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.