By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and the California Theatre in Berkeley.
Hand-drawn animation stalwarts Studio Ghibli shut down production late August following the retirement of guiding light Hiyao Miyazaki. Therefore, When Marnie Was There may be the last feature film we see under the Ghibli label in a while, possibly ever.
A delicately personal and cozily mythic story of an asthmatic, self-loathing girl named Anna who gets shipped off to the country for her health, When Marnie Was There is less fantastical than Ghibli masterpieces like Spirited Away or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, but the animation is just as gorgeous and the storytelling just as intricate.
Anna imagines the world as an “invisible circle” with herself on the outside, observing that her relatives’ cottage “smells like a stranger’s house,” and yet the abandoned mansion across the lake “feels familiar.” She comes to befriend a lonely blonde girl that lives there named Marnie, who appears to Anna as equal parts ghost, imaginary friend, and memory.
The most Ghibli-esque touch here is the way that the natural and spirit worlds effortlessly commingle, like overlapping cells in the same frame. At one point, Anna is rescued from the rising tides by a burly, silent, white-haired boatman, and we get the brief impression that he is a supernatural apparition. A few scenes later, we see that he is just another social outcast bullied by schoolkids.
It’s a heartbreaking and beautiful touch in a film about acceptance and forgiveness.