Studio Ghibli’s latest and perhaps last offering, When Marnie Was There, is a strange and compelling turn into the Gothic, signaled to us by its abandoned mansion, haunted grain silo, and little girl maybe-ghost. But the movie also delves deeply into some of the studio’s best storytelling centered on the growing pains of young women, like its slightly lighter and more fantastic peers Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Like any good coming of age tale, it makes room for sweetness and allows for bitterness. But unlike its more famous counterparts Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Marnie’s focus is less on a magical world and more on the dark possibilities of self-loathing internalized by young women struggling to find their way and worth.
Our protagonist, Anna, opens a window onto mixed, found, interracial families and issues with abandonment—themes that many Ghibli movies touch upon without exploring as fully as Marnie does. Primarily, this movie melds a ghostly mystery with the joy of struggling toward a fulfilling girlhood friendship. Is this movie feminist? Not overtly, perhaps not intentionally. But like the rest of Ghibli’s most memorable protagonists (Kiki, Chihiro/Sen, Mononoke, Arrietty, Ponyo—all young women!), Anna reminds us of the intermingled heart-swelling joy and pain of learning to like oneself, to struggle in a new and unfamiliar place, and to succeed. More than other Ghibli films I’ve seen, it is less about external struggle and more about learning to love oneself despite a self-perception of deep unhappiness, of self-dislike, and of failure.
When Marnie Was There is a sentimental movie, one that works to bring emotion to the surface. Its resolution is, without giving too much away, fairly neat and obviously packed with emotional force. I admit, I am very susceptible to this. Ghibli movies, for me, have always toed the line between joyous consumption of the sentimental, and my ingrained, ~*disaffected youth*~ sense that to purely enjoy sentimentality is deeply uncool, deeply “unintellectual.” But the value of allowing oneself to both look at a text—movie, novel, whatever—with both uncritical pleasure and critical understanding cannot be overstated. When Marnie Was There reminds us both of loneliness (that preciously parsed intellectual theme) and its antidote, the love-laden ending. It allows us to live for a moment in that precious Ghibli world of mysterious harbor towns and windswept landscapes (isn’t it always windy in these movies?), where it’s always summer and it’s always possible to slowly, dreamily, be alright.