The countryside always looks so much greener in a Studio Ghibli film. And so it is with When Marnie Was There, the latest animated feature from Arietty director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It follows Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Isao Takahata’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya as Ghibli’s extended swansong; the last creative hurrah from one of the most famous and beloved animation houses in the world.
As one last reminder of the studio’s luminous, humane approach to 2D animation – itself an increasingly endangered artform – When Marnie Was There is, in its opening moments, as captivating and as rich with detail as you could hope. The story begins in a lively school playground in Sapporo, one of Japan’s largest cities. But as the children play and gossip, one pale figure stands apart: 12 year-old Anna, who sits alone on a bench with her sketchbook.
A doctor tells Anna’s foster mother that the girl’s suffering from asthma, and that a break in the cleaner, rural air of her aunt and uncle’s village might do her good. But the asthma seems like a euphemism for far more deep-seated problems; anxious, isolated and seemingly mired in self-loathing, Anna struggles to make friends and seems to avoid every opportunity to talk to strangers.
Like a low-key My Neighbour Totoro, When Marnie Was There is about a young girl discovering a magical world far outside the urban sprawl. But in Marnie, that magical world is more low key and spectral than Totoro’s kingdom of benign woodland spirits. Anna stays with her rustic aunt and uncle, the latter a sculptor with his own line in chintzy novelty items – owls with googly eyes and the like. What really interests Anna is the huge, Victorian mansion she finds jutting out of a nearby marsh; initially, the place seems empty, but Anna discovers that it’s home to a little blonde girl called Marnie. The pair immediately strike up a firm friendship, each promising not to tell a soul about the other.
When Marnie Was There is an unusual film from Studio Ghibli, even if certain elements – the nostalgia for traditional Japanese towns, the female protagonist, the gorgeous country landscapes – are all staples from the house’s earlier work. It’s a drama, as grounded in its own kind of reality as Takahata’s Only Yesterday or Goro Miyazaki’s disarming From Up On Poppy Hill, but threaded with a sense of the supernatural and the mysterious that is entirely its own.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Joan G Robinson, When Marnie Was There is a melancholy tale even by Ghibli’s standards. It’s difficult to think of another heroine as weighed down with trauma and sadness as Anna, and that sadness acts casts a pall over much of the movie. She provokes sympathy, for sure, but the story fails to reveal deeper layers to her character. Ditto Marnie, who’s little more than personably ethereal. Yonabashi is at pains to compare and contrast the two; Marnie in her flamboyant dresses, Anna in her muted, modern-day clothes. Marnie’s formal, upper-crust grandmother and Anna’s laid-back, somewhat uncouth aunt and uncle. But it’s telling that the most engaging characters are all secondary, most of all Sayaka, the bright little girl with big round glasses who’s on her own quest to uncover the marsh house’s mysteries.
Yonabashi brings an elemental quality to When Marnie Was There’s best scenes, like the stormy seas which seem to chime with Anna’s emotions. There’s a startling shot, seemingly inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which takes place outside an old, stone-built grain silo.
And yet, for all of When Marnie Was There’s admirable qualities – not least its commitment to tackling an unusual story about what it’s like to be a foster child – the film ultimately falters in its storytelling. One or two minor mysteries are established, but never satisfyingly resolved. The answer to another, easily-solved riddle is laboured over, while an emotional finale is unfairly curtailed.
At around 110 minutes long, Marnie‘s also a movie that struggles to justify its length; a similar story could have been told in a more compact 90 minutes or so. That may not sound like much of a difference in duration, but then it’s important to remember how precise and considered the best Ghibli features always are, particularly in Miyazaki and Takahata’s works.
When Marnie Was There is a lesser Ghibli film, then, which is perhaps a sad way for the studio to conclude its 31 year filmmaking story. But even a lesser Ghibli film is still required viewing, particularly on the big screen. As a complete story, When Marnie Was There doesn’t quite hang together, but in isolated moments, when the fluid animation soars and the verdant countryside shimmers most brightly, it’s still easy to find rays of that old Studio Ghibli magic.
When Marnie Was There is out in UK cinemas on the 10th June.