Studio Ghibli has built its success on telling stories of girls who find strength to overcome obstacles, and in the process undergo beautiful transformations. For its final film, Studio Ghibli again presents that tale, but dives into newer territory by setting it against the backdrop of a supernatural mystery. And the result is phenomenal.
When Marnie Was There features the sullen Anna, who stands out among Studio Ghibli’s flawed heroines as one undergoing an illness all too common to children these days – depression. Her “aunt” sends Anna to the countryside for a change of scenery, where the girl begins to slowly open up, though interactions with other adolescents remains difficult. Anna finds most of her solace in a beautiful, run-down mansion across a marsh that fills up during high tide. It’s at this old home that Anna sees and later meets Marnie, a girl that seems to be everything that she’s not – cheery, kind, open, and extravagant. Despite their differences, the two bond quickly and intimately.
But the story of Marnie’s identity and connection to Anna hangs like a mist over the film, and like a moving fog, soon envelopes the secret friendship between the girls.
The intrigue and mystery of When Marnie Was There adds a layer not seen in previous Ghibli films. I marveled at how I could see clues being dropped, but didn’t make the connection until the director began to reveal the revelations. Likewise, I found myself reflecting on how the movie made me forget the mystery and focus simply on the girls’ friendship when necessary, and back onto the mystery when needed.
The animation is what we’ve come to expect from every Studio Ghibli film – beautiful and vivid. There are several pan-back shots that give us long views of the lush setting, which itself is a character in the film – particularly the water, which forces the plot forward by its ebb and flow. Still, the animation wasn’t perfect – I noticed a faceless character or two that I surely wouldn’t have been seen in a film by the master and Ghibli co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki.
But even the animation takes a backseat to story itself. The final reveals in the film are deeply emotional – sniffles were heard all around the theater I was in – not only because of the power of the revelations, but because of our connections to the characters. Subtly, the film had led us to care about our heroines, even the oft-surly Anna. Because of this, the conclusion to When Marnie Was There becomes one of Ghibli’s best, and an ending that we’ll be talking about for years.
One of the final shots of the film is of Marnie, standing at her window, waving. It struck me as an image that could be iconic – gorgeous and emotional. It also might be an allusion to Studio Ghibli saying goodbye to us, at least for now. And if it’s that image their staff leaves us with, and this movie that serves as their finale, I’ll be satisfied. The company that’s produced so many classics has given us one more to treasure.