Every so often, I think about old articles I’ve written, for Flixist or elsewhere, and wonder how different they would be if I’d written them now. Not from a grammatical or structural perspective. I wonder how my fundamental beliefs and feelings have changed, as a critic and as a person. Three years ago, we had a Studio Ghibli week. I saw My Neighbor Totoro for the first time and wrote about it. I liked it well enough, but the overall tone of my article was more negative than positive, because hindsight is 20/20 and it seemed to me that the film didn’t hold up particularly well.
But maybe I was looking at it wrong. Rather than blasting it for the perceived imperfections, why didn’t I celebrate it for what it ultimately brought? It’s imperfections are irrelevant, and to hammer into them is to entirely miss the point.
When Marnie Was There told me I need to be more positive.
And When Marnie Was There is goddamn right.
When Marnie Was There (思い出のマーニー)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Release Date: May 22, 2015
In the wake of Hayao Miyakazi’s retirement, Studio Ghibli has “temporarily” shuttered its doors. There may never be another Studio Ghibli film. There are probably people who are mad at Miyazaki for leaving. When Marnie Was There is a response to those people. It’s a response to people who hold grudges and hate themselves and take it out on others. It’s a a response to the fundamental negativity that drives much of modern society.
And it made me cry.
It’s easy to forget that cartoons can make you feel real people emotions if you don’t watch many of them. And obviously calling a serious animated film like any Ghibli production a “cartoon” is reductive at best and borderline offensive at worst, but the point is that it isn’t just the ultra-artistic works like Ghibli films that can get to you. They’re probably about the best example, but it’s just another toolset for a would-be filmmaker to use. And one that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the things it can do to you.
When Marnie Was There starts in a place where the air is bad. It’s a city, and Anna is a girl with asthma. She hates herself and keeps herself isolated from everyone around her. She has an asthma attack and the doctor tells her foster mother that she should be sent to the countryside. A countryside where there is nothing but Anna, nature, and whatever creepy, spirit-related things are going on in the town’s abandoned buildings. (So far so Ghibli.) Before too long, Anna runs into Marnie, a blonde-haired girl who lives in the Marsh House, an old abandoned mansion at the edge of town. But, of course, Marnie isn’t real. You know that. Anna knows that. The film knows it. Marnie’s scenes are hyper-stylized, often dream-like, but knowing that she’s not real actually makes everything more intriguing. Because the question isn’t, “Is Marnie real?” It’s, “Who is she?” Or perhaps, “Who was she?”
But what’s never a question is what her role in Anna’s arc is going to be. From the outset, it’s obvious that Marnie is here to bring Anna out of her shell, to allow her to talk to others and stand up for herself and be brave. She’s a self-loathing pre-teen. The world has enough of those. Marnie is there to help her come to terms with everything she’s gone through. To give her some perspective.
And its ability to put things into perspective without being contrived or annoying is When Marnie Was Here‘s greatest strength. Even in particularly expository moments, everything comes from a place of honesty in a valiant attempt to get at the fundamental beliefs we all have. A conversation between Marnie and Anna about the role of the parent begins a bit stiff, and I was worried that we were heading down the wrong path, but it ultimately turned into something exceedingly compelling. Whether it was critiquing an aspect of society found in both Japan and America, celebrating it, or simply accepting it is probably up for interpretation, but nothing in the film is skin-deep. It’s all in service of these moments of revelation that turn both Anna and Marnie into an extremely compelling pair, even if the latter is “imaginary.”
But imaginary or not, Marnie’s impact on Anna is tangible. As the truths behind Marnie’s past become clearer, Anna begins to build up the strength to keep her partner safe from the evils of the world. Because there are always evils, no matter who you are or how you live. And even if you can’t always fight them yourself, being able to recognize the plights of others and connect with them will make you a stronger person. Perhaps someone who can help others face their own demons as well. And when it all comes down to it, we’re all in this together. Films like When Marnie Was There serve as reminders of just how meaningful life can be.