It’s hard to forgive. As self-focused creatures, we want to believe in a just world, one that will repay our pain with some equal kindness or justice. When we are wronged by others, when we are abandoned or let down, we don’t want to simply accept that pain as the cost of engagement. We want others to understand how much they’ve hurt us, and to give us back the hurt they’ve caused. Forgiveness means acknowledging that things aren’t fair, and that sometimes we must give more than we take, and that embracing others in spite of pain is a constant wager of sacrifice, a road on which the friction of disappointment may one day wear down the strength of our love.
Anna begins When Marnie Was There with her love all worn away. Her parents and grandmother died when she was young, and as she tells her mysterious confidant Marnie, sometimes she feels like she “can’t forgive them for leaving me all alone.” Anna doesn’t see any relief from her foster parents, either; having learned they receive subsidies from the government for raising her, she can’t trust their love, and has become so distant that her foster mother sends her to the country in hopes that a new atmosphere might do her good. Anna blames all of these caretakers for abandoning or disappointing her, but her anger brings her no happiness – in fact, it only hurts her more. Holding grudges can feel like a kind of justice, but it eats away at us far more surely than it brings any peace. Anna can see the emptiness of the blame inside her, and so she hates herself most of all.
Anna’s unhappiness isolates her, and When Marnie Was There is very, very good at portraying isolation. Almost too good, in fact; its small details expressing how it feels to not trust your own actions, or how a fear of social interaction expresses itself in every moment, feel almost too familiar to bear. How Anna maintains a bright smile and polite demeanor when meeting her relatives in the country, but that face slips into the exhaustion of a tired actor alone. How a potential meeting with peers at a public place requires a complex physical negotiation, where you avoid eye contact and potentially rearrange your itinerary to avoid being engaged. The angry indignity of being tied into an upcoming social event, and the shame when it plays out just as badly as you’d imagined. Being invited to a party and then standing by the fireplace, all the more alone for all the laughing bodies around you.
If When Marnie Was There was wholly about Anna’s isolation, it’d be a difficult movie to watch. Fortunately, the film is also filled with beautiful things. The backgrounds and character animation are the most obvious of these – this is a Ghibli film, and so its world feels alive and full of wonder. Anna’s countryside escape is rendered in both beautiful shots of the harbor town and intimate views of pastoral interiors. The home of Anna’s aunt and uncle might have been one of my favorite “characters” of the film; littered with carved statues and stained glass and countless tiny trinkets, it has a warm personality perfectly fitting its two endlessly charitable occupants. And when Anna goes walking in search of scenes to draw (her one passion, and in fact the only way she can confidently communicate), she stumbles across the film’s other treasure – the distant Marsh House, and the strange girl who lives inside.
It takes a third of the film’s runtime to introduce the story’s title character, a blonde-haired girl seemingly transported from the Edwardian era. She lives in the Marsh House, a grand European home that at high tide is separated from Anna by the flow of the water. The first time Anna visits this home, she’s stranded by the tides, echoing Spirited Away – but fantastical details are much gentler in this film, and so she’s swiftly rescued by a nice old man on a fishing boat. Marnie’s existence maintains an equally light fantastical touch; it’s clear to both Anna and the audience that she doesn’t exist in the way of a normal person, but this isn’t fantasy, it’s magical realism, and so that only matters insofar as it affects their friendship.
Marnie becomes a safety net for Anna, the shoulders she can embrace when no one else is there for her. The two develop a relationship not out of common interests, but of mere presence. Each of them are isolated in their own lives, each of them need arms to fall into. We only learn the truth of Anna’s situation when she feels comfortable telling Marnie, and in the tightness of her immediate attachment, we see how much love she’s been holding back from the world. After all her betrayal, Anna craves a love she can trust, no matter its form. While the Marsh House’s new tenant works to solve the “mystery” of Marnie’s existence, Anna simply states that “I just want to be able to help her.”
In the end, the mystery only exists to reflect those central questions – how we forgive others for leaving or disappointing us, and how we say goodbye. After revealing all her own secrets and coming to trust Marnie entirely, Anna is abandoned by her friend. The two occupy inconsistently aligned realities, and so when Anna leads Marnie to the old silo to face her fears, they end up “abandoning” each other, stranded in different versions of the same world. Like the death of someone who loves you, the ways these two fall in and out of each other’s lives is never intended, but hurts just the same. But Marnie discovers this truth far sooner than Anna – from their second meeting onward, Marnie becomes used to Anna’s disappearances, and forgives her for them, and embraces her just as tightly.
It’s up to Anna to reciprocate this forgiveness, that acceptance of loss that seems so unfair, but is so fundamental to all our relationships. As the uncertain tides shift land beneath her, she listens to Marnie’s apology, as Marnie tells her that after all this, she’ll now have to go away forever. And though Anna is still burdened with anger, she says the words she never could before: “of course I forgive you. I love you.” How can she not forgive Marnie, or her lost parents, or her foster mother? Their loss and betrayals hurt because she loved them, and she needed them. They hurt her because she invested something of herself in them – but that pain of separation is worth it a thousand times over, and every new embrace is precious and worth the taking. When Marnie Was There is a film composed of these tearful embraces, of hugging someone tight and knowing they won’t always be there.
It’s fitting, then, that When Marnie Was There is for now Studio Ghibli’s final film. There’s no avoiding that when watching it; even castaway lines like “this used to be a busy town, until the highway came through” are reflective of traditions that can no longer sustain themselves, and must inevitably pass. Ghibli were anime’s indisputable best ambassadors, creating films anyone could appreciate. But their system was unsustainable, far too top-heavy and reliant on Miyazaki’s name and presence. The system that made them so consistently great also doomed them – Miyazaki’s overwhelming style and presence meant they bled the creative, impassioned talent that could have led a second wave of Ghibli creations, and now directors like Mamoru Hosoda work at other studios while Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Ghibli’s two principal directors, both fade into retirement. What remains is a studio of incredibly talented, well-trained, salaried animators making “Miyazaki-esque” films without his brand name to ensure they get wide exposure. Ghibli artists make beautiful backgrounds for CG television series, a heartbreaking sign of the times. And now Ghibli is undergoing a “restructuring,” and the future of a studio that brought joy to millions is frighteningly uncertain.
When Marnie Was There doesn’t ease the pain of this passing. Pain is pain – it’s something we live with, it’s something we endure, it’s not something we “solve” through narrative convenience. But the film does seem almost like a request for forgiveness, made with full understanding of the pain that implies. These movies were worth loving, and that things slip into the past does not take away from the love that was. That love was worth it. It always is.
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