I don’t particularly try to avoid spoilers in the Junkyard, as it’s effectively almost impossible to write about things on a sufficiently detailed level without drilling down into the plot, but When Marnie Was There is definitely one where I am going to have to spoil a major surprise if I’m going to write about it at all. So if you haven’t seen it and you’re just looking for a recommendation, go and buy it. It’s brilliant, one of Studio Ghibli’s very best. Don’t spoil your enjoyment of the film by reading about it first. Come back here after you’ve seen it. There’s a trailer at the end of this article if you want to take a look. Off you go now. Shoo.
Ok, now that’s out of the way, I’ll skip straight to the twist itself. I must admit that I fell into the same trap as most people watching this film (without being spoilered first) and assumed it was about Anna coming out of her shell because of a budding romance with Marnie, albeit with the proviso that Marnie appeared to be a ghost. Whether intentional or not, the film does seem to play on some kind of attraction between the two. On balance, I think it is intentional, and actually a very clever bit of misdirection. From Marnie’s point of view, her need to help Anna (that ghostly unfinished business) gets mixed up with her memories of her growing relationship with Kazuhiko, whom she will eventually go on to marry. Added to that, she is from a time where hugging and holding hands between the two girls would probably not have suggested the ambiguity that it does today. As for Anna, she is contrasted strongly with Marnie and portrayed as a tomboy throughout, so I’ll go out on a limb and say there is a subtext that is perfectly valid here, even post-revelation about Marnie’s identity as her grandmother, of Anna coming to terms with her own sexuality. It is never made explicit, but the whole film is about Anna accepting who she is, and coming to terms with her abandonment issues.
Before we look at that in more detail, let’s take a moment to consider how Marnie’s back story is told. It is made clear early on that she is a ghost. There is no cheat or twist in that respect. Anna is drawn to an old house which is abandoned (and later in the process of renovation, and then reoccupied) but when Marnie appears the house is returned to its former glory (in typically gorgeous Studio Ghibli animation) so it is clear that Anna is interacting with the past. She enters the world of the dead by boat, with the fisherman a proxy ferry man and the lake a proxy river Styx, although the fisherman is to the one to return her from the world of the dead, rather than take her there. Marnie’s past is gradually revealed, and Anna finds out that Marnie’s life is not so perfect as it at first appears. Do some estimates with the ages and dates and it’s clear to see why Marnie is mistreated by Japanese staff, as the child of a wealthy western family. This is presumably post-WWII, and not long post-. A big clue to the connection between Anna and Marnie is their eye colour. Being colour blind I spectacularly failed to notice that clue on first viewing.
Ultimately Marnie’s appearance in Anna’s life is to gain her forgiveness so she can move on, and also help Anna come to terms with her abandonment issues. Anna’s parents died, her grandmother Marnie looked after her for a while, and then she died as well. Marnie needs forgiveness for leaving her, while Anna feels unloved, having found out that her guardian is being paid to look after her. She doesn’t realise that she is loved, and the money has no bearing on that.
There is a key moment in the film, which is a brave one, where Anna turns on a potential new friend, Nobuko, and calls her a “fat pig”. When I say it is a brave moment, that’s because it risks turning the viewers against the main character, as it is clearly unkind and unjustified. I have recently been watching the anime series My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU, which deals brilliantly and in detail with this kind of issue. As shocking as that moment might seem in the film, it is a natural reaction for a child who feels alone to push away potential friends, as a defence mechanism. Coming to terms with her own life and identity helps Anna to open up to the possibility of friendship. Her interactions with Sayaka, the girl who has moved into the old house and is helping her discover the truth about Marnie, might seem like a simple plot contrivance, but it is so much more than that. Their growing friendship is actually one of the most significant aspects of the film. Anna is taking down those barriers she has formed around herself, and allowing a friendship to develop.
So if you like a film to be thought-provoking, you won’t do much better than this, and I haven’t even touched on some of the issues, such as the contrast between Marnie, who maintains a cheerful outlook despite being mistreated, and Anna, who has misery and anger bubbling inside her but feels she must keep it inside because superficially she has a very good life. Both are wearing metaphorical masks. Studio Ghibli’s amazing body of work comes to a close with something very special indeed, When Marnie Was There.
… but that’s not quite the end of the story. Next week we will be looking at The Red Turtle, a Studio Ghibli co-production. Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement to make one last film. Perhaps more importantly than all that, When Marnie Was There might just have shown the way ahead. It was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura, who went on together to found Studio Ponoc, following in the footsteps of Studio Ghibli. Their first film was Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and it’s magnificent. You couldn’t get a more Ghibli-esque film without it being made by Studio Ghibli. I’ll be writing about that later in the year.
But for now, apart from the footnote that is The Red Turtle, my Studio Ghibli rankings are complete. I have done these simply to help anyone trying to decide your purchasing priorities, but just a reminder that anything remotely near the top of the list is magnificent and there is a hair’s breadth to choose between anything in the top 10 and beyond. The majority of the list is made up of complete and utter masterpieces.
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Whisper of the Heart
- My Neighbour Totoro
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- When Marnie Was There
- From Up on Poppy Hill
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
- The Wind Rises
- Tales from Earthsea
- Ocean Waves
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- Princess Mononoke
- Grave of the Fireflies
- Pom Poko
Read next in the Junkyard… The Red Turtle