The effervescent, ineffably beautiful films to have come out of Studio Ghibli, have so often found a compatible, triumphant balance between enchantment, and a deft execution of naturalism, dealing with human themes in such a quaint, fantastical manner – while never detracting from the profundity of the narrative at hand. Though for all of the magic in the likes of Spirited Away, it’s the more human titles, such as Grave of the Fireflies, which are the most poignant – and their latest endeavour epitomises that notion, as a rich, emotional tale that won’t fail to move you.
With the master Hayao Miyazaki now retired, the task of capturing that sense of imagination, in this instance, has been bestowed upon director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and it’s a challenge he’s risen to. We delve into the life of teenager Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) who is sent away to the picturesque countryside to help her overcome a recent bout of depression. It’s there she meets Marnie (Kiernan Shipka), at a decrepit mansion across the sea, and the pair fall in to a close, intense friendship, that could prove to be exactly what Anna needs to reconnect with the beauty in her life.
When comparing this title to Ghibli’s preceding endeavour The Tale of Princess Kaguya, already evident in the animation style is that this is less fantastical and surreal, without the blurred edges and dreamlike quality, instead sketched in a way that is reflecting of real life. It’s all the subtleties and attention to detail that enriches the viewing too, adding to the overall experience. It’s very small, seemingly innocuous matters, such as when there’s a character eating, and when posed with a question, she has to finish chewing before answering, covering her mouth when responding. Something that means nothing, but it’s what we do in real life. Seconds later she’s serving herself salad and accidentally drops a tomato from her chopsticks. Again, it has no bearing on the narrative but is emblematic of the studio’s inclination for perfection – which they strive for, and more often than not, achieve.
What Ghibli have also always managed to achieve, is to tackle and study themes that are seldom seen in features made for all the family. To deal with grief at a young age is a tentpole of Disney animations we’ve all grown up – but how often are they told through the eyes of a female protagonist suffering from depression? It’s so vital we have characters like Anna, who can hopefully help other youngsters who feel similar to realise they aren’t the only ones who may feel this way, and any such connection to the role can be so beneficial. The relationship between Anna and Marnie is such a touching one too, and so spiritual, as you realise that Marnie needs Anna just as much as Anna needs her. She’s so important to Anna’a state of mind too, just to have somebody who wants to spend time with her, who loves her, doing wonders for her self-worth.
The word is, When Marnie Was There will be the final deviation into the world of Ghibli for a good long while, if not for good. After Miyazaki called time on his exceptional carer it felt like the right time, and the correct thing to do. But having sat – and balled, persistently – through this latest production, now, we’re not quite so sure if it is after all.