The true beauty of cinema, the real magic, lies in its otherworldliness. In its unique ability to transport you to a whole other space and time and – when it works – allow you to exist in that world for a set period of time. Even longer when it works especially well. Since 1985, Studio Ghibli have been masters in conjuring these magical, fully immersive worlds, allowing audiences of all ages to escape into mystical dimensions where imagination is king – witches are free to set up their own postal service and houses are walking, talking, living breathing entities.
Now though, thirty-one years and nineteen feature films later, and following the retirement of co-founder, director and pioneer Hayao Miyazaki, the iconic animators announced a hiatus, halting production for the immediate future. Studio Ghibili’s potential swansong, then, is this, When Marnie Was There – a luscious adaptation of Joan G. Robinson book of the same name. The twentieth addition to the Ghibli portfolio sees us transposed from the original source material’s rural, rustic setting of Norfolk, UK, to Sapporo, Japan. It is here we meet our protagonist for the tale, 12 year old Anna.
Anna lives in Sapporo with her foster parents, Yoriko and her husband. In its delicate opening scenes we learn of her love and talent for art, but we also see her struggle with introversion. An asthma sufferer, her ailment, coupled with – as we learn as the story progresses – a revelation regarding her foster parents, has forced her into isolation. To deal with her worsening condition, Anna has become withdrawn and distant – from school, from her friends and her family. One day, after she collapses during school, a worried Yoriko suggests she spends the summer with her relatives Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa in a nearby seaside town, where the air is clearer.
After arriving in on the coast, Anna becomes immediately enchanted by a dilapidated, abandoned marsh house that sits lonely, across the water. Despite being warned to stay away, Anna can’t resist and it’s here she meets a mysterious kindred spirit.
It’s difficult to discuss more of the plot without giving too much away, however, at its finest moments, When Marnie Was There’s sense of escapism is grounded in the desperation of somebody searching for themselves and where they belong in the world. At its heart, this is a coming of age tale, as much about the loneliness of not fitting in, as it is about family and the important relationships in your formative years.
Stranded by her isolation, Anna struggles to make connections, and, when, at the local festival, she’s complimented about her blue eyes, she reacts violently – insulting a potential friend before storming off. Later, in two more perilous moments, her flights of fantasy see her left for dead at the side of the road. It’s these moments of stark realism amongst the caricatures that pierce the fantasy and give weight to the otherwise flighty characters.
That’s not to say there’s no beauty in this feature. Like the majority of Studio Ghibli’s pieces before it, When Marine Was There has been blessed with some truly striking and spectacular visuals. Upon leaving the screening, I overheard a fellow cinema goer comment that every scene of this movie could hang in an art gallery and deserves it place. It’s true; every single movement throughout the narrative is awash in glorious shades. From the stunning deep azure of the choppy waves that separate Anna from the irresistible marsh house, to the vivid greenery and vibrant reds of the flora that fills those vast fields of her summer home. The colour seeps off the screen delightfully. Then there’s the once extravagant marsh house itself, the exquisitely run-down and unloved building becomes just as an important character – embodying Anna’s feelings of abandonment, helplessness and loss.
As is tradition, the original subtitled version is backed by a dubbed release – once again packing some big Hollywood heat. In the lead, Hailee Steinfeld brings an endearing innocence to Anna’s vulnerability – however the real highlight comes in the form of John C Reilly and Grey DeLisle’s sweetly comedic double act. As Anna’s summer guardians Setsu and Kiyomasa, their charming rapport, and admittedly, lax parenting, presents Anna with the perfect opportunity to finally open up and explore, not just her new surroundings, but herself.
By the time it reaches its beautifully bittersweet conclusion, it’s hard to not have felt swept away and enchanted by the majesty of the previous two hours. If this is to be the end, then what a poignant and incredibly fitting goodbye to Studio Ghibli it is. But of course, and as Anna learns throughout When Marnie Was There, if the magic stays with you, it’s never really goodbye…