If The Wind Rises was the last chapter in Hayao Miyazaki's career as a feature filmmaker, When Marnie Was There is the last chapter in Studio Ghibli's career as a feature production house. It's a minor note, but not a down one: Marnie may not have the scope of the best and most memorable Ghibli productions, but it has all the craft and depth of emotion I've come to associate with them. It's always difficult to see any cultural product outside the context of its creators, or the environment of its creation. A "bad" or "minor" Ghibli film is still typically better than many other production houses at their default setting, although even that rule has exceptions (Tales of Earthsea, ahem).
To that end, I tried not to stack Marnie against Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke; it isn't the same kind of film and isn't aiming for remotely the same kinds of goals. It's closer in spirit to The Secret World of Arietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi's previous (and first) effort as director. In that film, as in this one, a young person who feels cut off from the rest of the world finds solace in an extraordinary secret world, only to find the real world is where s/he is most urgently needed. Its goals are modest, but not because it lacks heart.
One alone, two of a kind
Marnie is also like Arietty in that it's is an adaptation of an English-language source; in this case, Joan G. Robinson's young-adult novel of the same name. Young Anna, asthmatic and withdrawn, is at the cusp of teenhood. It's a time when she should be hanging out with peers, but she prefers the company of her sketchbook, finding solace in it from the perpetual isolation she feels. It's not mere moody-kid syndrome, either: her biological parents are long dead, and she lives in the company of an aunt from whom she feels — without being able to pin down why — that Anna constitutes an obligation or a responsibility, not an object of love.
Anna's asthma attacks grow worse. Maybe the air in Sapporo isn't good for her; perhaps she would do better off in the rural seaside town of Kushiro, in the company of the Oiwas. They welcome Anna with a hale-and-hearty attitude that she seems at a total loss to return. (Yonebayashi gives us a scene of them bouncing along in the car to their house that's reminiscent of the opening moments of Spirited Away, with the lonely, displaced Chihiro peering gloomily out the car windows.) She doesn't resent them, or anyone else, but her sense of alienation overrides the impulse to connect with other people, imprisons her in a shell of prickly awkwardness. It's easier just to pen herself up in her imagination and not deal with other people.
On the other side of a marsh near the Oiwas' house is an abandoned mansion — built to house foreign guests, but now only occupied by ghosts, or so the rumors say. At low tide, Anna is able to slog across and peer into its empty windows; at high tide, she borrows a rowboat from the local hermit Toichi. If this place is abandoned, she wonders, why is it that lights appear in the high windows? Why is it that she sees a young blond girl in that window, having her hair brushed with vigorous authority by a stern old woman? Is she simply conjuring up fantasy fodder for her sketchbook?
On her next visit to the mansion, Anna is greeted by the girl herself — breathless, barefoot, her nightgown flapping in the wind. Her name is Marnie, and she is overjoyed to have someone from outside the (now well-lit, now well-kept, now populated) mansion that she can call a friend. That their meetings must be kept a secret only adds spice to the whole thing for Anna. For the first time, she's not only someone's friend, but in an irreplaceable, unduplicatable way — not that true friendship is ever anything but that, but the first time it happens to any of us it's always intoxicating.
Our little secret
At this point the story has set us up for what appears to be a sad story of the supernatural, and I confess that at around the halfway point, when I got up to refill my water glass, I thought I had the rest of the movie sussed out: Marnie is a lonely ghost, and Anna will have to choose between a fantasy friendship that can't be sustained, or the messiness of having and keeping friends in the real world. There's that, but more as well. The heart of Anna's loneliness, her feelings of abandonment, are confronted on multiple fronts at once — not just through her present-day connection with those around her, but through her own past, and how that connects back to the events in the present once more.
Positioning a story as a fantasy lets its creators experiment with generating emotional reactions and states of mind that wouldn't work in a story constrained by reality. But a fantasy still has to play by the rules, and one of those rules is how people respond emotionally to things. This for me is why Marnie works even when it flirts with being sappy: for all that happens to Anna, we don't doubt that her reactions are sincere, or that they make sense. Anna is inclined to treat Marnie first and foremost like her friend, not some eerie curiosity, a behavior of a piece with the way little Mei simply thought of Totoro (who to an adult would be alien and menacing) as her friend. I haven't read the source material, but I suspect while the underlying story is Robinson's, the flavor and the expression of it are Ghibli's.
I've never seen a Ghibli film that wasn't technically outstanding in most every way, and Marnie is no exception. What struck me this time around was how Yonebayashi and his team modulated the look of the film to hearken that much more towards the kind of straight-up-and-down realism depicted in Whisper of the Heart — well, the non-fantasy parts of that movie, anyway. Actually, even when Marnie is veering into fantasy, its look remains mostly realistic, even during the Gothic nightmare sequence where Marnie and Anna cower in a grain tower during a lightning storm. To my mind this is not a miscalculation; when I was young, ghost stories that made the ghost seem like a real person and not a phantasm seemed both creepier and more fitting. From the impact Marnie has on Anna, and from what we eventually learn about Marnie, it makes great sense, and it clicks even more during the final scenes when Marnie is transformed, in a series of connected flashbacks, from a mystery into a personality.
I don't subscribe to the idea that Studio Ghibli should have gone out with a bang and tried to top themselves, or attempted to do some last thing solely for the sake of leaving a legacy. To my mind, this had already happened with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya; anything beyond that was gravy (although in the case of The Wind Rises, thin gruel). If Marnie needed to have any one attribute to deserve the Ghibli label, it was that it should outlast its moment in time, and the fact that Marnie is a story about bonds across generations builds that much more timelessness into it.