Ever since its creation 30 years ago, Studio Ghibli has been making magic out of the moving image, so much so that it’s not a stretch to claim that today—due to the foundation laid by directors Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies)—it’s become one of the most beloved animation studios in the world. However, with Miyazaki’s retirement, Ghibli might be on the verge of closing its doors, its latest film, When Marnie Was There, potentially set to be its last.
When Marnie Was There is also Ghibli’s first film without the involvement of neither Miyazaki nor Takahata—without them, the aforementioned “magic” seems to be noticeably absent. After all, Marnie director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who became the studio’s youngest director with 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty, tells simpler, notably folksier tales, which are admittedly some of the only Ghibli films that could find a place logically outside of the world of animation.
Marnie follows 12-year-old Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki), a perpetual outsider. She hates herself and her lot in life: She is adopted; at school, she doesn’t have any friends, often only finding solace through drawing; and she has constant asthma fits that are increasing in severity. So, in an effort to make Anna feel better, her foster mother sends her to the island of Hokkaido to spend her summer with her adopted grandparents. Upon arriving, Anna is immediately drawn to the nearby, abandoned Marsh House, where she discovers a blonde girl named Marnie (Kasumi Arimura). The two quickly strike up a friendship—though it isn’t clear if Marnie is real or Anna’s vivid-yet-imaginary friend, brought on by her loneliness and deep-seated desire for human connection.
As to Marnie’s identity, the film’s final half-hour provides both answers and touching explanations, though When Marnie Was There still presents too many various narrative threads that it picks up but never satisfactorily resolves. Once Marnie appears, Anna’s asthma (much of the given reason for her pilgrimage to Hokkaido in the first place) is all but forgotten; similarly, it’s never quite clear what exactly is happening to Anna when she spends time with Marnie, nor does it seem like anyone is all that concerned with Anna frequently waking up in strange places after spending time with her newfound friend—a friend that no one else has seen.
Yet, Yonebayashi’s strengths are apparent in the film’s quietest moments, those that don’t focus on the relationship between the two girls. Anna’s interactions with her adopted grandparents or her behavior during an unwanted trip to a nearby festival: In these decidedly less ambiguous, more grounded times, Yonebayashi is able to show us Anna without Marnie—a character without the crutch of mystery. Anna’s exploration of her summer home is particularly wonderful, as she meets a fellow artist and a boatsman who is known for only saying a few words per decade. As might as well be expected out of a Ghibli film, Marnie is absolutely gorgeous: From the cutting of a juicy tomato to the picking of wild mushrooms, the film is pregnant with beauty and power. Yonebayashi is able to make these relatively inconsequential occasions and even more trivial details as illuminating as if Yosujiro Ozu had decided to work in animation.
If Ghibli is in fact saying goodbye, Marnie isn’t as overtly a perfect send-off as would have been The Wind Rises, with its triumph of exploration as an extension of self-expression, or The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a glimpse at the process of transformation and saying goodbye. Yet, there’s sweetness in When Marnie Was There, and a fitting dedication from a young protégé to the craft Studio Ghibli held above all: the act of finding freedom through art.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writer: Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, Hiromasa Yonebayashi; based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson
Starring: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima
Release Date: May 22, 2015
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.