Studio Ghibli likes to take us on a journey. Whether we are moving house in My Neighbour Totoro or seeing the surreal world of Spirited Away, the experience is always unforgettable.
When Marnie Was There, the latest Ghibli release, carries us a little closer to home than the more playful exploits we’ve experienced, but it weaves a personal and meaningful tale of family, friendship and those tricky teenage years into the mix. Instinctively, the use of the name ‘Marnie’ sends me to Hitchcock. Indeed, When Marnie Was There shares an intriguing investigative key (and a tall silo not unlike the bell tower) that must be more than a nod to Vertigo. Who is Marnie? Why is her house decorated in such a period style? How does this connect to our troublesome teen, Anna?
Sadly, Anna doesn’t fit in at school. Her lack of comfort and frustration results in an anger that’s hidden, and directly aimed at herself. A gifted artist and creative spirit, Anna wants to break free from these shackles but she carries a weight on her back bigger than her teenage years: she’s a foster child, with little knowledge of her parents. Suffering from asthma, her life in the city Sapporo isn’t healthy and her guardian sends her to an Aunt and Uncle on the coast to breath in the fresher air. Close to the beachside town sits a magnificent house and Anna is drawn to it. In what feels like a dream, she meets Marnie.
Family is often a central feature of Studio Ghibli creations. Grave of the Fireflies, for example, takes animation to another level depicting two children, caught in the cross-fire of war, standing by each other in a desperate attempt to survive. Whether it’s a family-like group of tanuki (Pom Poko) or a child leading the resistance against alien creatures (Nausicaa), it’s the family unit that supports us through the tough times. With this in mind, the set-up of When Marnie Was There is a bit of an anomaly. She’s a foster child, distant from her guardians, and sent across the country to live with relatives who aren’t blood relatives. But Anna is looking for her family, under the assumption that she has no one. But this quest of Anna’s only reveals the kin she does have and crucially, what defines family.
Interestingly, Inside Out came to mind. Both films share a moving-house set-up, a 12-year old protagonist and a struggle that forces the child to independently realise how to move forward with life. While Inside Out magnifies the mind of a child, When Marnie Was There looks at the external factors that shape a child. Anna doesn’t think that she’s normal, and when she lashes out at others and snaps pencils, she feels humiliated. But her innocence and lack of understanding; her thoughts and dreams of happiness shine through. Her friendship with Marnie reveals a need for a loving, understanding and powerful relationship – something we all crave. When Marnie Was There is an intimate story, not on the scale of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, but still with a beating heart driving the film forward. Marnie is the best friend you have, had or need. It’s an intimate, special story that whispers its message, but in a way that for many will hear loud and clear.