Thoughts On: When Marnie Was There - Voicing Conflict


When Marnie Was There - Voicing Conflict

Thoughts On: When Marnie Was There (思い出のマーニ, 2014)

A lonesome girl suffering from asthma visits her relatives in a coastal village where she meets a potential friend.

When Marnie Was There is Studio Ghibli's film last film... for now. In all hope, Miyazaki will come out of retirement yet again as he has implied he will because this is not a film that should bookend Ghibli's filmography, simply for the fact that it is not very good.

Though this is recognised as not the best Ghibli work by many, it has received much praised - praise that I don't think it deserves. When Marnie Was There is a mundane anime melodrama built upon petty foundations and told via bland characters and poor plot strands that are opened and closed in an amateur manner. The best elements of When Marnie Was There, elements of the aesthetic and details of world and character building are all highly derivative of other Ghibli works without matching any of them. It is then very easy to see Spirited Away in the importance given to the tides, which play a role as the dividing substance between the real and the unreal and so come to represent a character's subconscious; The Tale of Princess Kaguya is in the imagery of the moon, which implies an off-world magnetism that draws our character along her journey; The Wind Rises is seemingly visually quoted with so many shots of hills, sky and water; and Only Yesterday is in the thematic exploration of memory and home. When Marnie Was There fails where all of these films succeed precisely because it is wrapped up in a mundane melodrama. This is then essentially about a lonely girl who discovers that she has a rich grandmother who was also lonely as a child. They briefly form a pseudo homosexual and oedipal relationship characterised by no real conflict, only reveals of a backstory that are completely uninteresting by virtue of the fact that the present it is truing to deepen isn't interesting in the first place.

When Marnie Was There is trying to be about loneliness, isolation and abandonment. These are difficult themes to work with because they can so often characterise a protagonist as merely weak. This isn't necessarily because of the themes alone, but because accessing the true depth and conflict within these themes requires storytellers to bring us quite close to characters. And in this sense, conflicts all have a voice that calls out for attention and empathy. Significant emotional and physical conflicts, for example, someone is about to die, or has just had someone they love die, call out to the audience very loudly. Conflicts such as loneliness and abandonment can appear far more trivial than these dire conflicts and so their voice is correspondingly quieter. This is why the audience has to be brought closer to the characters that house them: so we can hear what these conflicts are trying to say. When Marnie Was There does not have the detail, specificity, structure or tone to do this. What's more, its imagery is not powerful enough to enhance the voice of conflict.

If we then compare When Marnie Was There to Grave Of The Fireflies, it pales significantly due to its inability to show the complex humanity in characters via their struggles. And when we compare it to Spirited Away, we will see that it lacks the scope of ideas and symbolic imagery to project and better articulate the quietly speaking voice of the central conflicts. It must then be noted that Spirited Away, just like When Marnie Was There, has rather small-scale conflicts at its heart; it is only about moving to a different place and having to grow up. Whilst difficult, these conflicts are in no way as complex as those presented by Grave Of Fireflies for example. Nonetheless, the conflicts are amplified and complexified by the symbolism and the fact that Chihiro's internal conflicts are put in a relationship with external conflicts. Much like Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away is then about working and sacrificing your time as a means of growing up. There is no such element in When Marnie Was There; a girl gets to wander around an idyllic town, not worrying about school, not getting in trouble for staying out late at night, and never does she even get ill or hurt when passing out in random fields for hours on end. There is always someone there to help her and there is never anyone there to hold her accountable. Almost every character in this film then lacks a spine and has no ability to showcase strength of character or of will. For this, the film is thematically, symbolically and experientially unengaging.

It is highly unfortunate that we now come to the end of the Ghibli Series on the back of such a sour note, but, maybe we'll get a new Ghibli feature in the next two or three years that will give the series a new eneding. That said, I hope you enjoyed the Ghibli series. With each new series I complete I learn an awful lot and feel I am getting better at providing stronger explorations of wider bodies of work for you. There are still some Ghibli films that I feel deserve for more to be written about them, so, this series isn't complete over, but it has been outlined. To end, I'll leave with another thank you for all those that have followed the series. Tell me what you thought of it, or what more you'd like to see down below, and look forward to more series.

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