How ‘When Marnie Was There’ Captures Adolescent Depression

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When Marnie Was There (2014) dir. Hiromasa Yonebayash. Studio Ghibli.

by Megan Robinson | November 12, 2020

Studio Ghibli films, especially those written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, focus on the innocence and wonder of childhood. Miyazaki was particularly concerned in creating complex characters for young women to identify with, especially with Chihiro in Spirited Away (2001) and Setsuki and Mei in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the struggles and triumphs of childhood through a feminine lens define the most seminal work of the studio. On the precipice of a hiatus, Ghibli gave us When Marnie Was There (2014), directed by Hiromasa Yonebashi. 

Marnie marks itself as a film chasing the ghost of its past, an eerie film to end an era of some of the best animated films of all time, films that define joy and imagination in youth. Yet the film also defines itself as a heavier look at youth, a childhood marred by stifled emotions and a struggle to create. Marnie captures the joys of youth, sure, but it’s anchored not by celebration but depression. 

Marnie opens on Anna Sasaki (Sara Takatsuki) suffering from an asthma attack at school, and Anna’s adopted mom notices the mental illness her daughter is struggling with, but can’t place it: “She’s probably a hermit at school… She won’t show her emotions. She used to be more expressive.” This, coupled with Anna keeping to herself at school and putting all her focus into a sketch rather than interacting with her peers, makes it clear Anna is likely suffering from depression, without the language or tools to name it. Even worse, we find out in this opening that she’s only 12 years old and far too young to have a fuller understanding of her mental health. By recommendation by her doctor, Anna is sent on a vacation, staying with her aunt and uncle to rejuvenate.

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When Marnie Was There

Anna’s stay with her relatives is a mess from the beginning, not because of a failure to engage but rather a simple lack of understanding on everyone’s part. Aunt and Uncle Oiwa are friendly, inviting, and warm. They feed Anna well with their own grown food and encourage her to have her space and enjoy the fresh, clean air. They make an environment that’s meant to enrich and empower, giving her independence yet still passionate care. An earnest attempt by the Oiwa’s to have Anna make a friend at a festival is futile, as the girls around her question her ethnic background (we learn Anna is Japanese and white) and Anna erupts, calling one girl a “fat pig.” Even this doesn’t upset the Oiwa’s, as they try to comfort and understand her. Even with this comfort, Anna feels awkward around them, becoming far more curious by the abandoned mansion in town.

This mansion houses Marnie (Kasumi Arimura), a young girl who may or may not be a phantom haunting the house. Her appearance in a window strikes Anna, as she had been told the house was completely empty, and her curiosity compels her to search on her own. The tides prove chaotic and strong, but Anna and Marnie’s first meeting is electric and heartfelt. Both young girls just want a friend, adventure, love. We learn Marnie is the child of rich parents who rarely see her, living under the care of her harsh grandmother and vile maids. Anna, by contrast, suspects her adopted parents raise her to receive government payments, fearing they only pretend to love her. In this common ground of perceived familial apathy, the two find each other. 

Another person cannot cure depression, plain and simple. But in Marnie, Anna finds a listening ear, someone willing to ease her out of her comfort zone, and just talk with her. Marnie has no obligation to, no ulterior motive, she’s just someone equally in need of a friend. Marnie’s extroverted nature provides a wonderful compliment to Anna’s own introverted personality. Anna spends any time away from Marnie by drawing; making wonderful scenic sketches that reflect beauty around her, drawing the homes and playgrounds and seas, each brimming with people that are absent from her sketches. These sketches though, isolate her. With Marnie, she has a friend, but she also grows dependent on her, never wanting to be apart. Depression manifests in ways that keep us from enjoying what we once loved, and when we find something that gives us life, we hold on to it tight, for fear of letting go.

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When Marnie Was There

Anna is never able to pinpoint what her struggles are or how she feels, why she isolates or draws. When delivering mail early on in the film, she actively runs away at the sight of other people approaching her. She actively thinks of her hatred of festivals, and her wish for the traditional Japanese wish tree, used to mark Tanabata or the Star Festival, is simple: “I wish for a normal life everyday.” What does “normal” mean to Anna? Is she currently abnormal? She can barely explain before her ethnicity is called into question, and an element of her desire is clear: whatever “normal” is, Anna isn’t.

Mental illness makes you feel so self-isolated, so insecure, that all you long for is normalcy. The big reveal of the film is that Marnie is the ghost of Anna’s biological grandmother, placing Anna into her memories to form a bond the two never got to have. One would think the supernatural element would frighten Anna, but in reality it gives her normalcy. Marnie is an escape from the depression Anna struggles with, fighting back against how her depression has manifested so far in the film in the form of detachment and angry outbursts. 

Anna’s emotionless as described by her mother, her outburst at the festival, her mixed ethnicity, her avoidance of people mark her as “the other”; her entire identity causes concern and scorn from others, but the listening ear of Marnie, and eventually Sayaka (Hana Sugisaki), whose family is moving into the mansion and whom is trying to discover who Marnie is herself, provides Anna with the love she feels she’s missing.

How can you describe how miserable you feel to your own mother? That you think she doesn’t really love you because she’s paid to raise you? How do you tell anyone that all you want is to be normal? No 12-year old is equipped with the tools to vocalize these feelings; this is the kind of mental illness that afflicts young people who can’t even put into words what they’re feeling. All Anna wants is to be alone until she finds Marnie. Marnie rejuvenates her, but the depression will linger without proper care. When Anna’s mom confesses to the payments she receives by the film’s end, Anna accepts her mother’s honesty and love with her mother’s heartfelt line: “But believe me. Whether or not we receive money, it doesn’t change our love for you.” Anna is slow to hug her mom back, though she now knows that she is loved.

Love is a powerful tool to use when coping with mental illness. It’s something Anna longs for, strives for, until she realizes she is already surrounded by love. It isn’t enough to cure, but when you don’t even know what’s wrong with you, it can be the only thing that curbs your sadness. Anna’s tears are always stopped by love, with hugs and affirmation and warmth. Children everywhere suffer from depression before they even hear and define the word, and many don’t have a support system that will encourage their growth. Education is the second step one must take towards healing, and the loving web of others. The first step is love from others that want to help you heal.

Megan Robinson is a communications student studying in New York. Between watching movies, doing homework, writing film criticism, and annoying her friends she wonders how she has time to sleep. You can follow her on Twitter @hughjmungo_.

The Roads to Maturity and Self-Discovery in ‘Whisper of the Heart’

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Whisper of the Heart (1995) dir. Yoshifumi Kondō. Studio Ghibli.

by Miguel Galang | September 21, 2020

Do you remember what you were like back in high school? I’ll give you a moment’s breath to recover from whatever mortifying flashbacks you may have experienced. Apologies too for putting you through certain trauma so early on. But while we do tend to disassociate from our younger selves for fear of revisiting past embarrassments, I think once in a while it’s good to look back on the roads that led us to where we are right now; the touch-and-go choices we made, the silly dreams we wrestled with — they serve as battle scars, dusty photo albums of a time where life was as simple as being carefree and naïve in the summer of our adolescence. Whisper of the Heart (1995), a Studio Ghibli gem, perfectly encapsulates the fickleness of our youth and our desire to find unique roads that will lead to places of maturity and self-discovery.

“Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong,” Olivia Newton-John croons as her cover of John Denver’s country classic preludes the film. Upon initial viewing, I was curious as to what this specific American song was doing in a Japanese animated feature. Luckily, we aren’t kept on our toes for too long as we meet our main girl, fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima (Yōko Honna). Shizuku has been translating the Denver hit for her friends, writing her own rendition of the tune cleverly titled “Concrete Roads,” which is less heartfelt tribute than it is a keen observation. She is aware of the “concrete roads everywhere” that mantle her hometown along with the “cut down trees” and “filled in valleys,” all brought about by a modernizing Tokyo. For someone as young as Shizuku to make these observations means that she too is feeling the rush of the changing times: especially since it’s her last summer before she prepares for high school entrance exams, and later on, her decisions for the future. Plagued with uncertainty about who she wants to be and what she wants to do with her life, in typical Ghiblian fashion, she unknowingly finds the answers by following a cat.

In her spontaneous cat-stalking, Shizuku meets a cast of new characters and their different niches in life: Shiro (Keiju Kobayashi), a reflective old man and his treasured antique shop; Seiji (Issey Takahashi), her classmate and a curious boy with a crafter’s hands; and a feline nobleman called the Baron (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi), who would eventually become a pivotal character in Shizuku’s journey. As she spends more time in their company, she begins to awaken the sleeping language of her heart; the intuitive dreams that have been whispering to her all along.

Shizuku has been surrounded by ambitious people for most of her young life. In the Tsukishima household alone, you have a mother finishing her graduate studies, an older sister declaring independence as she moves out of the house, and perhaps the most ambitious of them all, a father who rules the world of books (see: librarian). In Shizuku’s eyes, her father represents the culmination of fulfilled ambition: to be surrounded by the world’s greatest stories and hoping that someday, her story will be among those seated on the shelves. There’s even Seiji, who dreams of becoming a master violin-maker in Italy. But what about Shizuku’s ambitions? What role does she serve in this big small world? Inspired by those around her, and her love of books, Shizuku realizes she was born to be a storyteller. Her special craft was already in full display when she used poetry to translate John Denver into the more relatable “Concrete Roads.” It was just a matter of discovering this dream for herself, and yielding to that ambition. Like a figurative lightbulb, the realization illuminates the lost forests that have canopied her mind, and beneath all the undergrowth, a new road familiarizes: The road to maturity and self-discovery.

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Whisper of the Heart (1995)

While summer was the fantasy she relished through the hundreds of books she’s read, the moment is fleeting compared to what the reality has in store for her. Shizuku was destined to write her own stories, to be the heroine of her story. Consumed with this new-found passion and motivation, she conjures up a fantasy starring herself and the Baron, who is in search of his lost love. As for Shizuku’s own lost love, the search looks like staying up until the wee hours of the morning, trying to find the missing words to her chapters; It looks like sacrificing her academic performance and arguing with her parents about going to high school, because the road was once lost, but now it is found and it is good!

There is something euphoric to finally knowing yourself a little better, especially when you’re young and growing up can feel like a race: If you don’t know how to run, you’re never going to get anywhere. We tend to rush things because we think that’s the default route towards greatness. For Shizuku, the race meant finishing her story in time for Seiji’s return from Italy and proving to herself that she is good, that she is worthy of her newfound talent. But it’s a devastating piece of truth to be good at the one thing you know is true to you, and still be not good enough for it. “Wanting isn’t enough. I have to learn more,” she realizes after turning in the pages of her first story to the old man in the antique shop. She learns that to reach the great skies of her imagination, she has to be all the more prepared for its altitudes. It’s a lesson many of us could have learned, when we were young: “You’ve shown me the rough stone you’ve just cut out of the rock,” The old man reassures her, a nugget of hope. “There’s no need to rush now. Take your time and polish it.”

In my imaginary epilogue, Shizuku is all grown up and a master storyteller. She wasn’t an overnight success — she went through the hell that is high school first, then later, she got that college degree. Post-graduate studies may be a bit of a stretch, but hey, her mom did it. Nonetheless, whatever canon she ends up in, she’ll always have the concrete roads of her home that paved the way for her storytelling journey; she’ll always have the patience gained from trusting the process, and the importance of polishing. 

As I journeyed with Shizuku throughout the film, I can’t help but be thrown back into my own journey of maturity and self-discovery in high school. Trying to figure out who I wanted to be among the crowded hallways filled with ambitious people without losing myself in the process. In retrospect, I wish I could’ve taken certain roads instead, made better decisions, because maybe then I could’ve been spared the drama and heartbreak — but that’s cheating the cycle of growing up. I’ve learned that you can’t really blame yourself for being young and foolish no matter how much we despise ourselves in the past. When you’re young, nobody expects you to know everything, even though deep down our pride says otherwise, and that’s just us being passionate idealists. We take such huge leaps of faith and fall the hardest because we know what we’re made of and know what we’re capable of, even if our best laid plans didn’t exactly translate into full blown pictures. Nevertheless, the roads we took will always be there, like an old memory stashed away in our drawers, to remind us of how far we’ve gone and how great we’ve grown since we, like Shizuku, listened to the whispers of our hearts.

Miguel is a writer and a journalism undergrad at the University of Santo Tomas. He’s a relatively chill guy except when it comes to film and Taylor Swift — he goes all-out. You can follow him on Twitter @miguelmgalang.