Sometimes, there are occasions where we find ourselves in a cinema with credits still rolling and house lights coming back to life, yet we’re compelled to remain seated. Although we appreciate their work, we’re not admiring the names scrolling before us or hoping for a post-credit treat; in fact, our eyes aren’t even looking at the screen – but something beyond it.
When Marnie Was There is a powerful and emotional experience for reasons both on and off the screen. When leaving the venue, I was overwhelmed with a surreal sadness that still hasn’t really set in; that I may never get a chance to see a new film from this magical studio on the big screen again. This feeling of a beautiful, encompassing yet fleeting encounter is one at the very core of this story, which proves itself to be one of Ghibli’s most emotional yet.
Following a particularly bad asthma attack, Anna Sasaki’s foster parents make the decision for the introverted, emotionally fragile girl to spend summer with relatives in a rural seaside town. Attempts at socialising with local girls goes south, but Anna becomes fixated with a stately house across the marsh that at times look derelict, but at others is bursting with the warm glow of socialite parties and most importantly, Marnie. The two are instantly drawn together and spend many evenings simply enjoying each other’s company. As you become engrossed in the girls’ pure, budding relationship, you may not notice the thin veil of questions and irregularities being cleverly drawn across the film until everything comes together for an emotional and satisfying finale. To explain why it had such a profound resonance with me would require an unravelling of the whole story and certain events in my personal life, but like how Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises was spiritually the perfect send-off for the legendary director, the final act of When Marnie Was There is a touching allegory of our relationship with Studio Ghibli.
Being renowned masters of their craft, it should come as no surprise that the film’s animation retains the warm, welcoming familiarity and careful artisan touch that makes Studio Ghibli feel like the grandma’s home-cooking of animation. The attention to detail is absolutely sublime, with individual markings on floorboards and chipped paint on the marsh house’s door encouraging viewers to engross themselves in the scene, precisely because they are smaller details. The larger set pieces are absolutely stunning, such as the lush greens of Hokkaido’s foliage and the calming, moonlit lake. The marsh house is a strong focal point of the film and is infused with such unique charm and character that it feels like a fully-fledged member of the cast, which is wonderfully contrasted with the cold, haunting aura of the nearby silo and the truly frightening thunderstorm that plays out around it.
The relationship between Anna and Marnie is one of the most compelling and pure illustrated on film. When they meet, Anna is disillusioned and depressed whereas Marnie appears to represent the ideal; being beautiful, full of joy and living in a stately mansion. As their relationship deepens and we learn more about the girls however, it becomes clear that they are two sides of the same coin – a fear behind every smile and a silver lining in each dark cloud. While they don’t have to fight for co-existence like Nausicaä or save their parents from a magical realm like Chihiro, the two are proud additions to Studio Ghibli’s glowing reputation of creating well-rounded female leads.
While many will remember Studio Ghibli for the fantastical worlds of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, I have always been especially fond of their more grounded character dramas like Whisper of the Heart and this film is no exception. Trying to compose myself before leaving the cinema ultimately proved futile, with the movie staying on my mind for days to come.
After a strong debut with Arrietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi has now established himself as a director to look out for – When Marnie Was There is a true work of art in every sense of the word.
When Marnie Was There is currently showing in select cinemas; to find your nearest theatre please visit the Studio Ghibli Forever website. StudioCanal will be releasing the movie on DVD and Special Edition Blu-ray on 3rd October 2016.