I cannot claim to be a Studio Ghibli aficionado, but I do L ove the film ‘Spirited Away’, and certainly intend to watch many more works from this giant of animation. It is very sad that this could well be the last film from the studio and the last overseen by Hayao Miyazaki, who has retired, resulting in the studio being put on an indefinite hiatus. However, if this does turn out to be their final film, it will be a fitting swansong
Based on an English novel from the 1960s, set in the fens, the story has been transposed to a similarly marshy area of Japan and updated to the modern day. A troubled and lonely thirteen year old girl named Anna is suffering from asthma attacks, although they are really more like anxiety or panic attacks. She is a foster child and feels isolated from her peers – she looks different to them and has a love of sketching, instead of mobile phones and gossiping about boys. Anna’s foster mother (who Anna pointedly calls “Auntie”) decides to send her to some relatives in the country, surrounded by water, in the hope it may improve her asthma. Anna is quickly drawn to a mysterious Marsh House that appears empty and can be cut off at high tide (a classic horror trope, like Eel Marsh House in ‘The Woman in Black’). The film now enters a dream-like state, where it is often unclear what is reality and what is fantasy. Anna frequently falls asleep outdoors and can become surrounded by mist, so events are given an ethereal quality. Of course, the stunning animation only enhances this feeling – the setting is beautiful, and with painting being one of the themes of the film, every frame could pass as a work of art.
Even though the Marsh House appears dilapidated, as though it has been empty for years, Anna befriends a girl who seems to live there. This is Marnie – a blonde haired, blue eyed girl who could be a Victorian china doll – a complete physical contrast to the insecure Anna, with her short dark hair and tomboyish clothes. They quickly become incredibly close, and Anna starts to build her day around high tide, when she can row out and meet her new best friend. Although Anna is envious of Marnie and her seemingly perfect, glamorous life in this big house, Marnie confesses that she is being neglected by her parents and abused by her nanny and the maids. Things come to a head on a dark and stormy night (of course), in a mysterious, empty silo on top of a hill. This scene genuinely had me guessing as to the motivations of various characters, including a young male suitor to Marnie.
Although this film, and I believe nearly all Studio Ghibli films, had a U certificate, I am unsure as to how much they are really for children. Anna is a character – very much akin to Lyra in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – who is pubescent and on the cusp of becoming a teenager, one step closer to adulthood. I can remember feeling similarly angry and confused about everything and everyone at this age, but I feel an audience under the age of 12 would struggle with some of the themes in this film. There were some children in the showing I attended, including two girls whispering eagerly to each other throughout. They were intrigued by the ghostly elements of the story and were certainly engaged, but this film definitely has emotional depths I think younger children would not comprehend.
There is a pervading sense of melancholy in this film, but you cannot help but be swept up in its stunning beauty. It was a totally immersive experience, like dipping your head into a watercolour painting and swimming about in it for two hours. The story was heart breaking, but uplifting, and the animation was incredible. I am definitely glad that I (finally) managed to catch this film on a big screen and I’m very sad it may be the last Ghibli. We are lucky to have had Miyazaki and his talented team of artists, making such high quality animation for so long. Sayonara and Arigatou to Studio Ghibli.