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[When Marnie Was There]
AKA: Omoide no Marnie ("Memories of Marnie"), 思い出のマーニー
Genre: Atmospheric Supernatural Drama with Yuri Romance Elements
Length: Movie, 103 minutes
Distributor: Currently licensed by GKids.
Content Rating: PG (Mostly Appropriate for All Ages, Some Underage Drinking and Mature Themes)
Related Series: None
Also Recommended: A Letter to Momo, Only Yesterday
Notes: Based on the novel When Marnie Was There by the late Joan Robinson, a British author; this film changes the setting from England to Japan but keeps the basic story the same.

When Marnie Was There


Anna, a middle schooler who loves to draw, lives in foster care and has always been both sickly and prone to severe social anxiety. After she has an especially bad asthma attack, her foster family has her spend time with some of their relatives in a small coastal town in northern Japan. She keeps having a hard time making friends, in spite of her relatives' best efforts, but one day, she wanders into a salt marsh at low tide, looking for places to draw, and comes across what looks like an abandoned vacation house. She comes back later, out of curiosity, only to meet a cheerful girl named Marnie who dresses in strange clothes and claims to live in that same house. Even though she's not really sure of who or what Marnie really is, Anna quickly feels taken in by her openness and starts to think of her as her first real friend.


When Marnie Was There might be the last Studio Ghibli movie that I ever get to see in theaters, and so it's a really special movie for me. Watching The Wind Rises in theaters felt a lot like reading the last Harry Potter book, to me: I grew up on Hayao Miyazaki's movies, and it's what spurred me into becoming an anime fan later on. When Marnie Was There feels almost like a strange little epilogue, now that Studio Ghibli's future is so uncertain. I was a little bit hesitant about When Marnie Was There, since I was pretty frustrated with director Hiromasa Yonebayashi's debut work, one of my least favorite Ghibli movies; Yonebayashi's on record saying some pretty sexist and gender-essentialist things about female directors, too. But even if I have issues with his views or his other movies, I still really, really loved When Marnie Was There. It's a story about a socially awkward, lonely, and anxiety ridden girl whose story resonated a lot with me, and it's a poignant, beautiful, and bittersweet movie. The ending's a little bit questionable, especially given some things that happen earlier in the movie, and it messes with the atmosphere enough for me to knock a star off the final rating, but that aside, it's a wonderful movie.

Maybe it goes without saying that the technical aspects set an impossibly high bar for other animators, given that this is Studio Ghibli we're talking about, but I want to rave about it a bit. Like with all their movies, the beauty in the landscapes here lies in bucolic and nostalgic imagery that doesn't just feel like some cynical, conservative callback to "simpler times." Anna's journal to a small town in Japan is officially for her physical health, but it also represents a reprieve for her mental health, using a change in pace to clear some of her fears and anxieties; it's heavily implied that even if those aren't the only reason behind her sickness, they make it a lot worse. And what a place this town is: we have mossy silos and old vacation homes returning to nature, sailing over seas of waving grass (nobody does that better than Ghibli), set against a backdrop of salt marshes and estuaries as they reflect the colors of the fading sun. It's a place that gives off a vibe of being one of the few of its kind left, part of a dying world, where seabirds still scamper all around and the pace of life is almost anachronistically slow. The visuals and music give their all to say that this is something that Anna, and maybe Japan as a whole, need to have, for some purpose or other; it's a melancholic sense of bucolic beauty, not blithe nostalgia.

When Marnie Was There isn't a "sad" film in the sense that it feels like we're supposed to cry (though I'll admit that I did, a few times), but it's dreamy and sombre, in a lot of ways, and, again, very melancholic at times. Anna's anxiety really did resonate with me, since her habits remind me a lot of my own habits back in middle school, and I've noticed the same thing with other people I know who struggled through school feeling nervous and physically ill. During the opening scene, she stops herself from showing a teacher a (rather good) drawing she's done, out of shyness and a low opinion of her own work, but moments after she spends a lot of mental energy shoring herself up to do so, the teacher gets distracted by a bunch of noisy, misbehaving kids and leaves her behind to sulk. It's an example of somebody wanting to be noticed and saved from their demons, but not being able to because the people in charge are almost always going to pay attention to the loud, outgoing, kids who demand attention. Not to mention, she acts defensively and lashes out when under stress, which happens to a lot of kids who deal with stuff like this (especially girls). Her aunt tries to introduce her to another girl so she can make friends with her, but then that girl invades her personal space and starts asking her probey questions, with Anna getting more and more visibly uncomfortable. The other girl then, totally tactlessly, points out her blue eyes, which triggers Anna into fight-or-flight mode, and she responds by calling the girl a "fatty" and running away. In Japan, kids who have foreign parents or who've lived overseas get bullied quite a bit, and most anime don't take this seriously (the "popular blonde" trope is a bit of an invention), and it's really not that surprising that she'd respond this can point fingers all you want at her for fat-shaming, but I'll admit that I did the exact same thing to another girl who bullied me in middle school....

And that brings me to Marnie, who seems to give Anna everything she wants but never gets when she tries to make friends with other people: she's kind, she doesn't probe or ask billions of questions, and she's somehow able to draw her out of her shell without making her feel exposed and uncomfortable. To me, one of the most magical things about When Marnie was There is that it bypasses any tiresome drama over whether Marnie is actually "real" or not. Of course, the first time we see the vacation house, it's an empty, decaying ruin, and that tips us off to the fact that there's something not quite normal about this girl who claims to be living there, but the movie doesn't have us waste time on figuring out what, exactly Marnie is; I ended up feeling like I could accept the fact that there was something strange, supernatural, and wonderful going on, like in My Neighbor Totoro, without asking too many questions or needing to know all of the specifics. Honestly, the question of whether Marnie's "real" or not just wouldn't make that good a movie; this wouldn't tell us much about Anna or her needs, and the magical realism we get instead is much more rewarding. Marnie's outwardly unlike Anna in that she's a cheerful person, but the two of them both have a taste for adventure and an interest in art, and Marnie's not quite as extroverted as she seems; it's almost as if she represents what Anna could be if she was able to ever get her demons under control. This sticks out more when it becomes obvious that Marnie herself feels lonely and neglected; she brings Anna to a party held by her wealthy parents, in one scene, and the superficial attention they shower on her makes it clear that she gets a lot of presents and effusive gestures of affection from parents when they're out in public, but that she doesn't get the love and comfort she really needs, on a day to day basis.

It's a beautiful story to me because of how much love Anna and Marnie show one another, in contrast to this. Marnie initially seems like a projection of Anna's desire, but the affection between the two of them deepens to a beautiful ability to understand each other's pain without words, and a very deep love. And I don't use the word "love" lightly; I can't, personally, read the tone of their relationship as anything other than romantic. The way that they look into their eyes during their happiest moments, the way that Anna cradles Marnie when she's at her loneliest and darkest, when they're trapped in one of the ruined silos's hard for me to see this as anything besides two girls who aren't just friends in the platonic sense.

And I might be making it harder for myself to enjoy the movie, by interpreting it this way, because the movie does eventually give us an explanation for who Marnie is (if not for why exactly she's here now), and when we learn this, it makes the tone of some of these scenes....a bit uncomfortable. The film doesn't exactly have a "bad" ending, since I did really like how Anna's personality was affected by everything, and Marnie's backstory definitely gives her character arc some more poignancy. But it's really, really strange given how far the movie seems to go to make it feel like the two girls are more than just friends, and it also feels clumsy. By clumsy, I mean that I think the movie makes a mistake by trying to ask literal questions about who Marnie was rather than explore their relationship; in Spirited Away, Chihiro doesn't really ever learn exactly what happened to her, and I don't think she'd be able to explain the mechanics of it if she was asked, but what she takes away from her experience matters a lot more. I'm happy that Anna grows from the experience, but the film actually cheapens itself a little bit by trying to wrap things up too neatly, I think.

Even with this, When Marnie Was There is still a lovely movie. It's honestly a bit weird to me that Mr. Yonebayashi's said such sexist things, because he (or somebody on the staff) really, really has a good sense of what it's like to be an anxious middle school girl, in my opinion. If this is the last movie that Studio Ghibli ever makes, then so be it; it's gone out on a lovely note.

Poignant and melancholic, When Marnie Was There screws up a bit at the end with some over-explaining, but it's still a lovely movie. Nicoletta Christina Browne

Recommended Audience: There's a little bit of underage drinking, but aside from that, the main issue is that this film touches on severe social anxiety, and I think that's why the MPAA gave this a "PG" rating.

If you have a problem with the lesbian undertones, then we promise you, with all sincerity, that we have absolutely no interest in hearing about it.

Version(s) Viewed: U.S. Theatrical Release, Japanese with English Subtitles
Review Status: Full (1/1)
When Marnie Was There © 2014 GNDHDDTK
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