When Marnie Was There Review — Magical Girls Have Troubles Too

Hope you had a good Valentine’s Day, guys. Let’s celebrate the post-period with a Ghibli film.

As a fan of Studio Ghibli, I will be sad to see them go, but given all their recent infrastructure issues, it’s probably for the best that they bow out gracefully now before they risk ruining their reputation with a giant string of mediocrity the likes of which caused Gonzo and more recently Manglobe to hang it in for good. I mean my opinion of The Wind Rises has improved a bit since the last time I saw it and Princess Kaguya was alright, but I think we’re past the point when we can expect another Spirited Away or Grave of the Fireflies from our two big boys, and you can bet that Miyazaki’s son ain’t going to be delivering on that. So let’s take a look at what seems to be their final film by that other upcoming director of theirs. The one that made The Secret World of Arrietty – a film that was big on visuals and atmosphere but light on actual plot, so of course I’d enjoy it as an animation fan whilst being disappointed it couldn’t measure up to Ghibli’s usual standards. Still, he deserved a second chance and I’m glad he got one, because When Marnie Was There is actually quite good.

So the plot of Marnie goes back to Ghibli’s stable of stories centered on little girls going through angst caused by growing pains and having to deal with said angst through magical realism, and said plot this time is focused on Anna Sasaki, a pre-teen who periodically suffers from asthma attacks and feels distant from her foster parents because she thinks they’re only taking care of her because they were paid to do so. After one of her attacks causes her to physically collapse, she is sent to live with her parents’ relatives for the summer in order to experience even more angst due to being in an unfamiliar environment, as well as receive a solution to her problems through use of a little whimsy that toes the line between being both stomach-churningly saccharine and surprisingly mature. Said whimsy this time around takes the form of a young blonde girl named Marnie, a mysterious mansion dweller who may or may not be real as her mansion transforms from rundown to prosperous depending on what mood the movie wants Anna to feel next. As you’d expect from a Ghibli film, the two befriend each other and have all sorts of cute scenes whilst Anna tries to overcome her anxiety issues and figure who the hell Marnie actually is.

Being the Ghibli-tard/animation lover that I am, I was pretty much drawn into Marnie through the visuals alone, and everything else were the ingredients to bring said visuals to life. They’re known for their environmental agendas and anti-war messages, but one thing I really like about the studio is how good they are at writing female characters. Even near-perfect pacifists like Nausicaa are great because they know that actually attaining that status is hard work, and the two main females in this film continue the Ghibli tradition of being the right blend of charming and flawed. Anna’s situation might seem silly to some people – especially if you live in the ghetto or a third-world country – but children get iffy about their adoptive parents all the time, especially if they don’t think they love ’em. And her personality works as a great contrast to Marnie herself, a mature being who you can’t quite tell is real or not, but nevertheless suffers with problems of her own regarding her wealthy heritage. It’s moe girl drama when you get down to it, but it’s serious enough without being maudlin or sinking into the diabetes-inducing stuff that Mai Mai Miracle consisted of.

The best thing about Ghibli when they focus on this sort of drama is that they really capture what it means to be young on a broad scale without being complicated about it. There are no revenge schemes or convoluted family heritages. No shallow dreams or whatever you want to call what Imaishi does regarding his leads. It’s just simple yet meaningful stuff that I never really lived through, yet can actually relate to all the same. You know how Super 8 captured the nostalgia of what it means to be an 80s kid growing up with Spielberg films? I get the same thing from stuff like Whisper of the Heart and Spirited Away, and I also get the same from Marnie.

Now I don’t want people getting the wrong idea that I love When Marnie Was There because I don’t. The story doesn’t do anything truly unusual with its premise that you haven’t seen before, and whilst I don’t really care too much about how the final revelation was delivered, it didn’t really tell me anything besides “okay, so that’s what’s been going on”. Capturing what it means to be young is one thing, but doing something with it is another thing entirely, and Marnie never really quite gets there. Without giving too much away about the plot, Anna meets other people who are interested in Marnie as well and through unravelling the truth about her, she learns to accept her own situation. It’s kind of like a more down-to-earth and not as revelatory realization from Gravity Falls.

But I will always love what it represents, and it’s that in a medium that has surprisingly become even more bloated over time with pleasing people solely by putting in shallow elements like robots and moe and the thousand cliches you have to put in your light novel series to get it approved for adaptation to the point that people will praise mediocrity just because the bar is set lower than Selena Gomez’s sex appeal, it’s nice to see that even to this day there are studios out there who realize that you don’t need to try too hard to cater towards a large fanbase. Fuck shipping. Fuck concert scenes (although the film does have a dancing scene). Fuck pretty much everything that was in Rolling Girls. If you just make your anime look great and sound great and have a charming story with charming characters, then I could care less that there aren’t any explosions happening in the background, and so will a lot of people given how well this film sold. I love you Studio Ghibli. And that’s why – for now at least – I must say goodbye to you.

13 responses to “When Marnie Was There Review — Magical Girls Have Troubles Too

  1. It amazed me how top heavy anime studios are. The moment their best directors and writers left or retire, they easily collapse. Many have talk about the fall of Gainax, Gonzo, or recently Ghibli. I feel like Ufotable and Shaft are heading that way. Nobody remebers any Ufotable shows that are not Type moon related. Shaft hasn’t got any well received anime that is not Monogatari for a while. Even if they adapt everything from those franchises, they can’t last more than another 5 years. Some studio like Sunrise still do well, but the quality and quantity of their mech anime took a big hit when Tomino and Takahashi retire. No wonder Tomino came back.

    • Too bad Tomino’s comeback was all but forgotten by the world. It’s one thing for Reconguista to be bad, something the dude admitted himself, but nobody really remembers it anymore. Now I haven’t heard much from Iron-Blooded Orphans lately, but it did leave some impact nevertheless.

      And it’s nearly impossible to separate Sunrise from mecha these days. Except for Tiger & Bunny, which was good. Funny that.

  2. Meh. People don’t want anime that tries to tell a story. What they want is an unemotive bald dude wearing a goofy costume who repeats the same joke over and over, and has generic fights that were well-animated. Marnie has neither of those things.

  3. I’m glad Ghibli ended (for now) on a good note. I will always have fond memories of Studio Ghibli.

    It’s a shame that there isn’t really anyone else right now who is making animated films on the same level as Miyazaki/Takahata. I guess the closest person would be Shinkai, because his films leave an impact on me. I’m really looking forward to his next film, because like recent Ghibli films, even if the plot isn’t great, at least the visuals will draw me in. I don’t really like Hosoda as much as other people because I find his films pretty flat, and I’ve read quite a few negative reviews for The Boy and the Beast.

    • Hosoda is alright, but his films tackle subjects at too broad a level to really stick. I’ve yet to see a movie of his I’ve really loved bar maybe his work on Digimon. And that’s only because I grew up with Digimon, as Our War Game isn’t exactly a must watch.

  4. I’m going to have to get around to watching the rest of the lesser known/more recent Ghibli films I haven’t watched, including this one. A lot of their output has been hit or miss for me (overbearing environmentalism and Goro Miyazaki’s stuff), but Ghibli never fails in the animation department and their painstaking attention to detail, and all their classics deserve the reputation for being must-watches.

    • I think people take their environmentalist messages too literally. Yes, Miyazaki is all for saving the planet, but that’s far from the only thing he tells in his films.

      • I know it’s only a small part that adds on to the character-focused films, but it just annoys me. Maybe it will bother me less upon (another) rewatch

    • I take it you’re not an Eureka Seven fan, then.

      What I mean is that there’s more to the environmental message than just save the rainforest. You do know in Princess Mononoke that all the animals are assholes right? And wasn’t Nausicaa’s forest toxic to humans? Basically, unlike most environmental stuff, there are two sides to the story.

      • I haven’t really thought about those films in that way (there being two sides to the story and all) although I did recognize the animals being jerks in Princess Mononoke and the toxins in Nausicaa. I like Princess Mononoke, in part because the animals also suffered the consequences of their actions along with the humans. The Ohms in Nausicaa are shown as justified in their rage because of human action, and don’t really suffer any repercussions as far as I can tell.