I’ll start by saying I had no idea what this movie was about when I decided to go see it after work on Saturday. I was just in the mood to see a movie and since I’ve seen most of the mainstream ones that I’ve wanted to see, I checked the listing at the nearest theater that shows mainly independent movies and foreign films to see if there might be anything worth seeing. Nothing really caught my eye, but then I noticed the movie poster for something that looked very Hayao Miyazaki.
I was right, to a degree. When Marnie Was There is a Studio Ghibli work, and knowing that, I was instantly sold. I caught the matinee.
Following this section comes some significant spoilers for the film, so if you haven’t seen it and plan to see it, and/or you would rather not know the specific details for this movie, then I would scroll all the way to the bottom if all you’re looking for is whether or not I think this one is worth watching in theaters.
Now because I knew nothing about this movie going in, I also didn’t know anything about the surrounding controversy that this film is pro-LGBT. After having seen it, I can definitely see why people would think it is pro-LGBT, and whether or not that was actually Studio Ghibli’s intention is up for debate, since I don’t think any official statement on the matter was ever released. At least, not to my knowledge, anyway. I really don’t think it is supposed to be an LGBT movie, especially given who Marnie actually turns out to be, because then this would also be a pro-incest movie (more on that in a minute), but there is no denying that there is plenty there to give off such implications. I know a few people in the theater seemed surprised because that truly seemed to be the direction in which this film was going in, and it could still be interpreted in that way, despite finding out some things at the end of the film. Some of the translations also make the movie seem more geared in that direction, although, as a Korean-American who’s watched a lot of inaccurately subtitled Korean dramas and films, it’s highly likely things are either lost in translation or there’s no accurate equivalent for what’s being expressed. Regardless, if movies with these sort of things make you squirm, then you might not feel so comfortable watching this film. In any case, this is also a very different movie in a lot of ways, coming from Ghibli.
The whole story is basically as follows:
Anna is a foster child who suffers from asthma attacks. Her foster mother decides that it’s best for her to spend some time in the countryside for the summer, where the air is cleaner, to recover, and so Anna goes to stay with relatives. She used to be a very happy child, but became embittered when she somehow accidentally discovered that her foster parents were receiving money for having taken her in, and she questions her foster parents’ love for her. (This is why she calls her foster mother “Auntie,” instead of calling her “mother.”) While in the countryside, she discovers a marsh house that seems very familiar to her for some reason, but she can’t place her finger on it at first. The marsh house turns out to be enchanted, and houses a spirit named Marnie, whom Anna befriends.
Through several twists and turns, we eventually discover that Marnie is actually Anna’s grandmother. This explains why she knows who Anna is when they first meet, and why she wants to know everything about Anna. We also later find out that Marnie married her childhood sweetheart, and they have one daughter together, Emily (Anna’s biological mother). When her husband dies, Marnie is unable to properly care for Emily, which causes Emily to grow unforgiving towards Marnie. Emily eventually marries Anna’s biological father and they have Anna; however, shortly thereafter they die in a car accident, leaving Anna behind. Marnie initially takes Anna in and cares for her, but within a year she passes away, seemingly unable to recover from her heartbreak over losing Emily.
Once I learned this, I saw the interactions between Marnie and Anna in a totally different light. Suddenly, translations such as “I am desperate to learn everything about you” and scenes like the one where Marnie dances with a (seemingly jealous) Anna or where Marnie helps teach Anna how to row a boat make a lot more sense. In a second viewing, I think I would be more likely to interpret these scenes as a grandmother wanting to get to know the grandchild she left behind, and choosing the form of her younger self to do so, so she can seem more relatable to Anna. Some of the lines also make more sense once knowing the context, like Marnie asking Anna for her forgiveness for leaving her. Although it is a bit of a double entendre, because Marnie did leave Anna in the silo, but she also left Anna by dying shortly after taking her in as a little girl.
What I appreciated the most about this movie was how beautiful the animations were. And Marnie really stands out in particular as a memorable character, in terms of design. The scenery was also quite breathtaking, and made me wish I could see the place the animation was set in real life.
Final Thoughts: I really think this was beautifully done, and I most certainly enjoyed it. It might not be as “classic” as some of other Studio Ghibli’s works, but I think it’s worth at least watching once in theaters or viewing it as a rental.