Familiar Fantasy: Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Miyazaki Hayao retiring from making films only to pick up his pencil once again is a running joke in animation, but just a couple of years ago the end of Studio Ghibli felt all too real, as a trio of announcements landed one after another. First, Miyazaki declared his retirement following the release of The Wind Rises. Then, Takahata suggested that The Tale of Princess Kaguya could be his last. Finally, Studio Ghibli itself announced that they would end film production. It looked to be not just the end of works by Miyazaki and Takahata, the two titanic figures that defined Japanese animation for filmgoers around the world, but also the end two the far-reaching, culture-crossing mainstream works that characterize Studio Ghibli.

However, while the studio itself had shut down, the people who made up the staff of Ghibli were still around, trained in the Ghibli style. Led by director Yonebayashi Hiromasa, a number of them for founded Studio Ponoc with the clear desire to keep making Ghibli-style films even without the brand name. Their first work is Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a film which is technically and artistically solid but seems to serve more as a message, that the “Ghibli film” can survive even without its most famous leaders.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower ticks all of the basic boxes. Based on a European children’s book? Check. Plucky young female protagonist? Check. Vibrant environments? Fluid animation? Sense of wonder? Check, check, check. Little is technically or narratively wrong with the film, but it seems almost cut from the same cloth as Star Wars: The Force Awakens; both works seem concerned with reassuring audiences that they’re going to get what they expect.

On that level, Mary and the Witch’s Flower delivers. It’s a film I’d easily recommend to those who enjoy Ghibli films, and while I consider the against-formula The Wind Rises to be my favorite Miyazaki work, I understand that the legacy of Kiki, Nausicaa, and Sheeta is important. As much as I value innovation in anime, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, especially when no one else had even tried to step up to the Ghibli plate, for better or worse.

One observation I had was that Mary and the Witch’s Flower lacked some of the minute polish of Miyazaki’s films—the man is famous for his obsessive attention to detail, only slowing down once age caught up with him. I don’t think this difference is a deal breaker, and if it spared the animators a little bit in terms of health and wellbeing, that’d be just fine. The film is beautiful regardless, though I think that the setting of The Secret World of Arrietty—Yonebayashi’s previous film—does a better job of showing off the Ghibli/Ponoc staff’s chops.

As proof that Studio Ponoc can deliver what they’re selling, Mary and the Witch’s Flower succeeds. Now, I want to see their The Last Jedi.

Searching for Something: When Marnie Was There

This film is part of the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival

Studio Ghibli is by far the most famous and well-regarded Japanese animation studio, but over the past two years Ghibli has been defined instead by a sense of finality. Director and co-founder Miyazaki Hayao, known for the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, has declared the challengingly self-critical The Wind Rises to be his last feature-length film. Though not saying anything to that degree, his fellow co-founder, the 79-year-old director Takahata Isao (Grave of the Fireflies), might very well end his career with the artistically beautiful Tale of the Princess Kaguya. For a long time people have been speculating as to what would happen once Studio Ghibli lose Miyazaki and Takahata, leading people to ask who might be Miyazaki’s successor. The problem, of course, is that “the next Miyazaki” is a weighty title that no should be burdened with carrying.

Nevertheless, this is perhaps the challenge that faces director Yonebayashi Hiromasa and his latest film, When Marnie Was There, a book adaptation that has the distinction of being the last Studio Ghibli film in production, at least for the time being. However, while Yonebayashi’s films for Ghibli undoubtedly utilize the “Ghibli look” that is derived from Miyazaki’s personal drawing style, what becomes clear upon watching Marnie (as well as Yonebayashi’s previous film The Borrower Arrietty) is that Yonebayashi’s directorial style is unmistakably distinct compared to the veterans who originally founded and defined the studio.

When Marnie Was There centers around a 12-year-old Japanese girl named Anna, an adopted child who suffers from asthma and perpetually feels like an outsider among both her classmates and her family. Her adopted mother, concerned for her well-being, decides to send Anna to live in the countryside, where the fresh air should be good for her. However, even in a different environment, Anna still continues to feel alone, until she comes across an old, mysterious mansion and a blonde girl named Marnie. She immediately connects to Marnie, while also feeling that there’s something oddly familiar about her.

When I think about both Marnie and how it feels different compared to other Ghibli films, the first word that comes to mind is “haunting.” This is not to say that the film is dark or depressing, and though weighty in its own way, it also feels different from something like Grave of the Fireflies or even Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Much like Arrietty, I find that the film, though basking in its gorgeously rendered environment and all of the little details that go into it, is much more introspective. The narrative conflict is less a manifestation of our inner struggles (as so many films and anime are), and more just a straight-up look at Anna’s own emotions. While Miyazaki cast Anno Hideaki, director of Neon Genesis Evangelion, in the starring role of The Wind Rises, it’s Marnie that feels almost like a Ghibli take on some of the themes of Evangelion. Anna’s somber worldview and her initial resignation towards her lack of sense of belonging make clear that her circumstances are emotionally complex, made all the more difficult by the trouble she has communicating with others.

It wasn’t until the end of the film that I came to realize what it was Anna was searching for, and though I assume this was fully intended given the mysterious air surrounding Marnie and Anna’s relationship, I had jumped to numerous erroneous conclusions while watching. Perhaps it’s my own experience watching other anime, but the friendship between Anna and Marnie appeared to be so intimate that I wondered if Anna and Marnie’s difficulty fitting it might come from the repression of lesbian sexual desires, now let loose through a time-space paradox. I wondered if Studio Ghibli would be so daring, and when taken individually I think these scenes can still evoke that sort of impression, but ultimately it’s nothing so bold. That certainly doesn’t make it a worse movie as a result, though it leaves me to consider what would happen if a studio as renowned and with such international presence as Ghibli indeed made an animated movie with a lesbian protagonist.

Overall, Marnie fits into the rough mold of a Ghibli film, with its attention to environment and space and its story of a young girl learning about herself and about life in general, but it really stands on its own by speaking to that feeling of not being able to quite fit in, and having the solution amount to more than just gaining confidence. Whether Yonebayashi continues with Ghibli or some other studio, I’m looking forward to what he does next.

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