There are rumours that this may be the last ever feature to emerge from the revered Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. Let’s hope not. Over the past few decades the studio has created some of the most beautiful, exhilaratingly imaginative, lovingly detailed animated films ever made.
Still, if WMWT is their final offering, it can’t quite be claimed that Ghibli is going out at the top of its game: Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s film never quite attains the soaring narrative scope of Ghibli cofounder Hayao Miyazaki’s finest (Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away), nor does it plumb the tragic depths of Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies.
Even so, it’s a warm, highly appealing film, full of quiet grace, and executed with all the unforced charm and painstaking visual subtlety we expect from Ghibli. Like Yonebayashi’s previous film Arrietty (based on Mary Norton’s classic The Borrowers), it’s adapted from an English young-adult novel – in this case by Joan G. Robinson. Voiced by Sara Takatsuki in the subtitled version and Hailee Steinfeld in the English dub, Anna’s a shy 12-year-old who suffers from asthma and is convinced – partly because she’s an orphan, living with foster parents – that she doesn’t belong. “In this world,” she muses, “there’s an invisible magic circle. There’s inside, and outside. And I’m outside.”
Worried about her health and her depressed state of mind, Anna’s foster mother sends her off to stay with relatives in a coastal village. There, in a seemingly derelict marshland mansion, she meets a girl dressed in old-fashioned clothes called Marnie (Kasumi Arimura/Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka). They become friends – but Marnie keeps mysteriously vanishing. Is she a ghost? A time traveller? Or an imaginary companion dreamt up by a lonely girl?
The mood, for the most part gently wistful, now and then turns darker: a storm sequence in a ruined silo even gets scary. But for all her lack of self-confidence, there’s a resilience to Anna that tells us she’ll come through; she’s a Ghibli heroine, after all, and the studio’s at its best with spunky female characters.
As ever with Ghibli, the glowing immediacy of the images is what enchants. Wind on water, a train seen from way overhead snaking through the countryside – there are vivid, tactile details to dwell on in every frame. Anna’s journey to self-discovery and acceptance, as she gradually discovers what it is that links her to Marnie, is traced with sympathy but shuns sentimentality. Yonebayashi’s film may not give us Ghibli at the height of its powers, but there’s an emotional depth and maturity to it that leaves most conventional animation work looking trivial by comparison.