It was with a sense of melancholy that I lowered my ever-widening behind into the seat at Cinema du Parc before the screening of When Marnie Was There. The future, in case you didn’t know, is uncertain for Studio Ghibli, the renowned animation studio that produced such classics as Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro. With the retiring of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, what comes next for the studio is hazy and uncertain, with no new films announced at the time of this writing, and implications looming that When Marnie Was There might just be the final Ghibli film.

Like many North Americans, I discovered Studio Ghibli late in the game. I want to say my first Ghibli film was Mononoke, and not Spirited Away, which served as an introduction to both Miyazaki and Ghibli for many of us here in the West. But it was long ago, and memory is unreliable. No matter where and when Ghibli came into my life, what matters is that it was important. Like so many others, Ghibli showed me what animated films were capable of, perhaps even more so than the great and mighty Pixar, who, by the time Ghibli really caught on in North America, had already been sitting on their throne so long they’d worn a comfortable ass-groove in the upholstery.

Marnie posterGhibli films, and more specifically Miyazaki films, taught me things. They challenged me to understand characters I may not initially like or agree with. They showed me beauty and humor and sorrow. They were an important part of my coming into my own as a film buff – and now it may very well be over. Miyazaki and Takahata have seemingly retired and Miyazaki’s son has proven himself unable to properly follow in his father’s footsteps. Ghibli has employed other directors in the past (and is doing so in the case of Marnie) but thus far, none of them have been able to capture that Ghibli magic.

The spectre of Ghibli’s potential closing hangs over When Marnie Was There. Like an 18th century sailor press-ganged into service, this film has been pushed into the role of Ghibli’s swan song, their coda, their final bow. As such, reviewing it is… Tricky. I’m torn between viewing the film as just another Ghibli movie and viewing it as the FINAL Ghibli movie. My brain keeps ricocheting back and forth between seeing the film on its own merit, free from context, and seeing it in the role its been forced into, and the context that looms over it. In either case, though, the results aren’t good.

When Marnie Was There is the story of Anna, a depressed, socially withdrawn girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle in the country, in the hopes that clean country air will cure her asthma. After having trouble fitting in with the local kids, Anna meets Marnie, a young girl who lives in a mysterious house isolated by marshlands. Anna and Marnie become friends, despite growing evidence that Marnie is not all that she seems, and that strange things are afoot.

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For the first half hour or so, When Marnie Was There completely had me. Having dealt with these problems myself, tales of depression and social withdrawal always strike a chord with me. The quiet, lonely, self-loathing Anna resonated with me as a character, and I was eager to see how the film would treat these issues. But then in prances Marnie, blonde haired and bedecked in lolita fashion (in the Japanese sense, not the Nabokov sense), giggling with every alternate sentence and pulling Anna by the hand into whimsy and vaguely homoerotic bonding that incited giggles from sections of the audience.

When Marnie enters the film, it ceases to be about Anna and her depression and becomes a game of how long it can possibly take Anna to guess that Marnie is obviously not what she appears. How many strange occurrences can she take in stride, how often she can fail to ask the burning questions any sensible person would ask in the situations she’s thrust into.

Rather than driving the story herself, Anna is pulled along through the rest of the narrative by this golden haired doll-girl. They don’t form a friendship: Marnie declares Anna “her precious discovery” and Anna immediately goes along with it. There’s no sense of her coming out of her shell or grappling with the crippling social anxieties she showed a scene before. Marnie just appears and takes over her life, sweeping us from an interesting and nuanced character piece into a sweeping, schmaltzy melodrama capped off by a contrived revelation better suited for a daytime soap.

Marnie insert 2I began to grow frustrated with Anna’s sudden lack of agency or reasoning power, started hating the film for its reliance on sentiment rather than character and intrigue. How is it that meeting Marnie is the catalyst that sparks change in Anna? Was a whimsical blonde who stands on the prows of boats really what was missing? Why does Anna immediately become infatuated with Marnie, and open up to her in a way she hasn’t before?

In Princess Mononoke, you can understand how the introduction of Ashitaka brings change and reform to the world. In Castle in the Sky, you can see how Sheeta and Pazu draw strength from each other. But there’s never any sense of an actual relationship between Anna and Marnie. Marnie seems, quite intentionally at that, to be on an entirely different wavelength from Anna. Her half of the conversation feels pre-recorded, like she could be speaking to anyone. Marnie doesn’t form a bond with Anna, Anna gets caught in Marnie’s wake, sucked along like a piece of arm candy. I got a sense more of the bond and connection between Totoro and Satsuki and Mei, and Totoro didn’t even speak.

And since the relationship between Anna and Marnie is what drives the plot, this and Anna’s stout refusal to get the picture makes the film alternately dull and frustrating. The music soars and tears flow and I feel empty inside, completely uninterested in the characters and their relationship. If anything, I yearn for the days before Marnie flounced into the film and Anna’s emotional turmoil felt like the core of the film.

When I try and view When Marnie Was There as a film in its own right, it comes up as merely harmless. Melodramatic fluff straight out of a dime novel tear-jerker, something Nicholas Sparks would cook up, perhaps. But as the potentially last Ghibli film, all I want to do is stamp When Marnie Was Here into the dust and bury it so that I can go play the previous year’s one-two-punch of emotional and thematic depth (The Wind Rises) and artistic vision (The Tale of Princess Kaguya).

When Marnie Was There‘s worst enemy is its context. If the rumors prove to be untrue and Ghibli rises again to produce more films, this one can join the ranks as a pretty but ultimately toothless B-entry in the studio library. But if history does make this the last Ghibli film, and this was really the last time I’ll ever get to see that blue logo precede a new film, When Marnie Was There is frustrating for how much of a shallow note it ends the Ghibli legacy on.

For a long time I believed, elitist scum that I was, that there are really two kinds of Ghibli movies: the ones Miyazaki himself did, and everything else. But really, I was wrong. There’s the ones Miyazaki did, the Isao Takahata ones, and everything else.

Takahata’s Ghibli movies aren’t really like any other Ghibli films, or any other anime movies in general. They have their own pace, their own mood, their own way of doing things. They’re almost uniformly not the kind of movies I’d recommend for kids, and not just because they’ve been known to involve the firebombing of Kobe and magical animal scrotums.

By the same coin, I think his films are the most likely of Ghibli’s repertoire to have trouble connecting with North American audiences. His latest film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, might just be the best example of this yet, a breathtakingly beautiful movie, but one I can’t shake the feeling won’t quite work for a lot of people.

After a bamboo cutter finds a tiny woman in a bamboo stalk not far from his home, he takes her home and presents the “princess” he has found to his wife. Shortly thereafter, the princess transforms into an infant child that the couple resolve to raise on their own.

Later on, the bamboo cutter finds gold and silks inside bamboo stalks in the same grove he found the girl, and decides that heaven is telling him that the girl must be raised as a true princess in a resplendent home in the city. He takes the girl and his family to Tokyo and she is trained as a lady and finds herself faced with suitors and increasing pressure from her father to enter high society, whether she wishes to or not (she doesn’t).

Princess Kaguya posterThe thing that will strike you about Princess Kaguya right from the start is that it’s just darn pretty. If this movie were the daughter of a wealthy businessman in The Stars My Destination, it would be shut in a windowless room in an undisclosed location for most of its life (shout out to my classic sci-fi peeps).

I’m not sure what you’d call the art style, somewhere between impressionistic and minimalist, modeled after emakimino, Japanese scroll stories and sort of a precursor to comics in a Scott McCloud kind of way. The extreme background will often be a blank white, figures will be minimally detailed, and the whole thing has this extremely hand drawn kind of look to it.

It’s incredibly striking, and a definite deviation from what Ghibli fans would recognize as their usual style. Like the narrative itself, it’s simple, effective, and beautiful in a disarming sort of way.

Speaking of the narrative, we’re in full-on fable/fairy tale mode here, which is where that disarming aspect comes in, and where I start to feel that some people may not be totally able to connect with the film. See, this is old-school fairy tale storytelling here. Characters will develop previously unmentioned superpowers like they were pre-crisis Superman, and the ending….well, I won’t spoil things, but odds are it won’t be the ending you expect, or the one you want.

Overall, it’s pretty melancholic as films go, slow paced and lyrical. Which isn’t a bad thing, by all means. If you can move to this film’s rhythm, it’ll take you on a hell of a dance. But I get the sense a lot of people won’t quite be able to match the tempo, and will end up sitting on the sidelines sipping punch with the chaperones.

For one thing, as I mentioned before, I wouldn’t really recommend it for kids. At least not most kids. If you’ve got an exceptionally patient, attentive, open-minded eight-to-ten year old, they’ll probably be able to watch it without falling asleep or fidgeting the whole time. Which again, is NOT a knock against the film, but against the attention span of the youth these days.

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But I think a lot of grownups are going to have trouble connecting with Princess Kaguya as well, and that’s not because of any fault of them or the film. I think North American audiences have a certain set of ingrained expectations about how fairy tales are supposed to feel and play out, blame Walt Disney if you must, but really it goes further back than that.

They expect clearer resolution, they expect clear cut heroes and villains, and especially these days, they expect it to move faster. Look, I don’t want to say that it’s “too foreign,” but let me put it this way: this definitely is a fable from a different culture, one with a different set of rules than what you’re going to expect coming at it from a North American perspective.

It’s gonna take turns that seem to abrupt to you, throw you sudden curve balls that dial up the culture shock and make it a bit hard to fully connect to the thing. I wouldn’t call it alienating, but I think it’s gonna throw people who aren’t as immersed in Japanese cultural norms when it comes to storytelling in myth and fable for a bit of a loop.

Even more so than Takahata’s other works, I think that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a film I’d recommend more for anime and foreign cinema buffs than the kinds of people I usually direct towards Ghibli films, that being people looking for something to watch with their kids that’s a shade deeper than Disney or Dreamworks fare. And I wanna say for the umpteenth time that that isn’t a mark against the film, I just think it’s playing to a more specific audience than other Ghibli movies.

And that’s ok, we need more movies like that, broad appeal gets dull after a while. Just be forewarned that you’re getting into something a little different.

If you’re firmly a part of this film’s ideal audience, you’re in for a breathtakingly beautiful film. But sort of like Jim Jarmusch or Wes Anderson, I can appreciate that some people might just not be of the right mindset to appreciate what this film has to offer, not because something’s wrong with them, more because they’re walking to a different beat. If it were live action, it would be a Criterion Collection movie, and if you know what that means, there ya go.

I had a bit of trepidation going into From Up on Poppy Hill, the new movie by Goro Miyazaki, roughly the same amount as if I were walking into a minefield or going on a date. The reason for this is that despite being the son of anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, Goro’s last movie, Tales From Earthsea was, and I’m being charitable here, pretty damn bad. But hey, everyone deserves a second chance, I figured, so why not give it a chance?

Well, I’ll tell you why not.

up-on-poppy-hill-posterThe film is a period teen romance/slice of life movie, set in 1960s Yokohama. The main character is Umi, a girl living in her family’s boarding house overlooking the port.

Umi strikes up a friendship and nervous romance with Shun, a member of her school’s journalism club and a key member in a group campaigning to prevent the demolition of the school clubhouse, a cluttered old house full of so many colorful characters and slapdash interior renovations that it was giving me serious flashbacks to the hotel from The Great Muppet Caper. Umi joins the effort to save the clubhouse, called the Quartier Latin by the students for no reason the film gives, and soon gets the other girls from the school to help out, leading to more romance with Shun and the inevitable clean-up montage, which I could feel approaching like the inevitable march of death.

Oh, but there’s a twist, because of course there’s a twist. Honestly I was begging for a twist.

The first act or so is so picturesque, slice-of-life, “look at us all being happy and productive and exchanging furtive glances and sharing bike rides along the coast I hope nothing goes wrong” that the movie might as well also remind us it only has two days left till retirement and a kid on the way. And if I’m going to discuss the movie in any detail there’s gonna have to be some SPOILERS so here ye be warned.

Partway through the film Shun learns that he and Umi are in fact brother and sister, or at least all evidence points to it, putting the kibosh on their romance, unless the film wants to go the Tromeo and Juliet route, but somehow I doubt that. Rather than do the logical thing and tell her right away, Shun opts instead to just ignore her for a while, only telling her when she confronts him about the cold shoulder, something that didn’t exactly endear him to me.

The majority of the second act then is them desperately fighting their incestuous romantic tension. And YES, it’s creepy and uncomfortable, especially since toward they decide “fuck it” and to declare their totally non-platonic love for each other anyway.

Perhaps if it had been handled in a more mature and serious tone, this would have come across better, but the scene where Shun drops this bombshell on Umi is set to this quasi-cheerful, lighthearted piece of music that sounds like something that plays in an elevator, and I literally said aloud “This is entirely the wrong music to set to the scene where your lead couple learn they’re directly related, Goro Miyazaki”.

Now this is probably a cultural thing, and maybe the tone with which the movie handles the whole incest-scare plot isn’t as unsettlingly “off” in Japan. But I’m not in Japan, and from where I’m sitting, the whole thing feels bafflingly mishandled. And no, that one shot of them squeezed together in a cramped elevator didn’t help, either.

Maybe it’d be less easy to harp on this if anything else in the movie really stuck out. Besides the incest-scare plot, when I look back on the movie, I have this distinct memory of nothing really happening.

Oh sure, there are scenes in which people do things, but the film doesn’t have much in the way of tension. The whole plot with the clubhouse gets resolved by a trip to Tokyo and Umi telling a suit how her father died in the Korean war, and even the incest plot is tied up in a quick, easy bow by a boat ride and a chat with a character we’ve never met before.


The characters don’t really grow, or learn anything, and at the end of the movie they’re more or less the same people they were at the start. Sure, they go through some hardships, but every conflict gets taken care of by someone else telling them “oh, it’s fine, you’re all good.”

Fixing up the clubhouse is a fun and easy montage, and every other hurdle they overcome is overcome -for- them with minimal effort on their part. Even after Umi and Shun decide to give in to their feelings despite their shared parentage, that problem gets solved before they have any other significant scenes together. We never see them living with the choice they made or facing the consequences of their actions, they just decide to do it (and no, I don’t mean “do it” they don’t so much as kiss, thank God) just in time for it to turn out to be alright anyway.

Nobody in the film really achieves anything. Even the various kooky clubhouse members have their problems solved by a parade of schoolgirls coming in to spearhead the clean-up initiative.

Everyone has the solution to their problems handed to them, and that’s not interesting, that’s just watching a bunch of people have everything go their way. Nobody grows, nobody makes a difficult choice and deals with the consequences, everything just works out. Nobody makes mistakes, let alone learns from them, or has any kind of character arc. As a result, the ending feels like an unsatisfying conclusion to not so much a story as a series of things that happen.

When From Up on Poppy Hill isn’t uncomfortable, it’s dull. Even without their total lack of growth or any kind of real struggle, the characters all feel one-dimensional. The cloying soundtrack, which often seems to be competing with whatever is happening in the scene with up-tempo Jazz or monstrously inappropriate elevator music, makes the film feel too desperate to come off as charming and fun, like someone from the Neutral Planet from Futurama putting on a floral dress and big straw hat.

But I am quite aware when I am being hornswoggled, Goro Miyazaki, I have my horn swaoggled regularly, and with more skill than this.