This film seems a much more comfortable fit for the ‘Ghibli magic’, be it literal or emotional. Where ‘The Borrowers’ have their inherent intriguing otherworldliness, but the mechanics of that world lacks any further layer of mystery. When Marnie Was There has (via rural Japan, not the Cornwall of the book) a slippery existence, between worlds in the delightful way so many Ghibli films float across into the land of the spirits. It’s not to say Ghibli can’t do literalism, think of the masterful and perhaps surprisingly serious Grave of the Fireflies – it’s just not their signature. Turning back to Miyazaki, it is quite possibly his legacy The Wind Rises which is the closest touchstone in theme and storytelling style for Yonebayashi. Imagination and family legacy are the central, ethereal muddying twists to the otherwise linear paths for the young, introspective lead characters in both films.
Anna is a young girl in the city suffering from asthma and as a consequence is sent to live in the country. This happens in a whirl of conversation and noise, not a typical opening sequence. When she arrives as a shy, self-conscious and solitary stranger she soon fixates on a large house which can be seen across an inlet of marshland; traversable depending on the tide. She finds this house during a coded fall. Ghibli love Alice in Wonderland and they turn Joan G. Robinson’s Cornwall into their own mini Wonderland. Anna trips and tumbles as if down a rabbit-hole, rising to this mysterious ‘Marsh House’ where she can see a golden-haired girl having her hair brushed in an upper window. We learn this girl is Marnie. Marnie predominantly wears a blue dress with a white apron and a bow in her hair. Who is Alice here then, Anna or Marnie? It’s that kind of question that is just the tip of the iceberg in this complex reality-distorting quasi-fairytale. There’s a white rabbit on a night stand, there is mushroom-picking and Marnie is constantly bullied. It’s not Alice in Wonderland, but the allusions create the reverie and layers of metaphor which elevate any tale above mere storytelling.
It’s a voyage of self-discovery. As Anna falls in love with a friend; she begins to fall in love with herself for the first time. However, Marnie is not just some expositional spirit-guide, there’s a truth to her which only makes you want to go straight back in the cinema and watch for the clues to who she really is all over again.
The final sequence of the film wraps up the otherwise mysterious storyline too neatly, in due diligence to the book. Contrast it perhaps, to Spirited Away where there is no true explanation behind Chihiro’s adventures and that’s disappointing. The Enid Blytonesque upbeat sweetness to the children’s story may account for this. More importantly, for Chihiro the adults around her are oblivious. The strong Ghibli theme of balancing child-like imagination and a genuine fantasy has been key to its success. The fact the adults are involved in the expositional closing act of Marnie feels like a betrayal of that bubble.
Anna and Marnie’s secrets are safe here. The cinematic experience is genuinely intriguing and therefore ultimately surprising. Those that know the story already, being fans of the book, won’t be disappointed and hopefully a new generation of children will be drawn in to explore other Ghibli films. It’s a fitting end to a beautiful journey, although the autobiographical strands of The Wind Rises which draw on Miyazaki’s lifetime may have been a more aesthetically pleasing note for the studio to depart on.