The latest – and possibly the last – offering from critically acclaimed Japanese filmmakers Studio Ghibli is a sweet, engaging film that perfectly encapsulates the ethos of the studio’s previous creations: a bittersweet reflection upon growing up in a mystical, and not entirely real surrounding.
When Marnie Was There begins with the startling contemplations of the protagonist Anna on how she feels like an outsider: brutal and disconcerting coming from the perspective of a twelve year old, her fiercely expressed hatred of herself sets up the film’s plot of Anna’s reconcilement of her background as a foster child. Her move to the countryside precipitates her encounter with the mysterious Marnie, a meeting that is suffused with the enigmatic touch that the studio notably accomplishes so well. Just why and how Anna and Marnie are allowed to become friends is never explained, and the film flourishes as a result: the unsettling spookiness of their friendship does not dissipate until well into the story, and lends a tension that is sometimes difficult to capture in animated films.
This sense of mystery is successfully maintained at certain pivotal moments – their spell in the silo being a particularly tension-laden example of this – but ultimately this ambiguity is undermined by the explanation afforded at the end of the film. Without revealing any crucial spoilers, the ending is too simple, too conveniently neat: comparing When Marnie Was There with Studio Ghibli’s most critically successful production Spirited Away reveals the former’s less imaginative, less thrillingly eccentric world. But it was a world that still showed considerable promise before director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s decision to effectually tie up the ending in an immaculate, almost cheesy package. This echoes the incongruous nature of the animation, as painterly backgrounds render the animated characters almost childish in comparison – a wonderful scope that is both enjoyable and captivating, but just quite missing something in its finish.