Well, friends, it was a short jaunt, but we’ve reached the final film in our series looking at the Studio Ghibli films not directed by its two founding directors. (If you’d like to read my thoughts on literally every other Studio Ghibli films, click the links for Miyazaki Masterclass, Takahata Textbook, and Ghibli Bits.) And, fittingly, not only is it our final film in this series, it’s the final feature film produced by Studio Ghibli as a solo, independent entity. It’s a somber, melancholic longing for the past, but a big step toward the future. It’s 2014’s When Marnie Was There.
Hiromasa Yonebayashi had already stepped up in a big way with The Secret World of Arrietty, so why wouldn’t they give him another shot at directing? It was a pretty weird time at Ghibli, however; the studio was in the process of powering down, at least for the interim, following the announcement that founder and creative driving force Hayao Miyazaki was to retire following his ninth Ghibli feature, The Wind Rises, and the feature production arm of the studio would go on hiatus. Were Marnie not already in production, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
Arrietty was successful in that it captured the spirit and look of a Miyazaki movie, but for Yonebayashi not to merely be a carbon copy of his mentor, he’d have to change things up a bit. When Marnie Was There, while keeping a lot of the hallmarks of a Miyazaki film—young female protagonist, otherworldly adventure, magical realism—but makes it much more contemplative, and layers mystery on top of the magical. A lot of that comes from the source material; based on the novel of the same name by English author Joan G. Robinson, the movie has a Gothic ghost story feel, while not being a horror story in any real outward way.
The story—transposed from Norfolk, England in the novel to Sapporo, Japan in the film—follows Anna, an introverted 12-year-old girl living with foster parents. She’s distant and hasn’t connected with them, a relationship made worse when she finds out the couple receive a stipend from the government to look after her. Thinking they only care for her for the money, she pulls back further until she collapses at school. Her foster mother sends her to a seaside town for the summer to stay with her relatives, and Anna soon spies a dilapidated manor house across the way. Thereafter, she has a dream of a blonde girl in the house, having her hair brushed by a woman.
At a village festival, Anna gets into an altercation with a local girl, who makes fun of Anna’s blue eyes, an unusual feature she can’t explain because she doesn’t know who her biological family are. Anna runs off and hops in a rowboat and heads to the mansion, where she sees the blonde girl from her dream. The house no longer appears dilapidated, and the blonde girl—Marnie—says they can be friends but must keep it a secret. Anna returns the next night and Marnie’s family is hosting a party. Anna disguises herself as a flower girl to be let in and she sees Marnie dancing with a boy named Kazuhiko, and Anna wakes up outside the post office. She goes back to the mansion, but it’s abandoned and overgrown again.
So, obviously weird stuff’s going on. Anna sits on the beach and paints the mansion and Marnie, and an old lady who also sits and paints the mansion notices and says how she remembers a little girl like that when she was young. Then Anna and a young girl named Sayaka visit the mansion weeks later and find Marnie’s diary, which has several pages missing. Marnie reappears and tells Anna about her parents going away a lot, and Marnie being abused by the maids and nannies, and Sayaka finds more pages of Marnie’s diary, all of which begin to paint the picture that Marnie might not be just a regular girl, and might have more to do with Anna’s family than anyone knew.
This is the only Studio Ghibli movie I can think of that rests solely on a mystery being uncovered. The Gothic ghost story element of the movie cannot be overlooked, and while transposing it to Japan from England changes many elements, it retains the English literature tenets of the past literally haunting the present, and spirits needing to be freed of their pain. Yonebayashi does an amazing job of adapting the story and playing to his own strengths and the strengths of the studio, in depicting real locations lavishly and through a magical nostalgic lens.
It’s also certainly worth noting that almost all of the major characters in the film are women, with only a couple of exceptions. This too is a hallmark of the Gothic-style mystery of the book (originally published in 1967). I’m reminded of things like The Turn of the Screw. Anna is a deep and complex heroine and her struggles with self-worth and abandonment are never glossed over or swept aside. In Marnie she finally finds some form of belonging and doesn’t quite understand why, until the end. Marnie is a tragic figure the way most “ghosts” are, with a sordid and horrific past that has left an impression on the mansion even after she herself left. The movie takes its time exploring these themes and doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant stuff for the sake of young people watching. While Arrietty was a fun visual feast, When Marnie Was There proved Yonebayashi’s deftness for narrative.
When Marnie Was There doesn’t really feel like an ending the way The Wind Rises did, even though Studio Ghibli would stop production of features thereafter, and have yet to come back other than co-producing the European animated feature The Red Turtle. Marnie was nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature in 2015 where it lost out to Inside Out.
While Ghibli might have stopped, Hiromasa Yonebayashi didn’t. Late in 2016, it was announced that he and his When Marnie Was There producer Yoshiaki Nishimura had founded their own studio, Studio Ponoc—the word coming from the Croatian word for “midnight,” signifying the start of a new day—and their first film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, would be released sometime in 2017.
As much as the cinematic world will miss Studio Ghibli if they never make another feature, their success was always built upon the creative vision of the filmmakers. It’s only fitting that people who got their start with Ghibli, and have way more stories to tell than they were able to there, would branch out to create something new. If nothing else, Studio Ghibli’s films promote imagination and creativity, and their 20 films bear that out better than most.
Let me know what you think of this movie, and all of the Studio Ghibli films, in the comments below!
Images: Studio Ghibli