My last of the three Secret Santa recommendations, Omoide no Marnie (or, When Marnie Was There) is a Studio Ghibli film detailing the story of a young girl who leaves the city for the country and stumbles across a very special mansion. Directed by Yonebayashi Hiromasa, who also directed the lovely Karigurashi no Arietti, Marnie has a distinctly melancholic air. The protagonist’s ever expressionless face and the still waters that surround the Marsh House smother the viewer. When it seems like the somber atmosphere might spread, we are instead refreshed by the brightness of the Oiwa family and magical encounters with Marnie. Like Anna, we are tossed back and forth between reality and the inexplicable, with each trade resulting in livelier and more colorful reactions.
When we first meet Anna, she sits away from her class mates and considers her art assignment seriously. She shows considerable skill in drawing, but does not seek the attention of her peers or instructor. Anna’s withdrawn demeanor and tentative attempt to reply to her teacher indicate a girl accustomed to solitude, yet still yearning for a stronger connection to others. Her following asthma attack and doctor’s visit are the impetus to her trip to the countryside. There are clear signs of unease between Anna and her foster mother regarding the government stipend their family receives–I at first blamed Anna for unreasonably overreacting at money that is obviously directed to her own well being, but then came to question Yoriko for not talking about it openly. But I’ve never been a foster child and cannot fully understand the emotions of the parties involved. I was surprised that Ghibli tackled topics like foster families, neglected children from nuclear families, and racism.
The latter two issues arise once Anna meets Marnie for the first time and the momentum of the show begins building. At first, I assumed Marnie was a similarly displaced young girl with far too much time and energy. Her bright blue eyes and long golden hair add to her free spirit; they also connect to Anna’s darker blue eyes and natural brown hair. Both girls are surrounded by full Japanese families with dark eyes and hair, and it becomes apparent later on through interactions that their physical differences separate them from others, though not always in a negative way. Marnie’s maids regularly bully her, while her nanny maintains an overly strict hand. Anna, however, seems to magnify her own differences. Though other girls do make remarks about her eyes, it comes across as simple curiosity rather than spite; it’s Anna who becomes defensive. Her reaction could stem from past encounters where she was legitimately bullied, but everything we are presently shown indicates her current placement the fault of self isolation.
This withdrawal extends as well to Anna’s relationship with her foster parents, specifically Yoriko. Photos of a younger Anna portray a picture perfect family full of smiles and warmth, yet the current Anna obviously feels differently. Gone is the smile, and she opts for calling Yoriko “Aunt” rather than “Mom”. The effect on Yoriko is obvious–she wears a concerned and somewhat confused expression. I feel for her desire that Anna’s time in country will not only heal her lungs, but also her heart.
Most children surprise me in being much more clever and adaptable than I would have expected, and this certainly applies to Anna. But she could never have anticipated the discoveries she would make upon arrival in the small town. Along with the rising tide and moon comes a bending of time and space. The supposedly abandoned mansion on the marsh suddenly gives off light, and Anna can see the figure of a girl her age sitting in the window. When the sun rises again and the tide lowers, she can find no evidence of inhabitants upon closer inspection of the home. When she does finally meet Marnie and the two trade secrets in the cloak of night, what should be impossible is believably tangible. When we learn the truth of Anna and Marnie’s relationship, it honestly does not come as too much of a surprise. The quickness of their friendship and their similar experiences all pointed to something more than Anna’s imagination or some coincidental twist of time travel.
Omoide no Marnie was actually Studio Ghibli’s last film release before that division’s current hiatus, though I hope not the last of all time. As different as this story was from some of my favorites–including Spirited Away, Nausicaa, and Mononoke Hime–it also fit with the time and atmosphere. Miyazaki Hayao’s retirement, their first television series using full CG, and this final film all seem to be working together towards a new direction, whatever that might be. I’m thankful to have finally met both Anna and Marnie, and will wait with a hopeful heart for the return of this beloved studio.