Is Studio Ghibli no more? You’d hope not with a reputation and following as substantial as it has, but the retirement of directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isai Takahata seems to have left it rudderless, exposing a crisis of confidence in how to move forward. So while we wait for what may or may not come next, we can at least savour one more exceptional full-length animation from the studio.
Just as with his previous Ghibli feature Arietty (2010), director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s film is based on a British children’s book, in this case Joan G Robinson’s title of the same name, beloved by schoolgirls since the 1960s. Bizarrely, the movie transposes the story setting from Norfolk to Japan, but if you weren’t aware of the source material you really wouldn’t know it.
12-year-old Anna is a socially introverted, asthmatic schoolgirl with autistic tendencies (if she doesn’t get your drift she’ll call you a “fat pig” and run away). Packed off to the country to get her adolescent act together via a spot of fresh air and landscape painting, Anna soon encounters a grandiose abandoned house across a nearby marsh lake. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a ghostly girl who keeps appearing at the window, a girl who Anna will discover to be far more than just another imaginary friend.
When Miyazaki signed off with 2013’s The Wind Rises, the world of cinema rose as one to salute his final masterpiece as though it were a work of greatness, as opposed to the meandering, self-indulgent downer it actually was. What an unfitting farewell to Ghibli that would have been. Thankfully, When Marnie Was There hits all the right buttons; the story is a corker for a start (very reminiscent of Catherine Storr’s classic Marianne Dreams) and Yonebayashi wastes no time drawing you into Anna’s imaginary world. Wonderful hand-drawn animation (the pearly skies and lush landscapes are breath-taking), vibrant music and spot-on vocal performances (whether you go for the English or original Japanese soundtrack) all combine to immerse you completely in her emotional journey.
It would be easy for this story to descend into g(h)ibbersish. The last few minutes are packed with a level of dramatic revelation even EastEnders might baulk at attempting. The difference being that EastEnders would make a right cockney dog’s dinner of it and this doesn’t. It may not wring your emotions out like a dishrag and leave you whimpering for the emotional rollercoaster to stop (that would be Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies), but you’ll definitely be holding back a wall of tears by the time the credits roll. Oh sod it, just have a big old cry.
The greatest irony of When Marnie Was There being ‘the end’ is that, although it’s the first Ghibli movie to involve neither of the two creative lynchpins, it misses them not one jot. So hold your horses, men and women of Studio Ghibli, the fat lady ain’t sung yet.
WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: HIROMASA YONEBAYASHI / SCREENPLAY: KEIKO NIWA, MASASHI ANDO, HIROMASA YONEBAYASHI, DAVID FREEDMAN / STARRING: SARA TAKATSUKI, KASUMI ARIMURA, NANAKO MATSUSHIMA, SUSUMU TERAJIMA, TOSHIE NEGISHI / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 3RD