The latest film from Studio Ghibli was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously directed The Secret World of Arrietty (2010). This one is slightly more reminiscent of the studio’s more offbeat realistic teen dramas such as Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves, or Whisper of the Heart, but there is, in fact, a supernatural or fantastic element to it, although it’s of the kind that can be read as purely psychological as well. It concerns a young girl, Anna, who feels lonely and alienated because she’s a foster child. Her distressed feelings cause asthma attacks, and she is sent to relatives in a coastal city where it’s hoped the fresh air will improve her health.
Anna becomes fascinated by an abandoned waterside mansion called the Marsh House, and eventually she meets a blonde girl named Marnie who lives there. Whether Marnie is real or a projection of Anna’s needy imagination is an open question, but the two become instant best friends forever. There’s an air of the summer holiday teen movie to this one, with powerful emotions released in the formation of new relationships. This is definitely not a children’s movie, but more of a young adult story. Anna and Marnie both struggle with dark feelings and difficult life situations. At the same time, Anna in particular is surrounded by loving family, even if she doesn’t recognize it. The audience does.
It’s a gentle movie, with only a storm at the climax providing much sense of danger. It offers family-friendly age-appropriate life lessons without feeling at all condescending. Not my usual kind of thing, but I actually liked this one perhaps somewhat better than Arrietty. As always with Studio Ghibli, the animation is full of great beauty, and the use of water to reflect and diffract light is continually captivating. Actually, the use of the ocean for all kinds of purposes, with the tide playing an important part both narratively and metaphorically, is one of the best things about When Marnie Was There. There’s a great sense of tidal returning in the final revelations that bring closure to the mysteries of Anna’s past.