Studio Ghibli certainly packed a surprise to their fans when it announced the retirement of its long standing director, Hayao Miyasaki, and a simultaneous temporary halt to production of further feature films. The director’s last film is long-awaited by fans everywhere, and it promises nothing short of artistic beauty and emotionally charged storytelling.
Founded in 1985, Studio Ghibli has had its fair share of animated cinema masterpieces in their repertoire. A mere few of said accomplishments, are also Ghibli’s signature animated highlights, such as Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2012), and Spirited Away (2001), which won a Golden Bear award in 2002. Needless to say that long time fans of Studio Ghibli and of Hayao Miyasaki had high expectations regarding the last Miyasaki film to live up to Ghibli’s reputation and of Miyasaki himself; they did not disappoint.
When Marnie Was There (2014), has of yet a very limited release, not being screened at all in many cities, adding to a mounting frustration on behalf of Miyasaki fans. Those who have the unique opportunity to see Miyasaki’s last film on the big screen, will no doubt witness Studio Ghibli’s lasting tradition of presenting heartbreaking stories, which at times may seem too raw and openly depressing for a juvenile audience, When Marnie Was There brings the story of a foster child, Anna, a tomboyish girl raised in a loving home with a kind-hearted but quiet woman, who seems to have no other flaw than failing to understand her shy and introvert charge. After a medical diagnosis that renders her asthmatic condition delicate, the good family doctor advices for Anna to spend some time in the country, away from the strains of the city.
Anna’s foster mother promptly puts her in a train headed towards the home of relatives who live in a small but tranquil town. When she arrives, Anna is greeted with the kindness of her foster mother’s family, who make her feel at home, and encourage her to explore the natural beauty of the village. When Anna makes the discovery of The Marsh House, a professedly abandoned mansion, which she can only access when the tide is low, she is intrigued by the sense that someone lives there. When one night she sees lights glowing through the windows of what she knows is an empty house, she takes a small rowboat and decides to explore. Studio Ghibli’s unique talent for beautiful animation is amply demonstrated in this one scene; the moonlit sky, the water rippling gently as the oars cut through it, a beautiful and realistic representation of the real thing.
As Anna arrives at the house, she makes a startling discovery. In the back stone steps, just at the water’s edge, stands a lovely blonde girl with a kind smile and gentle blue eyes. She introduces herself as Marnie, and Anna cant help but feel that she has seen this enigmatic girl before. As days and nights go by, Anna and Marnie develop a close friendship, obscured only by the mystery of who Marnie truly is. As the enigma deepens, Anna becomes uncertain if Marnie is reality or fantasy, a living person or the remnants of a ghost.
The sometimes crude language in Marnie, might perhaps pose a reason to upset some parents that are more comfortable with the age appropriate vocabulary displayed in films by Pixar or Dream Works. In one scene, a frustrated Anna calls a neighbor’s plump daughter “you fat pig”, which might obliterate the film in the view of some and render it quite unsuitable for younger children. However, this is quite common in Japanese animated films, since they are marketed to adults and children alike, and this is particularly true for Studio Ghibli films, known to carry out a strict “no-edits” policy for their films to be distributed outside of Japan.
The possibility of Marnie’s existence (or not) keeps the suspense moving in the 90 minutes of its duration, never revealing the truth until the very end. What is certain is Anna’s impending transformation as a direct result of her friendship with the rebellious Marnie. As she becomes braver and bolder, Anna makes it her personal mission to help Marnie and participate in death defying adventures with her, such as climbing the dilapidated steps to an abandoned grain silo in the middle of a raging storm. Marnie’s rebellion masks her own fears, being the neglected child of rich parents, left to be raised by a cruel housekeeper and a duo of minion maids who constantly try to bully Marnie into submission, using reproachable scare tactics such as brainwashing the young girl with stories about a monster that lives in the silo, and then attempting to lock her up inside. Marnie refuses to venture into the silo until Anna comes along and convinces her to face her fears with her, only to have Marnie disappear once more as the storm becomes more intense and increasingly dangerous.
Is Marnie real? A ghost? Is she perhaps just a product of Anna’s imagination, much like an imaginary friend or a fantasy created to help her deal with her difficult childhood? These questions are answered in patience defying slowness, particularly so for audiences who are used to faster paced resolutions. But it’s definitely worth sticking around to find out the answer. With breathtaking animation, and a story that is both enthralling and melancholic, When Marnie Was There is certain proof of Miyasaki’s genius for storytelling, and studio Ghibli’s undisputed skill for bringing these stories to life.