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When Marnie Was There, a fitting end for Studio Ghibli - for now

It’s fitting that in When Marnie Was There, a film that may be Studio Ghibli’s swan song, characters are obsessed and compelled by the mysteries of the past. Anna Sasaki — the film’s sad but self-aware protagonist — suffers from a fundamental inability to connect with those of her age and time. Sent to coastal Hokkaido to stay with a distant aunt and uncle and recuperate from acute asthma, Anna recedes into her wistful imagination, where such social interactions are less overbearing. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s rendering of both the windswept setting and Anna’s fantasies are painterly and impeccable as they’ve ever been in Ghibli’s back catalogue, intoxicating both in its depth and in its detail.

An orphan with a dangerously low estimation of herself, Anna becomes obsessed with a vision of a majestic house on the shore across the bay, which she only encounters (at least in the first instance) by water. The glimpses of interior activity there seem boisterous but exclusive, almost of a bygone age. Cutting through the perceived social hierarchy is bright, bubbly Marnie, a benevolent and caring girl who assures Anna of her enduring value to those around her. The two quickly befriend each other and spend increasing amounts of time together, Marnie allowing Anna glimpses into a society that balances its traditions with a very traditional idea of customs and behaviours. A short time through their rapturous, whirlwind sisterhood Marnie declares that she loves Anna, in a moment that’s more earnestly sweet than in any way creepy. It’s a line delivered by Marnie as if she knows — as we all do — that she’s just a figment of Anna’s imagination.

This is hardly a spoiler and, because we realise this early on, the balance of this astutely-paced film is given over to piecing together how Marnie fits into the historical weave of the pasts of both place and protagonist. When Yonebayashi finally does orchestrate the big reveal, it’s a beautiful but predictable unraveling of moments and memories that to detail here would spoil, so I’ll resist. But the impact is nonetheless overwhelming for the sincerity and full-heartedness with which it is executed, coming to a well-judged point of conclusion with an original song in Japanese. While the studio representatives insist it will go on, the simplicity and purity of the composition felt as if it were not just scoring the end of the story, but the end of an era — of visually rich and emotionally complex Ghibli works; works that speak to difficult human conditions and concerns in ways that connected with us, young and old.

If When Marnie Was There never quite strikes that wonderful balance in the way exemplified the best work of Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) and Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), it’s certainly no broadly-appealing, cash grab crowd pleaser, either: it remains far too humanistic and introverted for that. Instead, Yonebayashi employs a prevailing, elegiac mood to consistently convey an atmosphere stuck between reality and fantasy, the world outside of the here and now and the endless interiors and corridors of time. When Marnie Was There is a story well told, moving and in the best way sentimental, but in so staying true to its spirit Yonebayashi simply can’t help but betray the seams of the (British) fairytale cloth from which it was cut.

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