Life is tough. Everyone knows that, but at some point, everyone must learn it. For Anna Sasaki, her twelfth summer is going to be her chance to confront that life lesson and learn to move through it. It is one of those seminal moments in growing up, who better to capture it than that great Japanese Animation house, Studio Ghibli?
When Marnie Was There, opening June 5 at the Landmark Mayan Theatre, begins with Anna as a loner schoolgirl in Sapporo, Japan. Anna is an orphan living with foster parents — her biological set died long before she can remember — and even though they love her dearly, she still feels that something is missing. When she suffers from a particularly bad asthma attack, they send her off to live with her aunt and uncle in the seaside village of Kushiro where the air is clear and the sun is bright.
Like many asthmatic children, Anna keeps to herself and refrains from over-exertion. While the kids run and play, Anna remains on the perimeter of the playground, choosing to draw rather than engage. Even when she does engage, things don’t go well.
While on a solitary walk, Anna stumbles across a familiar looking mansion across the shore. The sea cuts the mansion off from the sea, but when the tide rolls out, Anna explores the rundown and dilapidated home. Then something magical happens, when Anna leaves, she turns back to see that the mansion no longer looks rundown, but full of light and life.
Anna’s curiosity gets the better of her and on the night of the village festival, Anna slips away to investigate the mansion and meets Marnie, a young girl her age with long blonde hair. Marnie convinces Anna that she is not a dream, she is real, but it would be best to keep their meeting a secret.
Thus begins a beautiful friendship between Anna and Marnie, and that’s about as much story as When Marnie Was There gives the audience. Frankly, it is more than enough. There is more here — the story gives way to a rather intricate, and well done, mystery plot — but Marnie smartly saves that for later. Right now, it’s all about being young and finding that special friend, one who also feels a little bit like an outsider. Together, everything is all right.
When Marnie Was There is based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson and is adapted and directed for the screen by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a long time animator for Studio Ghibli. Now in its 30th year, Studio Ghibli has been the go-to place for excellent in Japanese animation as well as a stunning array of young-female protagonists. With Marnie, Anna and Marnie do right by their predecessors and keep the torch alive.
However, Marnie was released in Japan on July 19, 2014 and shortly after; Studio Ghibli lead director Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from animation, thus leaving many to predict that Studio Ghibli will be closing its doors. A sad loss to cinema and animation, but if When Marnie Was There truly is the last movie Ghibli releases, then they are going on out a high note.
When Marnie Was There does exactly what Ghibli has always done, and done so well, addresses the cruel twists and turns life can take. Rather than shy from them, Marnie faces them head on, ennobling the fight to remain hopeful and ever resilient to remain positive in a world that can often be tragic. As Marnie tells Anna, “I’ve overcome many frightening things. And so will you, Anna.”