I ask you not to let the following sentence push you away because if it does, you’ll be missing something special. There is a pall of sadness that persists throughout the animated drama When Marnie Was There, for several different very distinct reasons. This is a perfectly modulated drama about the search for personal identity, about how another person fills the gaps left by loss and how they help us paint a complete picture of ourselves. It is a journey that is often fraught with loneliness especially when we are young and, yes, that makes the story melodramatic. Yet, this is a quiet, thoughtful film that understands the unique caverns of the human heart. If you want an animated film that is bigger, louder and faster, I suggest you look elsewhere.
The melodrama comes inwardly from the story but outwardly from the fact that this is the last planned production from Studio Ghibli, the great Japanese animation house that brought us My Neighbor Totoro, Naucissa, and the Oscar winning Spirited Away. If you know their work then you know that within the world of studio animation they are the great quiet in a storm of cacophony. They create stories that are a watercolor dreams with universal themes both large and small. Other animation houses want to make a movie that will sell; Studio Ghibli make a movie that will linger in your heart.
Like so much of Ghibi’s great work, When Marnie Was There is a story about how emotional health is intrinsically linked to a change in location. Our hero is Anna, an orphaned 12 year-old in foster care who is suffering under the kind of identity crisis that such a situation often brings about. At school she suffers an asthma attack and her foster parents send her away for a summer vacation by the sea in the care of a kindly old couple. Wandering around, trying to get her bearings, she finds herself obsessed by an old empty mansion not far away that can only be reached by a rowboat. In the upstairs window, Anna spots pretty blond Marnie and becomes her friend. They are polar opposites but Anna is fascinated. Within the vast caverns of her lonely life, Marnie becomes a beacon of light and their friendship only deepens. There’s a joy in their bond when they are together and they often unashamedly express their need for one another (it never surfaces but we always feel overtones of romance circling around them).
Yet, there are questions to be raised. Who is Marnie? Why does she always wear the same dress? Why is she one place one minute and someplace else the next? Is she a ghost? Is she a figment of Anna imagination? The story is constructed in such a unique way that we begin to question whether Marnie is a figment of Anna’s imagination or possibly the other way around. That answer isn’t as simple as you might think, but it is also not the point. They are opposites it’s true but what binds their friendship is their need for each other. Anna and Marnie are seemingly two halves of the same personality.
For some, When Marnie Was There will be too slow and laconic. I personally appreciate that tone. It takes its slow easy time building the characters and also the mystery who Marnie is and why Anna needs her. Like all Studio Ghibli films the tone of story paints the picture, not the high points. It isn’t a high-speed drive but more like a gentle breeze. I certainly hope that this isn’t the last Ghibli film but if it is I can say that they’re going out with a lovely little cinematic treasure.