At the start of this year, I made myself some goals in terms of viewing for 2016. Just some directors and areas of film that I would like to work my through, including one studio. That studio was the iconic Studio Ghibli and I thought I’d start off at the end with When Marnie Was There (2014).
This is a film centred on notions of teen anxiety. Although the film wanders out from there on different paths, it always returns to that to remind you that’s what the film is revolving around. The emotional stakes are intense, as the teenage main character Anna struggles with realistically presented mental issues such as anxiety and self-worth. These are presented in a way that will strike close to home if yourself or those around you have fought with those. As a result of her illness, Anna goes to stay with her aunt and uncle, which also allows the film to delightfully contrast urban attitudes and stresses with rural sensibilities. The latter are encompassed by the aunt and uncle who are gentle, tender and patient people beautifully helping to nurse Anna back to fuller health. In addition to the portrayal of mental health, the emotional intensity is also increased through the themes of betrayal and familial mystery that run through the core of the film.
Every time I start up a Studio Ghibli film, I am immediately struck by the animation. It is not just that it is ‘hand-drawn’ in this world of computer animation, but also how the studio uses that. In this film it is more subtle than in some of their others, with the time spent straddling the real world and a fantastical one weighted heavily towards the latter. But even with that level of restraint, the visuals still provoke plenty of emotion, through their simple beauty but also how in how they help to tell the narrative. There is a quiet beauty in the imagery, think more about how your eye is drawn to a scene of a watermelon being chopped rather than any wild Princess Mononoke (1997) fantastical creatures or sword fighting.
One point of interest for me was that I picked up some real queer overtones to the film. The relationship between Anna and Marnie unfolds like a romance, specifically a lesbian one. Both characters refer to the other as their “secret”. They take things slowly and as it progresses so does the length and tenderness of their physical contact. A late plot reveal means that any overtones do not fit in with the film more broadly, but I still found them to be quite stark. Perhaps this is Ghibli’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). A film with very clear queer themes, but many involved in the production were unaware of those overtones.
Verdict: When Marnie Was There is not one of Ghibli’s absolute best films, but it is certainly one of their most emotionally intense. The simple, central arc of Anna’s mental illness is very satisfying, and the film finishes with a crushing and emotional kicker. Stubby of Reschs