An orphan, a mystery, and a secret friendship: in this edition of Creations of Chaos, I reconnect with the types of stories I obsessed over as a child, as I discuss Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando
Release Date: 2014
Version Watched: English Dubbed
Anna is a twelve- year- old aspiring artist with a heavy heart. She is sullen, moody, and self-loathing. After a severe asthma attack, her guardian decides that the best course of action is for Anna to spend the summer with relatives. The hope is that the clean air and quiet environment will heal her lungs and her spirit.
While exploring the marsh, Anna becomes obsessed with an abandoned mansion that turns out to be not so abandoned after all.
Unable to relate to her peers, Anna has no difficulty connecting with the mysterious, beautiful, young girl who calls the mansion home. Through her new-found friendship, Anna learns to accept her past, present, and future.
Anna is a different kind of Studio Ghibli heroine. Usually Ghibli ladies are positive go-getters who have no problem taking control when things get tough. I’m one of those positive go-getter types, so I must admit that at the start of this film, I didn’t like Anna very much. She was pretty grumpy. I just kept thinking, what is her problem?
That turned out to be the brilliance of the film. Anna’s past is revealed at a deliberately slow, incremental pace. By the end, I had the utmost respect for her, and was cheering for her success. Part of my shift in opinion was because it was revealed that Anna is a foster child. Over a span of many years, my parents cared for 14 foster children. Two of those children remain my sisters. I thought that Studio Ghibli did a wonderful job sharing the emotions, fears, and doubts that foster children experience. It was a genuine portrayal that never became over dramatic or exploitative for the sake of the story.
Though I’ve always been a go-getter, I have also always been shy and introverted. Marnie is the friend every shy girl hopes to meet.
Marnie is beautiful, self-assured, kind, and just a little mischievous. She is the type of girl to push the timid types out of their shells. From building sand castles, to twirling on the beach, Marnie has a zest for life and knows how to have fun. She encourages Anna to try new experiences, like dancing, and having a late night picnic in a row-boat. “Late night row-boat picnic” is something I think I need to add to my bucket list.
Marnie reminded me of a more conservative version of Rayanne Graff from the show My So Called Life. As a spectator you are intrigued by Marnie, but also worry that her antics might take the main character down a dangerous path. I was mistrustful of Marnie and her motives. There was a suspicious desperation in her wanting to be friends with Anna. The more Marnie begged Anna to keep their friendship a secret, the more mistrustful I became.
It’s not much of a spoiler, and although it’s never stated outright, nor do the girls ever discuss it, it’s pretty evident from the start that Marnie is some sort of spirit/ghost. Now I know I shouldn’t be a spirit racist; there are of course benevolent spirits, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Marnie was up to something nefarious. As she continued to draw Anna into her world, there were a few times when I thought that maybe the mysterious Marnie was just a little bit creepy. The scene where Marnie invites Anna to attend a fancy party at the once-thought-abandoned mansion, had an eerie The Shining feel.
Not a stranger to heartache, Marnie reveals her own feelings of abandonment to Anna. Her parents are away most of the time, and she is constantly bullied by her Nan and the maids. The two girls spill their hearts to one another and are able to encourage one another through their difficulties.
When Marnie disappears shortly after this exchange, Anna goes on a quest to discover Marnie’s whole story. I will not reveal this, because it is too wonderful to not experience for yourself.
As a young girl I became obsessed with stories like Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and A Little Princess. They were not stories filled with epic action sequences. They were not stories where characters constantly traded one-line zingers. They were quiet, beautiful, and inspiring. The stories often depended upon the main character’s capacity for creativity and imagination. Like When Marnie Was There, my favorite childhood stories involved neglected places, secrets between friends, clandestine meetings, and celebrations.
When Marnie Was There is a breathtaking film from start to finish. The scenery beckons you to want to visit the gorgeous marshlands and explore the abandoned mansion. The plot may be simpler than many of Studio Ghibli’s films, but the emotions run deep, and the characters are profound and complex.When Marnie Was There helped me reconnect with my zeal for quiet, lovely stories, and I loved the film just as much as I loved the books and films that defined my girlhood.