Film Reviews

DAYDREAMER’S NOTEBOOK – <i>When Marnie Was There</i> (2014)

DAYDREAMER’S NOTEBOOK – When Marnie Was There (2014)

Tatsuya Goto

July 14th, 2015


When Marnie Was There is a milestone not only for Studio Ghibli and its fans, but anyone who enjoys quality films that can be shared with the entire family. It is the second feature film by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arietty, 2010), and the last movie from Studio Ghibli before its indefinite hiatus from feature filmmaking. While it is not exactly ‘young’ in terms of its content, it touches on an important theme of life that viewers of all ages should find deeply moving.

It tells a story of love and friendship between two young girls, Anna and Marnie. Anna is a 12 year-old girl who finds herself outside of ‘an invisible circle’ called humanity. She is intensely private, and her interactions with others are limited to the bare minimum. She hates her awkwardness, she hates the resulting alienation, and, most of all, she hates herself. One day, she suffers a severe asthma attack at school. A doctor recommends her mother to send Anna to the countryside in order to ease the stress arising from Anna’s social awkwardness. Anna stays with her uncle and aunt who live in a seaside village where she makes a fateful encounter with a mysterious foreign girl of her age, Marnie, whose friendship, for Anna, becomes her very reason to live. It is a wonderfully illustrated story of love, friendship, the importance of family ties, healing, and coming of age.

The above description fits just about every movie produced by Studio Ghibli. For example, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a coming-of-age story about a 13 year-old witch, who has to overcome her insecurities and confusions. Spirited Away’s Chihiro, Shizuku from Whisper of the Heart, Satsuki from My Neighbour Totoro, Taeko from Only Yesterday… all of these protagonists have to struggle with their insecurities to discover who they really are. Studio Ghibli has been consistently producing excellent coming-of-age stories, and Marnie seems to fit neatly into this tradition. Yet, remarkably, Marnie achieves what Miyazaki and Takahata attained in a very different way. For this reason, Marnie cannot be simply appreciated as the potentially ‘last feature movie’ from Studio Ghibli; it should be praised as a great film in its own right. So what makes Marnie a standout, even compared to the best of Ghibli’s features?

In this film, Yonebayashi decides to tackle the real darkness in life without compromise. There is simply no other film from Studio Ghibli, or any family features, that opens with such a sense of despair. The loneliness, the sense of unworthiness, and the resulting self-hatred Anna feels is expressed with a great urgency that it seems only a matter of time before Anna carries out her first suicide attempt. Anna’s departure to the remote village projects no excitement; instead, there is a sense of abandonment that cuts deep into her tender heart. While Anna occupies herself with drawing, unlike in Miyazaki films, the art does not bring any joy to this protagonist. Unlike in Takahata films, not even the natural beauty of this remote land can console her soul. In short, Anna represents a dire condition of the human soul which is rarely explored by film directors except Ingmar Bergman, who did so with great regularity. Life is a mere mortal coil for Anna, and she has no reason to live. She is barely hanging on, simply because she has not yet thought of the final exit as an option for her.

Very few family films have ever been allowed to express such despair. It is a courageous decision Yonebayashi commits himself to it, and it pays off; Marnie turns out to be one of the most emotionally authentic films I have ever seen. The way Anna is filmed excludes all sense of self-pity and indulgence. By looking her face, we receive her message clearly: The world is a better place without me. Yonebayashi succeeds in making us feel her pain and take it seriously. Only a few have ever achieved this feat in animated films. Takahata achieved this in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, as well as Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi with their excellent 2014 short The Dam Keeper. Still, Yonebayashi enjoys the distinction of telling a story of despair and redemption in a relatively realistic setting of contemporary Japan. Given that juvenile suicide has been a grave problem in post-WWII Japan, and it is becoming a serious concern globally, this achievement is of particular importance.

It is only through the friendship of Marnie that Anna finds a reason to live. Remarkably, the story of Marnie is not a happy one either; she faces a real darkness herself, yet she somehow finds her way to find joy in life. While Marnie appears more like a standard Studio Ghibli character — that is, charming, brave, and full of life — the sadness and despair she feels is just as real as Anna’s. And because the darkness experienced by these characters are genuine, the final redemption brings a truly exhilarating catharsis.

One might think that the twist of fate Anna and Marnie share is a very unlikely story in real life. I must refrain from giving a full argument in support of this narrative, thus I simply state this for the time being: this story takes a particular path to show one universal truth about the indispensable nature of love in our lives, and the way this story is told is not only justified, it is the true strength of this great movie.

After leaving the theater, I’m left wondering when we will be able to see the next movie by Yonebayashi. If you know anyone who might know this young director, pass this on:

Please continue. You are too good to quit.

When Marnie Was There continues its run at the Bijou Art Cinemas. Click here for showtimes.

Tatsuya Goto is a critic with a wide range of interests: cinema, literature, philosophy, and critical theory. Goto has a degree in French literature from Sophia University and a master's degree in philosophy from San Francisco State University. He lives in Eugene. Daydreamer's Notebook is an irregular column in which he reviews films playing locally.

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