2015 is the 30th anniversary of the founding of Studio Ghibli and, according to Hayao Miyazaki, it may also be one of its final years as a studio. Because this is one of my favorite films studios and Miyazaki is one of my favorite artists, who’s made some of my favorite films, I’ve decided to go through the history of Studio Ghibli one film at a time.
If you’re looking for the discussions of the previous weeks:
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky
- Grave of the Fireflies
- My Neighbor Totoro
- Kiki’s Delivery Service
- Only Yesterday
- Porco Rosso
- Pom Poko
- Whisper of the Heart
- Princess Mononoke
- My Neighbors the Yamadas
- Spirited Away
- The Cat Returns
- Howl’s Moving Castle
- Tales from Earthsea
- The Borrower Arrietty
- From Up on Poppy Hill
- The Wind Rises
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
This does, however, mean I won’t be discussing Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was made before the founding of the studio.
I’ll also only be discussing the Japanese audio version of the films, though that doesn’t mean the dubs are bad or not worth seeing. They’re just slightly different. I’ll also be discussing these with the assumption that they’ve been seen by you. So, yes, spoilers are below.
When Marnie Was There by Hiromasa Yonebayashi is the final film Studio Ghibli produced, which is bittersweet. Bittersweet because I–and so many others–have loved this studio and the work they’ve produced. Bittersweet because this film is really great, and shows that, even without Miyazaki, the next generation of Ghibli filmmakers were capable. Gorō Miyazaki and Yonebayashi may never be as legendary as Hayo Miyazaki, but they’ve shown that they’re fully capable of making beautiful films about real people. And who knows–if they continue making films, we may think of them in the same way we think of Hayo Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.
Those are gigantic shoes to fill and maybe they have no intention of being thought of along with the originators of Studio Ghibli, but I do hope they continue to make films. Gorō Miyazaki has already completed his first anime series, but it has yet to hit stateside. I think, technically, it’s the final thing produced by Studio Ghibli, though Ni No Kuni II may soon take that claim.
In any case, Studio Ghibli has closed its doors and, for better or worse, this was their feature film farewell.
It’s a very interesting film, for a lot of reasons. It tackles racism (albeit in a mostly implicit way), depression, abuse, identity, and memory in ways most animated films would never even attempt. I think it does an impressive job discussing these ideas while still telling the story it means to tell: the story of a foster child coming to terms with who and what she is.
So let’s talk about that first.
This film is about Anna, a young Japanese foster child. She loves drawing but is extremely withdrawn from her peers. Her anxiety and depression haunt and constrict her ability to interact freely with other children.
Within the film, the inciting incident to send her into the country is an asthma attack, but I think it’s clear that this is actually a panic attack. Her anxiety is extremely severe, caused by her feelings of inadequacy, alienation, and depression. She hates herself because of the way she feels, because of the ways she sees the world. She loves her foster parents but resents them. She needs them and wants them but feels like a burden, like they don’t actually want her, like they wouldn’t care for her if they weren’t receiving a government subsidy.
She has a panic attack and her doctor tells her foster mother that it’s asthma, that fresh air would do her good.
But let’s stop here for a moment, because I think this replicates something all too common in our daily lives. People who suffer from mental illnesses are often not believed or doubted or another reason is given to explain their situation. The problem here, in the film, is that Anna’s foster mother takes her to a physician and not a psychiatrist.
This is a difficult thing for Yoriko, Anna’s stepmother. She, too, seems wracked by anxiety over Anna. She has a daughter who is not biologically hers, but is very much her. Yoriko raised her and cared for her, but she sees Anna suffering and doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know how to deal with Anna’s pain and so she’s desperately seeking an answer or even a path to an answer.
As it turns out, the doctor’s suggestion is what they both need.
So Anna is sent to the countryside to stay with relatives.
Setsu and Kiyomasa are great. They treat her kindly and are just fun, gentle people.
Anna begins exploring the town and the countryside. In town, she runs into other children but cannot shake her feelings of alienation, of separation. Depression is an easy answer to this question, as is her severe anxiety, but the film very briefly touches on where some of this may come from.
A girl in town comments on Anna’s blue eyes, which is pretty unusual in Japan.
It becomes clear that Anna is biracial, which also accounts for her western name. Being biracial in the US is fairly common, but it’s relatively uncommon in Japan. More than that, Japan is generally not very receptive to biracial people. They call them hafu, which is already a troubling name to give a group of people. They’re generally not accepted and not looked upon as Japanese. Though Japan is changing, it’s not exactly easy being biracial there.
From my own experience teaching in South Korea, I also saw this. While South Korea is certainly not Japan and Koreans are not Japanese, this perspective of ethnic identity is pretty similar. I had a biracial student, and on her first day, the students surrounding her kept calling her ‘foreigner’ in Korean. The young girl’s native language was Korean, so she understood what they were saying, and it was obviously painful for her. To be reminded so often and from such a young age that you are not like the rest of us, and we think of you as separate, foreign.
It’s hard to feel welcome when that’s your daily reality.
So when the comment about Anna’s blue eyes are made, I came to understand her better. Her depression and anxiety have a very real and very painful source. Couple this with her feelings of abandonment related to being a foster child, and it’s no wonder she’s so uncomfortable around her peers.
It causes her to lash out at them, alienating her further.
Anna escapes into the countryside where she discovers a run down mansion in the marshlands.
This is where things get tricky and time gets slippery.
Anna meets Marnie, a girl around her age with blonde hair and blue eyes, living at the mansion, which becomes restored whenever they meet. Marnie and Anna have an instant and powerful connection. They’re fast friends and choose to keep it secret. After Anna spends the day with Marnie, she wakes up as if it were all a dream. She’s found in the marshland and must be saved by boat. She’s found unconscious by the side of the road.
The same is happening for Marnie. When Anna begins thinking of home or her real life, she fades from the bubble of reality the two create together.
Their meetins are in some place outside time and outside reality, where the past and present blend and swirl. Anna can barely remember her real life when with Marnie but disappears from Marnie when she drifts back to reality, causing a great deal of fear and panic in Marnie.
It’s all very slippery and interesting, and never explained.
Yonebayashi throws this speculative element into the film and doesn’t bother grounding it or explaining it. It’s enough for us that it’s happening and that it’s real for both of them.
Because it is real. Anna and Marnie become friends and share memories and time outside of their individual time periods, but are able to influence the world of invented time they create. For example, Anna meets Marnie’s parents at their party, and they buy flowers from her. She dances with Marnie at the restored mansion, only to find it run down and abandoned the next day.
It’s unclear what’s happening here, but Anna gradually comes to realise that Marnie died long ago. That the mansion was her house many years in the past. Another young girl shows her Marnie’s diary that she kept as a child.
Marnie also shares her troubled reality with Anna. Marnie is abused both physically and psychologically by her caretakers. Her parents, who are foreign to Japan, spend much of their time outside the country, or at least away from home, leaving Marnie in the care of maids and a nanny, who treat her horribly. They delight in scaring her and abusing her.
It’s a weighty topic to tackle in a film for children, but it’s a very Ghibli thing to do.
As the film progresses, we begin to put pieces together.
See, Marnie is Anna’s grandmother, and this space they share, this timeless place where they can become friends and know one another, it’s something they build together through mutual desire.
Personally, I think it’s something that they’ve created and tapped into through mutual pain and horror. They’re trying to escape the pain of their daily lives and they find one another in this space connecting them across generations.
It’s a beautiful moment, discovering this.
And the film, overall, is quite lovely. Despite dealing with racism and child abuse and mental health, it finds moments of beauty and kindness. Moments where Marnie and Anna, two lost children, find hope and love in one another. Their connection crosses time and Death and makes both of them whole, gives them both strength to deal with who and what they are.
Because they’re both abandoned in their own ways. Anna by the Death of her family and her ethnicity. Marnie by her too busy parents and ethnicity.
It’s difficult and beautiful and tormented and haunting, but When Marnie Was There is certainly the best film to come out of the second generation of Studio Ghibli directors.
While some may see it as kind of a cop out to close the circle and connect Marnie to Anna biologically, I think it’s appropriate. This film is mostly about identity and coming to terms with who you are. It’s only through Marnie’s love and acceptance that Anna is able to know herself, and by discovering their connection, she is able to accept the loss of Marnie and her biological parents, which leads her to accept, finally, her foster parents.
I think it’s significant that Anna becomes friends with Marnie first. Anna is looking primarily for friendship and acceptance, which she finds. It’s beautiful that this other abandoned child is also her grandmother, that they can share pain and love across all these years.
So while this may not be a perfect film, I think it’s an elegant and beautiful one.
I love it.
And it’s a fitting, albeit sorrowful, way to say goodbye to Studio Ghibli.