By this point it goes without saying that there’s a certain pedigree attached to any Studio Ghibli release (not that that’s stopped me from saying it), but When Marnie Was There brings with it even more scrutiny than the Japanese animation giant’s average film. That’s thanks to something quite external to the film itself: it’s the last release from Ghibli as we know it, which ceased production in 2014 shortly after the retirement of co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.
It leaves Marnie in the unenviable position of being weighed up against the titans of Ghibli’s past, from Spirited Away and Grave of the Fireflies to the studio’s penultimate picture, the painterly The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. It’s a comparison not entirely to the film’s favour, as it doesn’t quite match the company’s peerless best, but it does serve to highlight the unique Ghibli magic infusing every one of its detailed frames.
Anna is a young girl on the bounds of puberty with an artistic leaning, a penchant for self-hatred, and a nasty case of asthma. It’s the latter that sees her sent to live with relatives on the coast, to reap the benefits of their clean air and homespun values. It’s also where she discovers a striking mansion overlooking the bay, and forms a fierce friendship with the curiously old-fashioned Marnie, who with her blonde hair and cheerful exuberance represents everything Anna sees lacking in herself.
This is a deceptively complex film, drawing metaphysical mysteries and moral quandaries out of what initially seems a straightforward coming of age tale, but nonetheless Anna’s journey towards self-acceptance remains at the heart of it all. Her self-directed admonishments and insults will ring true to anyone with cursory experience of depression, though the thread is lost slightly as the film becomes entangled in the mystery of Marnie’s identity in the final act.
The animation is unsurprisingly exquisite, with detailed, expressive character-work. It’s a more traditional anime aesthetic than Kaguya’s brush-strokes, but showcases Ghibli’s mastery of the fusion of computer effects with old fashioned animation, not least in dazzling shots of dusk light reflecting off the rippling water – or a striking moment when the world seems to glitch away before Anna’s eyes.
Marnie may not be remembered as Ghibli’s finest, but it’s a fitting reminder of the studio’s charm. Sweet, simple, and undeniably moving, it’s proof if ever it was needed of just how much they’ll be missed.
Words by Dominic Preston