When Marnie Was There was the final film Japanese anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli created before entering its current hiatus. This June sees the film return to cinemas in the UK with dialogue dubbed into English, offering a good opportunity to re-examine the studio’s goodbye note. The weight of expectations were high for the film; this is the company that created peerless classics Spirit Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo and countless more. It’s surprising then – or perhaps astute – that director Hiromasa Yonebayashi stepped away from the fantastical beasts that have made Ghibli’s output so often memorable, instead opting to deliver a subdued, melancholic exploration of loneliness, art and loss, albeit with a ghostly edge.
Based on a 1967 British children’s book, When Marnie Was There opens with a typically Ghibli-esque set up; Anna, an introverted foster child, is sent out to the country to live with an amiable aunt and uncle. She finds herself drawn towards a dilapidated mansion, there to meet sparky aristocratic girl Marnie, who may be a ghost, or may be a figment of Anna’s imagination, or may be something else entirely. Despite the action being transposed from Norfolk to the Japanese province of Sapporo, the atmosphere of the film is very much in keeping with a particular style of British ghost story- and this isn’t always a good thing. Marnie is a stock posh girl character, all fun hearted kindness and a spirit of adventure. Meanwhile, her tormentors are, inevitably, barely fleshed out serving staff, shamelessly one dimensional plebs drawn from that grand British tradition of portraying the working classes as spiteful savages. The best of Ghibli is childlike – this just seems childish.
It’s a shame that Marnie’s woes are dealt with so lumpenly, as this distracts from the film’s strengths. The beautiful animation and the sentimental, string laden soundtrack make light work of conveying the alienation of a city child sent to the countryside. As with so much Ghibli, atmosphere is everything in WMWT. If you can turn a blind eye to the slightly hokey plot, and occasional lapse into clichéd dialogue (“I’ll love you forever..!”), there is plenty to enjoy- Yonebayashi has created a strange, chaste, pre-pubescent love story that deftly flickers between the real and the imagined, a dream of the endless summers and all-consuming longing of youth. It’s may not the best of the Studio’s work, but still offers enough for film lovers to hope that their current dormant status doesn’t turn permanent.
When Marnie Was There is showing at cinemas across the UK