This essay on what might be the final feature film release from Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There, was written by Timothy Brayton, first year Graduate Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. When Marnie Was There screens twice on Saturday, September 5 in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The 2 p.m. screening will feature an English language soundtrack, and the 7 p.m. screening will feature the original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles.
By Timothy Brayton
The future of Japan's beloved Studio Ghibli, the animation company responsible for such features as Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Spirited Away (2001), is greatly in doubt. While carefully avoiding any language that outright confirmed that it will never again produce new animated projects, following famed director Hayao Miyazaki's latest retirement (which he's already broken to start work on a new short), Studio Ghibli has shut itself down as a production house for the moment, with no real indication that it will ever restart.
It thus makes tentative sense to call When Marnie Was There, based on a 1967 book by British children's author Joan G. Robinson, the last Studio Ghibli film. That would be a tremendous weight for any single project to bear, even ones as grand in ambition and grave in tone as Miyazaki's The Wind Rises (2013) or fellow studio co-founder Isao Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), both meant as their celebrated director's culminating artistic statements. When Marnie Was There has no such pretension to self-aware importance or career summation; it is only the second film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a Studio Ghibli animator who took on the job of providing the capstone to one of the most beloved studio filmographies in the modern world only through an accident of timing.
That's exactly as it should be, perhaps. The unifying characteristic of most of the studio's films, the one that separates it not just from the Hollywood animation industry but even from most of its Japanese competitors, is the smallness and domesticity of so many of its stories. Famously, Studio Ghibli's stories frequently contain no real villains, just misunderstood anti-heroes at worst, and this means that they are rarely driven by strong external conflict. Beyond the high fantasy of the Miyazaki "greatest hits" that have largely defined the American perception of the studio's work, their films are more often than not tiny humanistic stories set in a single close community, even just a single household: the country home and woods of Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the quiet suburbs of Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart (1995) and Goro Miyazaki's From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), and not least the family home as infinite fantasy playground in Yonebayashi's own The Secret World of Arietty (2010).
Both of these traits - muted or even non-existent conflict; cozy little storybook settings - are on full display in When Marnie Was There, which can be roughly but fairly summarized as "a lonely girl reluctantly goes to a seaside town for her health, and makes her first-ever friend." There are complications built onto that slender frame, of course: it's clear early on that the film is some manner of ghost story, and must contain melodramatic elements ranging from a sudden storm to a shocking reveal in its final acts. Those things aren't the focus, though. This is above all things a character study of a very complex, well-realized young woman (another Ghibli trademark: psychologically detailed girls or young woman as protagonists, shaming not just American animation but the whole of the American film industry), suffering from without and within from the effects of social isolation. The lonely, sad-eyed Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the film's English version, Sara Takatsuki in Japanese) is a penetrating enough depiction of childhood depression to make the film troubling and even upsetting in patches. She's strongly drawn in a particularly subdued version of the Ghibli house style that makes her shifting internal strife and happiness far more affecting than the slight-unto-inconsequential mechanics of the plot itself, taking her place proudly among the ranks of the studio's fullest, richest female characters.
As a piece of animation, When Marnie Was There is no less a worthy successor to the Studio Ghibli name than as a character study. The intense focus on realistic emotions translates into an equally realistic visual style, which to American eyes might seem like an odd fit for animation, but any doubt that When Marnie Was There uses the medium well is quickly dispelled. The film’s style, especially its lush backgrounds and summery lighting, resembles a series of oil paintings, right down to the preference for landscapes situating the characters as small objects in a larger world. The classical aesthetic draws out the nostalgia inherent in having such a quiet, old-fashioned story as the film’s spine, giving the film a reflective, timeless quality. Stylistically, the Studio Ghibli film it most resembles is Whisper of the Heart, but the focus on providing lavish backgrounds to envelope the human figures is common to many of the studio’s earlier works.
It may well turn out to be the case that history will regard When Marnie Was There as a disappointingly minor finale for one of the artistic giants in the world of animation. But in this moment, its quiet smallness feels exactly right; a little sigh of farewell, no big fireworks or grandiose statements, from a company that was never given to florid drama when a tiny gesture would work better.