to stay with relatives in the countryside, evidently hoping that the change of scenery and fresh air might do her some good. Anna is an avid sketcher (and a very adept one). On arriving at her destination – a quiet, picturesque lakeside town – Anna finds her muse in an alluring mansion on the other side of the lake. She is drawn to it. And to a girl seemingly trapped within.

Said girl is the titular Marnie (Kasumi  Arimura), a princess-like blonde beauty with Rapunzel-esque cascading hair. Marnie visits Anna in her dreams. The seemingly abandoned mansion shows inexplicable suggestions of life when the lights go on and off, seemingly at random. Anna is drawn across the water to investigate. When she meets Marnie, as they talk, play, and become treasured friends, one is forced to question the exact nature of their relationship. Is it all a dream? Is Marnie an imaginary friend? A product of regression on Anna’s part? Where exactly does the magic lie in Yonebayashi’s film?

The answer to this last, unsurprisingly, is all around. As ever, some of the most beautiful moments worth savouring in Marnie are the little details (how a footprint lingers in a sandy rock pool; the consistently bizarre ways Ghibli characters consume their food). The animation isn’t as bold as Miyazaki’s, but Yonebayashi is a more than capable protegé. One certainly hopes, regardless of the studio’s future, that this isn’t his last directorial effort.

This attention to detail is something worth embracing in Marnie  all the more, as it’s one of the studio’s most sedate efforts in quite a while. There is a strong element of the fantastic about the story, but it’s comparatively subdued when set beside the titles with which Ghibli is more commonly renowned. There’s a determined gentleness to Marnie, which can sometimes make it feel like a long slow fade-out, rather than a particularly memorable crescendo. Nevertheless, quiet beauty is something we’ve encountered many times before at Ghibli, not least in Isao Takahata’s underrated Only Yesterday or the equally superb Whisper Of The Heart from Yoshifumi Kondo. It is these pictures with which Marnie shares the most connective tissue, not just in terms of subtlety, but thematically as well.

For while much can be said about the delightful bond between Anna and Marnie (which at times feels like a tentative step from Yonebayashi to introduce a potentially gay relationship into Ghibli’s progressive canon), When Marnie Was There is, more pointedly, a love letter to art and creativity. Anna’s sketching is an emotional outlet for her, and she meets a wisened fellow artist by the lake. In these scenes one senses a baton being passed, as though behind the camera the great talents at Ghibli are asking those inspired by their work to take up arms and forge the next generation of hand-drawn masterpieces. From thousands of blank canvases, the youth of Japan are being asked to take this legacy and make something worthy of it.

Maybe I’m looking for too much. But its an element that makes When Marnie Was There achingly bittersweet.

Ultimately, this sedate little story wraps up in a similar fashion to From Up On Poppy Hill; an exposition-heavy reveal of familial history tidily (even laboriously) answers questions raised in the main body of the film. As pretty as it is, that slightness of Yonebayashi’s occasionally feels a little unforgiving. One of the graces of Ghibli’s output is how light and airy it’s all been. When Marnie Was There pushes this to an extreme at times. It’s almost as if the film is disappearing right in front of you. This is still a fine, luxurious little animated feature, but Arrietty was a little more dynamic. Marnie too often runs the risk of feeling simply insubstantial.

But there are plenty of positives to take note of, not least the film’s wise and empathic recognition of depression in the young. Anna may tick many of those Ghibli boxes, but we’ve not seen a character so downcast and dejected in quite some time. It’s a little heartbreaking, yet it makes her gradual transformation all the more appealing. One hopes strongly for a similar upward curve to take place for Yonebayashi and the other talents who have been making their marks in recent years. Whatever the future holds, as long as talented, sensitive minds like theirs are allowed to operate, we’re in store for more beautiful, thoughtful art.

Score:  3

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