‘Tears will flow, unless you’re some kind of monster’ – MacDara Conroy on When Marnie Was There

The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Studio Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura caused something of a furore this week with his, well, unenlightened comments about women in animation during a Guardian interview with director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. According to Nishimura, men make more suitable project leads for the renowned anime studio’s films because women “tend to be more realistic”, while men are “more idealistic – and fantasy films need that idealistic approach.” One can only imagine he lost his marbles for a moment and it completely escaped his mind how three of Ghibli’s biggest fantasy hits of recent years were based on works written by women.

Such sexist ideas also run counter to the notion that the majority of Studio Ghibli’s films, and really all of those for which they’re best known, contain nuanced portrayals of female protagonists in various permutations of the coming-of-age story. The way Yonebayashi puts it, though, that might be a practical choice more than anything: if his central character were male, he’d “probably put too much emotion into it”.

He’s speaking of When Marnie Was There, his second film as a director for Ghibli after two decades in the trenches of some of the company’s best loved films, from the breakthrough Princess Mononoke onwards. His first effort was Arrietty, an adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, and his latest is another retelling of a British children’s story, based on the novel by Joan G Robinson. It’s much less of a fantasy tale than the usual Ghibli fare, however. We’re really talking hints of magical realism here as Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki in the original and Hailee Steinfeld in the English dub), a desperately lonely 12-year-old recuperating in a seaside town after an asthma attack, escapes from life’s pains in the joyful embrace of Marnie (Kasumi Arimura; Kiernan Shipka), a mysterious blonde girl who appears as if out of her dreams.

It’s funny how Yonebayashi talks about “too much emotion”, as When Marnie Was There is one of Ghibli’s biggest tearjerkers yet. (I say yet, though it’s purported to be the no-really-we-mean-it final in-house production by the storied studio.) In spite of that wilful distance between the director (and co-writer) and his main protagonist, it’s still an unflinchingly honest portrait of a young girl’s sadness. Anna is self-centred and self-loathing, in that heightened, melodramatic cusp-of-teenhood way, but it’s not hard to look past the rudeness and hyperbole to witness a young person in pain and confusion, and feel what she feels. Maybe it takes an introvert to understand, like the gruff fisherman Toichi with whom she builds an almost wordless friendship. Tears will flow, unless you’re some kind of monster.

What it also is, to some extent, is the story of a budding romance between two young women, with the head-rush of excitement that entails, and it’s one surprisingly free of judgement or expectation. Though the story does shy away from it as the tale twists towards its (not so) surprising revelations, it’s still unusual to see this kind of relationship on screen, and in an animated film no less. Not to diminish the aforementioned comments by its producer, but you’d be hard-pressed to find such progressiveness in contemporary Hollywood fare, as honest as the likes of Pixar’s Inside Out are proclaimed to be.

In the visual department, it almost goes without saying that When Marnie Was There is a typically beautiful Ghibli production, even as many scenes are rendered with a down-to-earth, almost drab realism, free of embellishment. Beyond the fantasies of Marnie’s extravagant life, the home of Anna’s eccentric relations is about as quirky as it gets, though even that has an utterly believable, homely charm. Small, almost throwaway touches like a wooden carved owl with googly eyes contribute real substance in the whole.

Certainly some might scoff at the absence of conspicuous visual thrills or delights, but it fits perfectly well with the more grounded dramas that have always been a part of the studio’s canon. It’s not meant to be a spectacle. When Marnie Was There a simple, beguiling story of a young woman learning who she is, a story that just happens to be animated. It’s also the kind of film that, on Nishimura’s terms, would’ve been just the thing for a female director. The irony isn’t lost on me.

When Marnie Was There opens Friday June 10th at Dublin’s Light House Cinema as part of its Studio Ghibli Forever season