Since 1985, Studio Ghibli has produced the most consistently magical and iconic slate of any movie studio on the planet. Their name has become a globally understood shorthand for the kind of entertainment that kids should inherit like a birthright. But gripped by financial instability and confronted by the coinciding retirements of co-founders Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro) and Isao Takahata (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), this modestly sized Japanese animation outfit has recently announced that they have no current plans to make another feature. Chief among the many bittersweet pleasures of When Marnie Was There, which is impossible to extricate from its status as the studio’s swan song, is that its virtues confirm what Ghibli stood for, and its insufficiencies (however modest) confirm that it’s time to say goodbye.
Adapted from a 1967 novel of the same name by late British writer Joan G Robinson, When Marnie Was There orients us toward memories of a richer time. It's a gentle seaside melodrama that’s touched with the urgent simplicity of a quintessential final film. (Few movies set on the water have been so focused on their wake.) In true Ghibli fashion, the plot concerns an adolescent girl who’s thrust into a strange new world that challenges her natural solipsism. Anna (Sara Takatsuki) is a 12-year-old orphan who believes she’s a burden on her foster mom, which might explain why she’s always leaving herself out of the impressive sketches she draws of the people around her. After suffering an asthma attack, Anna is sent to spend the the summer with her aunt and uncle, who live in a small village along the shores of Hokkaido. On her first night there, the girl spies a dilapidated mansion on the other side of an inlet that floods during high tide. During the day the house is a crumbling relic from another time, but at night it bursts with the glowing noise of a thousand prewar parties, and a young woman with flowing blonde hair slips out of its front doors. Her name is Marnie.
Ghibli films in which neither Miyazaki nor Takahata’s name appears in the credits are sort of the cinematic equivalent of going to a Wings concert. They’re the byproduct of a singular genius, the pedigree of which is staring you in the face, but the magic just isn’t there in quite the same way. Marnie is magnificent, but it’s not exceptional. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (whose The Secret World of Arrietty was a similarly wonderful second-tier effort), the film harkens back to Takahata’s Only Yesterday more than it does Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and its more fantastical ilk. Gradually – and then with great, tear-jerking force – it illustrates how Marnie’s uncertain place in the world allows Anna to find her own. Save for occasional inflections of garish CG, Marnie is as gorgeously animated as anything its studio has ever made. Nowadays, there’s a perverse opulence to the simplicity of such perfectly handcrafted 2-D details, but their earnestness opens you up, allowing the melodrama of Anna’s maturation to feel as precious as the rediscovery of something you feared lost forever.
How fitting that the last Studio Ghibli film for the foreseeable future is a tender, elegiac story about a young woman who learns the power of drawing (from) the past, and that it cherishes our ability to remember the things that we were powerless to keep. Wistful and stirringly humane, When Marnie Was There isn’t one of Ghibli’s greatest films, but it’s emblematic of their collective greatness. In a way, that’s the most perfect thing it could be.