All indications are that When Marnie Was There will be the last Studio Ghibli feature film for a long time, if not forever. And if that does turn out to be the case, the legendary animation house isn’t going out with a bang. Written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, When Marnie Was There has no castles in the sky, warrior princesses, or adorable magical animals; it’s one of the quietest, most understated movies Studio Ghibli has ever made.
On the surface, When Marnie Was There has few of the hallmarks of Ghibli’s best-known films, and it doesn’t reach the creative heights of Hayao Miyazaki (Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbour Totoro, The Wind Rises) or Isao Takahata’s (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) greatest achievements. But as it burns slowly through to an emotional climax, it captures exactly what we’ll lose if the studio does go away.
When Marnie Was There opens in the tradition of similarly subdued Ghibli movies like Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart, placing its main character in a hyper-detailed, authentic depiction of a modern Japanese city. Anna is a troubled 12-year-old girl living in Sapporo, and after she suffers an asthma attack, her foster parents send her away to breathe clean air with relatives in rural Hokkaido. The seaside setting is beautiful, but Anna doesn’t get along with the locals any better than she did in Sapporo, preferring to sit by herself and draw.
That all changes when Anna comes across Marnie, an ethereal blonde girl living in a strange mansion across a marsh. Marnie takes a deep interest in Anna right from their first meeting, and her non-judgmental nature helps Anna open up to someone for the first time. There’s something otherworldly about Marnie — Anna has seen a girl like her in dreams before, and at first doubts whether she’s a real person at all. But the connection between them proves so strong that Anna is loath to break it over her uncertainty whether Marnie actually exists. Anna needs Marnie and knows it.
Studio Ghibli’s unparalleled artistry and attention to detail are in full effect here, as the animators’ painstaking efforts to capture the nuance and emotion in simple human actions pays off once again. Whether it’s Anna slightly quickening her pace to avoid having to talk to a stranger, or the way her eyes fall and shoulders drop slightly when a relative joins her on a solo errand, Yonebayashi’s direction nails what it feels like to be a kid who just wants to be left alone — making Anna’s eventual happiness at building a friendship with Marnie all the more moving. Less successful are the occasional gaudy CGI embellishments and depth-of-field effects, which don’t do anything but distract from the artwork.
When Marnie Was There is based on the book of the same name, which was written by British author Joan G. Robinson and set in Virginia. Unlike many Ghibli movies, however, Yonebayashi grounds the movie firmly in real-world Japan, making some interesting decisions in adapting the characters’ ethnicity. Marnie appears non-Japanese in appearance and name, but Anna is more ambiguous in both regards; she has a particularly strong reaction when another girl compliments her on her pretty, "foreign" blue eyes, reinforcing her sense of isolation despite the kind intent. In the end, Anna’s outsider status telegraphs the ultimate connection between her and Marnie, but also adds a cultural dimension rarely seen in mainstream Japanese movies.
When Marnie Was There is the second film Yonebayashi has directed for Studio Ghibli, following 2010’s beguiling The Secret World of Arrietty, and the main thing the two share is a supernatural thread that never overpowers the narrative. The family in Arrietty lives an entirely normal life aside from their self-evident 4-inch-high stature, and the movie never addresses or explains it; meanwhile, Anna is unsure of Marnie’s nature from the start but accepts her as a true friend without reservation. Both films are strong examples of light magical realism, with simple mystic elements that free up the writing to explore universal themes of personal growth and discovery. When Marnie Was There’s ending is easy to see coming, but that doesn’t make Anna’s journey any less satisfying or heartfelt.
Yonebayashi left Studio Ghibli earlier this year, however, saying, "I want to try an action-oriented or fantasy film, which are totally opposite from Marnie." That’s disappointing — Japan is not exactly lacking for fantasy anime, and Yonebayashi’s departure means Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro is the only person left on Ghibli’s books with directorial experience. (Goro made his debut with the disastrous Tales from Earthsea in 2006, regaining some stock with 2011’s generally well-received From Up On Poppy Hill.) But for the first time in memory, Ghibli has no upcoming films on its slate. "At this point, we're not making a new film," Hayao Miyazaki told the LA Times in November. "I think we will not be making any feature films to be shown in theaters."
If Miyazaki is right, When Marnie Was There’s melancholy, elegiac tale takes on a new poignance. Studio Ghibli is the most important producer of hand-drawn cel animation today, and has built up a diverse yet remarkably consistent body of work in its three decades of existence. Its films have the power to move and enchant people like no other, and When Marnie Was There is a tender distillation of what sets Studio Ghibli apart from the anime world.
When Marnie Was There opens in New York and Los Angeles today, with a wider expansion to come. It's being shown in dubbed English, or Japanese with English subtitles.