When Marnie Was There
Anna, an artistically-minded grade school student, lives in a foster home and has always been both sickly and prone to social anxiety. After an especially bad asthma attack, her foster family has her spend some time with relatives of theirs in a small coastal town in Northern Japan. She continues to struggle to make friends, in spite of the best efforts of the relatives, but one day, she wanders out across a salt marsh at low tide and comes to what appears to be an abandoned vacation home. She returns to it later, out of curiosity, only to encounter a cheerful girl named Marnie. Though unsure of whom or what Marnie really is, Anna immediately takes to her openness and has what is, essentially, her first real friend.
When Marnie Was There might be the last movie by Studio Ghibli that I ever get to sea in theaters, so it's a special movie for me. If seeing The Wind Rises, the final film by the man whose movies left me with a lifelong love of animation, was the last chapter of a book, then seeing When Marnie Was There, which sadly may be the last film ever produced by the studio he helped found, might function as a sort of epilogue. Now, I'd felt some hesitation about watchingWhen Marnie Was There due to my frustration with director Hiromasa Yonebayashi's debut work, which for some time I've considered to be my least favorite film by Studio Ghibli. Those fears turned out to be unfounded, for When Marnie Was There, the story of a socially awkward, lonely, and anxiety-ridden young girl, is poignant and bittersweet. A few questionable narrative choices near the very end dilute the effect enough for me to dock a star in my rating, but I otherwise have nothing but praise for Yonebayashi's sophomore effort.
It might go without saying that this film's technical quality sets an impossibly high bar for other animators to leap over, given its production studio, but that would deprive me of the chance to praise it. Like many of Studio Ghibli's efforts, the beauty of this film's landscapes lies in its bucolic and nostalgic imagery and in the ability of this to come across as something besides a cynical callback to "simpler times;" in this particular film, Anna's journey to a small coastal town in Japan, while ostensibly arranged for her physical health, ultimately represents the need to clear her head of her fears and anxieties, which are heavily implied to be the source of her physical ailments. And what a place this town is: Studio Ghibli's signature waves of grass accompany shots of mossy silos and vacation homes returning to nature, akin to the state of Laputa in the movie of the same name, set against the estuaries and salt marshes as they reflect the colors of the dying sun. This place, still full of scampering shorebirds and where the pace of life is distinctly slow, is like many other locales in Ghibli movies in that it gives off an air of being one of the few of its kind left and, possibly, being part of a world that is dying. Yet the visuals and music give their all to say that this place is something that both Anna and, possibly, Japan itself still need to have. It's a melancholic, rather than blithe, sense of bucolic beauty.
Indeed, When Marnie Was There isn't explicitly a "sad" film in the sense that it's designed to draw tears out of the audience, but rather, a melancholic one. One of the most poignant aspects of the film, to me, was Anna's anxiety, which manifests in many of the same ways it did for me and other people who, I now know, also suffered from it at that age. During the opening scene, for example, she hesitates to a show a teacher her (rather beautiful) drawing out of shyness, but just when she resolves to do so he is distracted by a group of misbehaving kids and leaves her behind to sulk. It's a case of one hoping for someone to grant them recognition and save them from their own demons of crippling shyness and low self-esteem, and not being able to because people will inevitably pay more attention to the loud, the attention-demanding, and the outgoing. Furthermore, she behaves defensively and lashes out, like many children who struggle with these demons. After her aunt attempts to have her make friends with another girl, for example, the other girl invades her personal space and asks her probing questions, to her increasingly visible discomfort, until she tactlessly makes note of her blue eye color, which triggers Anna into calling the girl "fat" and running away. Given that in Japan, bullying of children of foreigners or of children who have lived outside the country is commonplace (a fact that few anime take remotely seriously), it's no surprise that she'd respond in this way, even if what she says is horrid.
This brings me to the character of Marnie, who is a manifestation of everything that Anna wants but never has in her interactions with other people: she is kind, understanding, and, most significantly, able to draw her out of her shell without making her uncomfortable. Ultimately, the magic of When Marnie Was There is the manner in which it handles their relationship and bypasses any tiresome drama over whether Marnie is in fact "real" or not. Since the viewer almost instantly sees the vacation house as an empty, decaying place, one is tipped off to the fact that the interactions between Anna and Marnie do not "actually happen," but it's a smart move for the film to make. The question of whether Marnie is, in fact, real, in a corporeal sense, would make for an unsatisfying story because answering such a question wouldn't tell us much about Anna or her needs; instead, the magical realism that this film engages in is far more rewarding. Marnie, though highly unlike Anna in her outgoing personality and cheerful demeanor, shares a taste for adventure and an eye for art with her, as if she reflects what Anna might be like, someday, if she could take greater control of her demons. This becomes even more apparent as the film, first subtly and then more explicitly, indicates that Marnie herself is lonely and neglected; a scene in which she brings Anna into a party held by her wealthy parents, for example, suggests that she receives material presents and token gestures of affection but not the love she needs.
It's a beautiful story, ultimately, because of how much love Anna and Marnie ultimately show one another. While Marnie might initially appear as a simple projection of Anna's desires, the affection between the two has deepened to an understanding of each other, including their respective sources of pain, and ultimately a very deep love. I don't use the term "love" lightly, here; the tone of their relationship, to me, is subtly but distinctly romantic. In regards to the manner in which they look into each other's eyes during their happiest moments, and in which Anna cradles Marnie during her loneliest and darkest ones, it feels like a love story to me.
I might, in fact, be making it more difficult for myself to enjoy the film by interpreting it this way, not because these scenes are poorly-done (the opposite, in fact). Rather, the film's eventual insistence on laying out a literal explanation for Marnie's past, and the nature of said past, ultimately make some of these scenes a tiny bit uncomfortable in retrospect. Now, the film does not end poorly; I did like how tangible the change in Anna's personality is, manifested in her being able to talk to other children without fear or defensiveness, and when Marnie's backstory is discussed more fully it does certainly add some depth to her character. But rather, my complaints are in line with my preference for the film to explore Marnie and Anna's relationship rather than ask literal questions as to who or what she is or was. It's a nice bit of closure in its own way, but I'm reminded of the ending of Spirited Away, another film featuring a sort of "secondary world" of unclear relation to ours, in which Chihiro, the protagonist, does not ultimately learn everything about said world; this does not, ultimately, at all diminish what she takes away from it. Perhaps I'm trying to say that while I'm happy that Anna comes to know more about Marnie, the film wraps it up a bit too neatly, which it never entirely needed to do.
In spite of this flaw, When Marnie Was There is lovely in its uncommonly nuanced handling of Anna's social anxiety and in its magical realism. It's beautiful in both appearance and tone, and if this is the last movie that Studio Ghibli will ever make, so be it. It has gone out on a lovely note.
Poignant and melancholically beautiful, When Marnie Was There is marred somewhat by the over-explaining in the final act, but it is ultimately a lovely film. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Aside from a tiny bit of underage tipsyness, there isn't anything that would make this inappropriate for kids. The film sometimes touches on darker subjects, such as (severe) social anxiety, which reflects in the MPAA's "PG" rating. There are same-sex romantic undertones, of course, but I sincerely hope that one doesn't have an issue with that.
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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