Could this really be the end of Studio Ghibli? For three decades, the studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki has been creating some of the most elegant, imaginative animated films in the history of the medium: My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away. As the world began moving away from 2D animation in the late 1990s, Studio Ghibli held fast, and their films increasingly began to feel like passionate arguments for the validity of 2D animation's existence. Alas, the company has now halted production in the wake of Miyazaki's retirement, and while the studio will undoubtedly continue to exist in some form, many believe they will never make another feature. If so, that makes Hiromasa Yonebayashi's When Marnie Was There the company's swan song. Like most of Studio Ghibli's recent features, it feels like a “late work” - a quiet, wise, graceful film containing vast depths of emotion.
The film is based on a young adult novel of the same name by British author Joan G. Robinson, though this adaptation predictably moves the story to Japan. Anna Sasaki (voiced in the English-language version by Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit) is an asthmatic 12-year-old girl whose health problems, crippling shyness and limited social skills have thus far prevented her from making many friends. After a particularly frightening asthma attack, her foster parents send her off to Kushiro, a small seaside town with clear air and sunny skies. She'll stay there for the summer with Kiyomasa (John C. Reilly, Step Brothers) and Setsu (Grey DeLisle, Avatar: The Last Airbender), her foster mother's relatives.
While exploring the area near Kiyomasa and Setsu's home, Anna stumbles across an abandoned mansion, which is now falling into disrepair. Later that evening, she has dreams seeing of a young blond-haired girl (Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men) inside the mansion. She doesn't know who the girl is, but the dream feels particularly real. Eventually, she discovers that there really is blond-haired girl living in the mansion. Her name is Marnie, and she quickly becomes Anna's close friend. The two girls continue to meet in secret, learning new things about each other over the course of the summer.
It's immediately obvious that something is up here, though the film does a fine job of keeping its many secrets safe until it's time to unveil them. Is Marnie a ghost? Or some sort of spirit? Or part of an ongoing series of Anna's dreams? She must be, right? What other explanation could there be for the way reality seems to change every time she appears? Meanwhile, Anna slowly but surely begins to blossom, finding genuine friendship for the first time in her life and beginning to experience real joy as a result. Kiyomasa and Setsu smile and shrug, figuring the seaside air is having a positive effect on her. They don't know where she keeps running off to, but dismiss such concerns: “Hey, as long as she's having fun.”
Yonebayashi's previous Studio Ghibli feature was The Secret World of Arietty, another adaptation of a children's book written by a British author. Both films share a quiet serenity, and go out of their way create a tangible sense of place. When Marnie Was There moves along at an unhurried pace (not the same thing as “slow,” mind you), always taking time to observe the windswept grass in the salt marsh, the raindrops falling on stone pathways, the sun-kissed fields and the creaky floorboards. Much of what we see it the film could have been easily created in live-action form, which is a complaint that was often lobbed at The Wind Rises and From Up on Poppy Hill. I'll offer the same defense here I offered in the case of those two films: to make this a live-action film would mean losing the pleasure of experiencing this rich, graceful animation, which has a fluidity and beauty rarely seen these days... and potentially sacrificing the absolute control the filmmakers have over the film's very specific look and feel. While the animation isn't quite as astonishing as the work Miyazaki usually does, it's not far behind.
For much of the film's running time, I felt fairly certain that When Marnie Was There was a fairly minor Studio Ghibli entry – a pleasant little wisp of a tale about feelings and friendship. However, the film attains surprising power as it heads into its final act, as its big revelations are laid on the table and the characters finally see their situation for what it is. What happens isn't completely surprising (“Well, it had to be something like that,” I thought to myself), but the raw emotional impact these developments generate is huge. The film's climax is a brief but stirring reminder of the studio's knack for creating films that are both heartwrenching and genuinely empathetic. Studio Ghibli films suggest that the world is fundamentally a good place, but that we all have the ability to make it better by showing kindness to others. If this is the end, it's a warm, affecting, bittersweet farewell. I miss them already.
When Marnie Was There
Rating; ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Year: 2015