This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
I am really tempted to call out that this is the second anime within my first ten of these and to undercut the premise. Most of what I watch is not anime. Anime is not so critical to film as to merit 20% of these posts. But today I want to talk about Studio Ghibli, so here is When Marnie Was There.
I recognize that I have two hills to climb, here. The best movie of all time isn’t an anime, right? What’s even the point of this if we aren’t talking about Citizen Kane or The 400 Blows or something? I think you need an open mind, here in paragraph two, and I don’t know that I can make a case for “anime as an artform” if you aren’t willing to take that step. I’m just going to assume you’re willing to come that far. The second hill is the taller one, anyway, and that’s ranking the Studio Ghibli movies.
One thing I find frustrating about the pace of discourse now is that people often assume you are as deep in the subject as they are. This is how you have impassioned responses to things normal people aren’t even aware are positions. You can find yourself watching a YouTube video about how people are wrong about saying people are wrong about being wrong about something. I saw a comment yesterday where someone said they wouldn’t watch anything in black and white and said that people liking old movies were “virtue signaling.” I don’t even know where to start with that one.
I think When Marnie Was There is the best movie Studio Ghibli made because it’s a tougher nut to crack than the others. I think this is a defensible opinion, but I also think people will, maybe rightfully, call that a hipster opinion. I’m going to cut my preamble here, but you’ve got to believe anime is a defensible form of film to even get into the layer where you probably don’t agree with my niche opinion. I’m assuming you’re willing to hear me out.
For most people, it’s My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. They’re all masterpieces, but nearly everything Studio Ghibli touches turns to gold. I keep coming back to When Marnie Was There and until my last watch, I really couldn’t tell you why. Totoro is the greatest children’s story ever told, but it’s simplistic. I’m not going to condemn it because that’s insane, but everything works out, more or less, because magic is real. You don’t feel that when you watch it, which is why it’s so transcendent. I’ve seen Totoro a half-dozen times and every time it wins me over, but I don’t find myself thinking about it after I see it. It’s an experience.
When Marnie Was There sticks with me. It’s the story of Anna, a young girl with asthma who has to go to the countryside to heal and chill out. Her doctor says that it’s all stress-based, which seems to be the inciting conflict of a hundred different stories like this. What sets this apart is the unspoken truth about Anna’s depression. She’s a foster child and she has resentment for her parents even in death, and she’s willing to even say that. A lot of these stories ask you to feel that about their character, but few are willing to take this additional step.
Anna is hard to like. In the few interactions we see, she calls the only person who extends friendship to her a “fat pig” and runs away. It’s a brash way to make a main character’s pain feel real, and Anna is tough to root for until she gets lost in fantasy. She spends less time in the “real” world than many characters in Ghibli movies and we get to know her less as a result. She’s only in “the big city” for ten minutes and she’s only in the countryside town for one scene. She spends almost all of When Marnie Was There in the fantastical marsh house where the mysterious Marnie lives.
When Marnie Was There plays with expectations. I don’t want to spoil the turn, but it isn’t the romance that it sets up. You’re led to believe that Marnie and Anna are both outsiders in different worlds and they fall in love in the way that teenagers fall in love. They hold hands and have picnics and it’s young love, how we all remember it. That isn’t what’s happening here, but those emotions drive much of what you see until they don’t.
You can’t talk about an anime without talking about the art style. Marnie and Anna have bright blue eyes, to the degree where other characters comment on how striking this is. That’s a tell, and one I can’t get into without ruining it, but it’s interesting that it is commented on at all. Hayao Miyazaki, the iconic head of Studio Ghibli, said that Marnie’s appearance on promotional material was “cheesy” and that using a blonde, blue-eyed girl to promote the story was “outdated.” The original story was moved to Japan but the fantastical character remains very clearly white, to the point where other characters talk about how unique it is.
Marnie and Anna are mirrors of each other and they need to look similar, at least in some fashion, for that to work. There’s been some solid work done by other writers that I won’t crib from, but it is a very weird detail in the middle of the movie that stands out more and more on rewatches. Why move the setting but leave the characters unchanged? It’s clearly intentional, but it never feels that way. Studio Ghibli films are marked by the attention to detail, down to the beautiful animation in quotidian Japan, but the best explanation I can come up with here is that it’s supposed to be distracting. It’s a clue, I guess, to the ultimate mystery, but then you wonder about Miyazaki’s comments. It is very strange and you could chalk this up to part of the whimsy, but your mileage may vary.
Art aside, the story is slow and curious. We keep getting led down paths that end up with our main character passing out or getting lost, which is fitting for the story at the heart of the thing. It’s not a straight line, but that’s part of the point. Anna has to change for this to matter, and some of that is more complicated than learning to be nice to strangers. It’s about learning to forgive and to understand that other people’s lives had details that you never get to see.
Or do you? You, personally, won’t get to see them, but Anna does. There are two reveals, one to the audience and one to Anna, which leads to a climax that then gets explained again. The second one doesn’t have the narrative punch of the first one, but even on a fourth watch I found it really cathartic. There’s something in When Marnie Was There that really winds you up and lets it all out at the end, which is storytelling done the right way. It never feels like it’s going anywhere, especially with all of the wandering and secondary characters essentially guessing and getting it wrong. It’s only once you get there that you realize this was the story all along.
So what makes it the best Studio Ghibli movie? I think you have a strong case if you disagree with me, but the payoff is what does it for me. Other worlds are more fantastical (Spirited Away) and other characters are more interesting (Kiki’s Delivery Service) but I think this one is more satisfying. The journey is the same as so many other stories the studio has told, but I’m so much happier for this character for going through it. Anna needs this, really needs this, and that ending is what you crave when you watch a story like this one.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Targets is a personal favorite but it unravels at the end in a way that I don’t find satisfying. When Marnie Was There is the exact opposite. Both movies make some weird choices but are the better for the aesthetic they cultivate. I think When Marnie Was There is a better story, but these two are really different and I might change this answer depending on the day.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, I still think Badlands holds on to this crown. I think there’s a strong case for a few other Studio Ghibli movies being better than this one even though this is my personal favorite. I know it’s the style now to go hard and to demand your opinion is the only one, but When Marnie Was There doesn’t even make a strong case for why one of the main characters is a blonde British girl, so I can’t in good faith say it’s better than a masterpiece. It’s an incredible story and it will really overtake you if you let it, but it’s not perfect. It doesn’t need to be.
You can watch When Marnie Was There on HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.