“I hate myself.”
That’s an unusual statement coming from the hero of an animated film, let alone in the first two minutes. But twelve-year-old orphan Anna (Sara Takatsuki), the protagonist of Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s lovely anime When Marnie Was There, has no illusions about her place in the world: There’s an invisible magic circle containing everyone else (i.e., all the seemingly normal, non-anhedonic people), and she’s forever on the outside. And as far as she’s concerned, she deserves it.
The young girl who’s been orphaned or otherwise experienced parental trauma is an anime staple — in 2014 alone, there was the well-received A Letter to Momo and the underpraised Patema Inverted — and there’s usually something about their turmoil that also feeds their inner strength. But Anna lacks her predecessors’ pluck. She’s the PG-rated equivalent of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, scarred by the past and lacking the mechanisms to cope with the world, and convinced that she’s ugly, stupid, moody, and unpleasant. One male reviewer has agreed with that self-assessment, blaming the film’s so-so box office performance in Japan on Anna’s sense of isolation making her difficult to relate to, and her being “incredibly bitchy.” Which, ugh, and though its main character begins in a darker place than usual (thus making her journey into the light all the more satisfying), When Marnie Was There is unmistakably a Studio Ghibli picture: bright and frequently joyous in spite of Anna’s pain, and never less than impeccably animated.
Prone to asthmatic episodes that double as panic attacks, city girl Anna is sent by her kindly foster parents to live with her aunt and uncle by the sea for the summer. She doesn’t fare much better in this marshy paradise until she meets a young girl named Marnie (Kasumi Arimura). Marnie connects with Anna like nobody else ever has, and Anna begins to realize that she’s worthy not only of being loved, but of being loved unconditionally. Unfortunately, all evidence points to Marnie being either a ghost, a figment of Anna’s damaged psyche, or possibly both.
Anna being a Caucasian in Japan is never a plot point, and the closest the movie comes to acknowledging that detail is when a Japanese girl compliments Anna’s blue eyes, referring to the color as “really pretty” and “foreign” — which, coincidentally or not, leads to one of Anna’s biggest, darkest outbursts. (Pro tip for talking to people who struggle with being different: Making them self-conscious about their alienness never helps.)
Like the Southern Gothic genre it resembles (Joan G. Robinson’s source book was set in Virginia), When Marnie Was There keeps its emotions, both dark and light, big and right there on the surface. Anna being a short-haired tomboy who discovers love with a pretty blonde femme makes it tempting to read a queer subtext, but that’s far too reductive. At its most beautiful, Yonebayashi’s picture is about the magic of female friendship at its purest, including intimate acts such as hand-holding, cuddling, waltzing, and unguarded declarations of emotion, as Anna discovers the paradox of the strength that can be gained only by surrendering to vulnerability.
With the retirement of producer Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli has put production on hold; When Marnie Was There may well be its last feature film. If so, it’s a strong note to leave on.