How ‘When Marnie Was There’ Captures Adolescent Depression

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.

When Marnie Was There depression body image
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.

When Marnie Was There depression body image 2
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_.

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