With the recent retirement of Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, the studio has taken a "brief pause" to consider its future, if any. Essentially the Japanese Disney (but arguably more elegant in its storytelling and artistry), Studio Ghibli produced the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, among many others. Now, When Marnie Was There could be the end of the road, and if so, it's a typically beautiful, fittingly wistful goodbye.
Based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There introduces us to shy, anxious, 12-year-old asthmatic foster child Anna Sasaki (Sara Takatsuki; Hailee Steinfeld in the English dub), who sits sketching in a public park—or perhaps not quite in it. "In this world, there's an invisible magic circle," she narrates."There's inside and outside. These people are inside. And I'm outside." Anna's demonstrable depression (“I’m ugly and stupid. That’s why I hate myself”) and flare-ups of anxiety exacerbate her asthma, leading her doctor and foster mother Yoriko (Nanako Matsushima; Geena Davis) to agree she needs a summertime change of scenery.
And so it is that Anna relocates from urban Sapporo to the quaint seaside village of Kushiro. On the bright side, Kushiro offers a fresh start, a change of pace and scenery. Installed with a cheery aunt and uncle that only seem to put Anna's depression into starker relief, Anna begins habitually to visit The Marsh House, a beautiful, empty manse that turns out to be occupied by Marnie (Kasumi Arimura; Kiernan Shipka), a blue-eyed girl with blond locks curling at the ends. Anna gets to know her new friend through a question-and-answer game and romps around the shore; the girls pledge to be each other's "precious secret," and though Marnie clasps Anna's hand and insists, "It's not a dream," their friendship likewise seems to good to be true.
Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of the likewise fine The Secret World of Arrietty, helms this latest gentle, sensitive, unhurried tale from Studio Ghibli (and rumors suggest he could be the "heir" to Miyazaki if the studio continues). As always, Ghibli excels not only at natural beauty, touched with supernatural flourishes, but also at acute psychological perceptiveness, reflected in a theme song—here, "Fine On the Outside," written and performed by Priscilla Ahn ("I like to eat in school by myself anyways/So I'll just stay right here/Right here, right here, right here/And I'll be fine on the outside...").
The rigorous storytelling, culminating in a potent twist, comes second to the almost hypnotic mood and aching, empathy-stoking feeling, especially for those of any age who can relate to the talented but emotionally stunted Anna. That said, Marnie will provide aid and comfort particularly to those young viewers in the throes of "growing pains," and with any luck, Ghibli will double down on this mission for decades to come.