This post includes a brief plot summary, an analysis and an explanation about the ending of When Marnie Was There (2014). Beware of spoilers.
When Marnie Was There (Novel)
What if a single encounter could unravel the mysteries of one’s existence? “When Marnie Was There” is a masterpiece by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, produced by the legendary Studio Ghibli. The 2014 animated drama invites the audience into a mesmerizing journey of friendship and identity.
The story told in “When Marnie Was There” intertwines reality with fantasy, slowly unravelling the mystery behind the past of the two female leads.
Due to her health issues, Anna Sasaki’s foster parents send her to the countryside. While wandering around, Anna spots a mansion by the lake. The process of getting there was easy, but leaving was more difficult because of the rising tide. Fortunately for Anna, an old fisherman appears and takes her back to the shore.
Apparently, the mansion used to be inhabited by some wealthy foreigners. That same night, Anna dreams about seeing a blonde girl. Then an unfortunate episode leads Anna back to the mansion. There she meets the girl of her dreams, Marnie, and they become friends.
As the story unravels, Anna learns the truth about Marnie. She is actually her grandmother! So, Marnie’s childhood was actually quite unfortunate. Despite coming from an affluent family, her parents were never around, leaving her in the care of some really abusive maids. However, at the time, she could always rely on the support of a boy named Kazuhiko.
Marnie would eventually marry Kazuhiko. The happy couple had a daughter named Emily. Sadly for Marnie, Kazuhiko passed away before his time. His death had a great impact on Marnie’s mental health. Unable to take care of her daughter, Marnie sends Emily to boarding school. The latter decides to cut ties with her mother and runs away.
Years later, Emily would also become a mother herself. She gave birth to a little girl. Nonetheless, one day, a car accident took them away. After they died, Marnie offered to take care of her granddaughter. But also, old Marnie would eventually meet her end. Since there was no one next to kin, the little girl went to foster care.
Anna’s foster mother, Yoriko, arrives to take her back home. She shows her a photograph of the mansion. Then, Anna finally connects the dots: she is Emily’s daughter and Marnie’s granddaughter. Yoriko and Anna clear out their past misunderstandings and move on.
The ending of “When Marnie Was There” shows Anna making peace with her past and bidding farewell to her new friends. And then, she sees someone at the mansion, Marnie, who is waving goodbye.
Both Anna and Marnie are dealing with their own traumas and insecurities. But their friendship allows them to heal from their pain.
Our protagonist, Anna, is an introvert struggling with her own identity. She knows very little about her biological parents. Anna knows that they died in a car accident, yet she bears great feelings of resentment towards them for “leaving her”.
Anna’s abandonment issues are worsened by her own misunderstandings about her foster parents. In the beginning, Anna thought they only wanted her for monetary gain. The foster parents receive money from the government to take care of Anna. But her perspective eventually changes because of Marnie.
Unlike Anna, Marnie never had parents. They were alive, but they were never present. Due to the lack of parenting role models in Marnie’s life, she never learned how to be a parent. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising to learn that she kind of abandoned her kid while mourning her husband’s death.
Until her death, Marnie always felt great regret for not being present for Emily when she needed her. Therefore, after her daughter’s passing, Marnie tried to “atone” for her past actions by taking care of her granddaughter, Anna. Sadly, she was already too old then, and passed away before Anna could have memories of them two together.
When Marnie Was There (DVD)
“When Marnie Was There” concludes with a “happy ending”. The truth gave Marnie an opportunity to redeem herself and set Anna “free”.
In a way, meeting each other again was a way to bring closure to their relationship. Ever since growing up, Anna has felt a void in her life. Even with very loving foster parents, Anna always felt inadequate and unwanted. However, her friendship with Marnie broke her a little bit from that shell.
Towards the end, Anna is a much happier kid because she finally got to know a little bit more about her biological family and what really happened to them: her mother Emily and grandmother Marnie. Knowing the truth behind their deaths brought her peace. Anna no longer feels unwanted, as she was loved by both when they were alive.
The ambiguous narrative of the film invites the viewer to decide what is real and what is not.
As mentioned before, “When Marnie Was There” is a tale that blends reality with spiritual and mystical elements. Having said that, whether Anna really met Marnie or if their chance encounter was a product of her imagination is up to the viewer to decide. Nonetheless, there is strong evidence throughout the film pointing out that Marnie is “real”.
First, the old lady, Hisako, told Anna that she once knew a girl who looked exactly like Marnie, pointing to the girl that Anna has in her sketches. Another proof that Marnie is not a product of Anna’s imagination is the diary. She experienced everything in that diary before she read it. Therefore, Marnie is real, and Anna saw her spirit.
“When Marnie Was There” is without a doubt one of the most beautiful stories that I’ve seen in a while. It’s a simple yet captivating tale that explores profound themes such as loneliness, regret, and redemption.
The plot twist was original, for sure. Marnie is a very charming character, but there’s something off about her. This assumption leads the viewers to assume right from the bat that she’s not real, in other words, “human”. However, the plot twist revealed itself to be much better than anyone was expecting.
Although “When Marnie Was There” is an anime, it’s not really made for children but rather for people who have lived a childhood. An audience that can understand what it’s like to be a child dealing with adult problems. In addition, it was refreshing to see an anime that doesn’t shy away from certain difficult topics, such as abuse, neglect and resentment.
As always, the animation from Studio Ghibli is sublime, and “When Marnie Was There” is on par with their previous productions. However, the music made the engaging story even better, it really elevated the quality of the film. Also, the ending song “Fine On The Outside” by Priscilla Ahn? A real tear-jerker.