When Marnie Was There (Movie Review)
When Marnie Was There (2014). Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayshi, is also one of the bravest films put out by the Studio, opting to deal with issues of teen depression and anxiety. It is maybe a shame though, that they tease the audience with what looks like a lesbian romance (more on that later). Even so, I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie.
Our Ghibli heroine is Anna, a young teen who is sent to the country to recuperate after a severe asthma attack. But for Anna, asthma is the least of her worries. It is fairly evident she has some form of undiagnosed depression and social anxiety. The attack is triggered in the opening scene when a teacher asks if he can see a picture she has drawn. It ends with Anna’s voiceover saying that she hates herself. On first blush, this might seem extreme and as though the thought comes out of nowhere, but this is quite accurate for people who suffer from mental illness. For Anna, someone who sketches a lot, her artwork is closely tied to who she is as a person. To display it to someone and have it judged is a stressful notion. She feels as though she is on the outside of society, isolated, alone and unloved. To reveal herself to someone is almost impossible, and throughout the film whenever anyone asks to see her work she always makes an excuse, saying it isn’t finished or not very good.
At any rate, she is shipped off to a seaside town and quickly becomes enchanted by an abandoned mansion on the other side of some tidal salt marshes. During low tide, the water retreats far enough for her to walk over and explore the abandoned grounds. She loses track of time, though, and the tide comes in, trapping her. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a silent man in a rowboat appears and returns her to the other bank. The man is an odd figure within the film, and I like to read him as a kind of mythical ferry man between the world of the living and the dead, because it is after his arrival that we get out first hint of Marnie.
Anna sees a beautiful blonde-haired girl in a dream several times, and eventually she meets her over at the mansion, only now the building appears to be occupied and in its heyday. The two girls form a quick bond, with Marnie telling Anna that she is her most cherished secret. It appears from early on that there is an element of romance to the relationship. Things are emotionally charged between the pair, they confide their deepest darkest secrets to each other and repeatedly declare their love for each other. But maybe it would be better to view this more as a close intimate friendship.
Anna seems to be improving in her mood around Marnie, but outside of their interactions she still seems troubled. She hates social activities and tries to avoid them whenever she can. At one point, after a run-in with a local girl, we hear her internal monologue telling us that she is ugly, stupid, moody and unpleasant. We have seen nothing to lend these thoughts any credence, yet this is exactly what the voice of depression tells its victims. Anna grew up an orphan and although kind people are raising her, she is also aware that they are paid a government allowance to cover some of her expanses, and believes this means she is really unwanted and unloved.
Midway through the story, the mansion is sold to a new family who move in and slowly we come to learn who this ghostly figure of Marnie really is. Th new child in the house, Sayaka, finds an old diary belonging to Marnie, and we come to realise that many of the scenes we have already seen are described in the diary. Somehow Anna has become entangled in an echo of the past and is interacting with the former life of this long-gone girl. This explains why sometimes Marnie seems to talk to people who aren’t there, reliving the past as it truly happened. Be that as it may, finding a person who values and loves her seems to be doing Anna some good. Both Marnie and Anna say they are jealous of the other. Marnie points out that even though Anna is an orphan it means that the people who are raising her most truly love her because they’re doing it by choice. For Marnie’s part, we gradually come to realise that she had a lonely existence, ignored by her parents and bullied by the maids she was left to grow up with.
We eventually meet an old friend who knew Marnie while she was alive, and we get the whole sad backstory. Then, moments later, we learn that this story is in fact Anna’s story, as Marnie turns out to be her grandmother. You can see what I mean about that lesbian romance being a bit of a tease. Unless we’re going to count it as an incest thing…?
Having said that, I really do admire Studio Ghibli for having the courage to depict teen depression, especially in a way that is sensitive without being overwhelming. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the portrayal, never having suffered myself. But at the very least it provides an insight into what I imagine are the thought processes of someone in that frame of mind, while also making it accessible to a younger audience. As for the ghost story element, although undoubtedly there, the film never draws a lot of attention to it. We’re left to experience the world from Anna’s perspective, who seems more interested in developing her relationship with Marnie, than interrogating the nature of what she actually is. As such, it doesn’t feel like a supernatural film at all. It feels more like someone who fell into the memories of a forgotten life. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do recommend this movie.