Anna Sasaki (voiced by Sara Takatsuki in Japanese and Hailee Steinfeld in English), is a sickly and introverted young girl with a troubled past. For the sake of Anna's health, her foster mother Yoriko (Nanako Matsushima) sends her to spend time with relatives Kiyomasa (Susumu Terajima) and Setsu Oiwa (Toshie Negishi) in a quiet seaside town. Sadly, Anna's personal issues and depression continue to hinder her attempts to find happiness and make friends. One day Anna is drawn to a strange yet familiar old mansion across the lake where she meets Marnie (Kasumi Arimura in Japanese/Kiernan Shipka a.k.a. Mad Men's Sally Draper in English), a beautiful and mysterious blonde foreign girl. Warm and caring, she instantly befriends Anna. Over the summer as Marnie spurs Anna on to new experiences that help her grow as a person, one question still lingers. Who is Marnie? Is she even real?
Some reviewers drew a direct parallel between the 'invisible circle' outside of which self-perceived social outcast Anna believes she exists and Studio Ghibli's standing in a global animation industry increasingly dominated by computer animated comedies or action-adventures. If rumours are to be believed When Marnie Was There marks the final anime feature film from the venerable Japanese studio with its exquisite hand-drawn artistry and low-key, character-driven style of storytelling either a defiant statement or fond farewell. The film adapts Joan G. Robinson's 1967 Carnegie Medal winning novel which, interestingly, was among a published list of fifty children's books recommended by Ghibli co-founder and legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki. Yet it was not Miyazaki but protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi that took the helm of Ghibli's farewell (?) feature building on the promise of his earlier literary adaptation Arietty (2010).
Relocating Robinson's story from Norfolk to rural Japan, the film in some ways tells a story that is deeply Japanese wherein exposure to a loving, nurturing rural community transforms a troubled individual into a more well-adjusted member of society. To an extent Yonebayashi recycles motifs familiar from past Ghibli productions (e.g. My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Only Yesterday (1991)) where life-changing experiences in the country help young people develop positive attitudes along with a healthier mind, body and spirit. Yet in brittle, alienated, self-loathing Anna Sasaki, Ghibli tackle their most psychologically complex adolescent protagonist yet. In addition the narrative develops into an ingenious, profoundly affecting expansion on the cross-generational conflicts Miyazaki touched on in later works such as Spirited Away (2001) and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008).
When Marnie Was There moves at a deliberate pace that might put some people off. Yet those who appreciate films take time to weave complex, psychologically nuanced stories will relish the means by which it pieces together the mystery of Anna's past and Marnie's ethereal nature, one subtle, spine-tingling clue at a time. Without any of the overtly phantasmagorical sequences found in past Ghibli fantasies, Yonebayashi weaves a more delicate, haunting, nonetheless magical supernatural mystery. He does so without puncturing the ambiguity surrounding Marnie. Is she real, a ghost or an especially vivid hallucination? In some ways it does not matter. This story is foremost an ode to the nurturing and transformative power of love and friendship wherein Marnie emboldens Anna to overcome her anxieties while Anna in turn gives Marnie courage to face her own personal nightmare. Yet like all great mysteries, Marnie's identity seems obvious in retrospect even though the reveal hits the viewer with a great emotional wallop and makes us reassess everything we have seen. When speaking of Ghibli movies it goes without saying this achieves many moments of lyrical and pictorial beauty. The serene pastoral idyll inhabited by Anna and Marnie is gorgeously animated. Still, it is worth mentioning character animation is one of Ghibli's underrated strengths. Each of the characters, the central heroines in particular, have vivid, faceted, believable personalities that prove particularly compelling because the character animation is so well-observed. When Marnie Was There delivers conclusive proof that Ghibli's animators have perfected the art of deceptive simplicity, of telling a story that seems simple yet is actually complex, poetic and heartbreakingly poignant.