When Marnie Was There was Studio Ghibli’s final film before its ongoing hiatus. It’s structured like a queer coming-of-age story until the very end.
Between 1986 and 2014, Studio Ghibli released 21 classic films. Not one of these featured an openly queer character. This, of course, isn’t a critique of the quality of any of these films. In fact, many of the films never showed any romantic relationships of any kind, opting more for themes of friendship and platonic love over romantic love.
When Marnie Was There, the studio’s final feature film before its extended production hiatus (the studio will return with new films from Hayao and Goro Miyazaki in the new few years), looked like it could be an exception. It had undeniably homoerotic themes throughout that appeared to be setting up a possible love story between two young girls. However, this potential subtext is eventually squashed when you understand the actual relationship dynamics between the two characters.
The Queer Undertones
The story focuses on a young girl name Anna who has serious uncertainties about her identity. She doesn’t know who she is due to her earliest memories being in foster care. She doesn’t remember her real parents, other than knowing they died in a car accident. She spends a summer at her foster mother’s relative house, where she finds a mysterious old mansion, within which she meets the blonde-haired spectral figure of Marnie.
The two immediately become close, with Marnie possessing a strong bond with Anna. As the movie continues, Marnie helps Anna come to terms with who she is as a person, their bonds becoming stronger and stronger. It’s clear there is something other-worldly about Marnie even early on, since she emerges in an abandoned mansion and disappears without explanation. The two become immediately close, though the nature of their relationship isn’t clear until the very end of the film, which might lead viewers on their first watch to wonder “Is Anna realizing she’s gay?”
Marnie and Anna are very physically intimate throughout the film, often holding hands and holding each other in comforting ways. Even the poster of the film show them with hands held back-to-back, a position that, were they members of the opposite gender, would immediately indicate to audiences that they’d be the romantic pair of this film. They have more physical contact than Sophie and Howl, Ashitaka and San or Chihiro and Haku. Even if nothing came of the budding relationship in terms of romantic attraction, there are enough undertones and implications to at least create subtext.
The subtext is quashed when it’s revealed Marnie is the ghost of Anna’s grandmother, who took care of Anna briefly after her parents died in the car accident before passing on. The spirit following Anna is a forever representation of her grandmother’s love for her. While this is a moving and fitting end to the story, it puts a serious damper on any potential queer reading of the film for obvious reasons.
Why It Wasn’t Gay
In situations like this, it’s vital to separate expectations from the reality of how the film was made. This is not to say that Japan is too conservative to release a movie featuring queer characters or even that Ghibli as a studio is collectively too conservative to feature LGBTQA characters. Former Miyazaki collaborator Hideaki Anno created the explicitly queer Kaworu Negisa in his series Neon Genesis Evangelion, while When Marnie Was There director Hiromasa Yonebayashi worked on shows like Serial Experiments Lain and Monster, both of which have queer-coding throughout.
The reason why When Marnie Was There never had a shot at being an LGBTQA story is because it’s based on a mainstream British children’s book by author Joan G. Robinson, published in 1967. British censors at the time would never allow the unedited release of a book, let alone a children’s book, that promoted positive portrayal of LGBTQA people.
The film does take liberties with the book’s plot. Other popular books written in the 50s and 60s, including A Separate Peace by John Knowles, have had adaptations that play up potential queer coding. The difference with When Marnie Was There is that, once you know the ending, it completely alters the type of film this is. On first watch, When Marnie Was There appears to be a story about Anna learning about her identity in the present sense. Upon rewatch, it’s clear the film is about Anna learning who she was leading up to now in order to know who she is going forward. The entire lens of the narrative if fixated on a different aspect of Anna’s life. It’s just coincidental that the story’s structure otherwise resembles a romantic coming-of-age story.