Anna Sasaki encounters Marnie five times. But it only takes a first glimpse of Marnie through the lit window of the spectacular marsh house for Anna to become captivated.
Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, The Secret World of Arrietty) opens to Anna back in Sapporo suffering one of many anxiety-induced asthma attacks. She is isolated from her peers and has shut herself off from her worried foster mother. So Anna is sent to stay the summer with her foster mother’s relatives, the Oiwa family, in the countryside for her health.
While there, Anna meets the mysterious Marnie, who lives in the idyllic mansion situated across the salt marsh.
The pair first meet when Anna is running away from a dispute with another girl at the Tanabata Festival. Fascinated with each other, they become quick friends in secret, sharing a friendship which ultimately leads them to challenge Marnie’s fears from a past traumatic experience and together enter the abandoned grain silo through a torrential storm.
The story resolves soon after with a reconciliation between the parting Anna and Marnie. And throughout this limited stint, Anna becomes obsessed with the enigmatic Marnie. Marnie was a light for Anna, offering her attention like no one else had, and then was herself in return idolized by Anna as this perfect girl. Marnie shined bright and warm but still just outside of Anna’s grasp: her Stars and Moon.
The Stars and The Moon is the phraseology I’m using to describe a specific character archetype and the related, repeated tropes. The stars and the moon are gorgeous, shining heavenly bodies which sit steady in the sky. They garner all of our attention and wonder but remain just slightly out of reach, in both magnitude and mystery (I’d hardly call Neil Armstrong’s “One Small Step” any sort of conquering of the moon).
There is a character archetype which evokes these same feelings in their story’s protagonist. This is a character after whom the hero longs, and she clearly reciprocates some of these affections, but due to some pre-existing condition of the world or a series of extenuating circumstances, she cannot commit herself to the forlorn hero and remains distant.
This character is usually the primary love interest of the protagonist. My core examples of this type are Ilsa (Casablanca), Denna (The Kingkiller Chronicles), and Lady Brett Ashley (The Sun Also Rises) (see: article), each sought after by their respective protagonist men (Rick Blaine, Kvothe, and Jake Barnes, respectively).
These protagonists are all adult men in some desperate or existential struggle for love. These heroes are all situated in exile from the final moments of their tragic arcs.
Anna is a pubescent or pre-pubescent girl and yet experiences a very parallel relationship with Marnie.
Is Anna fundamentally any different from Rick Blaine? Is Marnie just another flighty Ilsa?
When Marnie Was There primarily tells a coming of age story. Tension, Separation, Peace. Anna feels like she is up against a wall, struggling to reconcile her own personal feelings and her relationship with her foster mother. Amidst this, she is invited into the fantastical world that is Marnie. And through her adventures with Marnie, Anna experiences forgiveness: both receiving from Marnie and the formerly unrelenting world and giving to her foster mother and the misunderstood world.
Ghibli’s more iconic Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki) is a good parallel for the coming of age arc.
Chihiro is a child moving to a new and unknown place, accompanied by parents who seem not even to attempt to understand her struggles. And at the peak of this, she is introduced to the fantastical world of the folklore-driven bathhouse, separated from what she knew of reality.
Chihiro’s journey helps her to learn about herself, come into her own, and have the strength to not be susceptible to the harsh and unpredictable buffets of the world. She comes back and experiences a newfound peace with her parents and her life in a new place.
What makes Marnie unique from our other Stars and Moons?
Ilsa and Denna draw much of their mystery and intrigue simply from how their respective stories are told. Heroes Rick and Kvothe are in charge of narration, chronicling the tumultuous periods of their lives, World War II and an orphaned adolescence in a magical world. Ilsa and Denna enter the fray unharmed and immune to the ravages of Rick and Kvothe’s internal lives.
The audience gets little more than a peek into the inner lives of Ilsa and Denna, and their actions without explicit motivations appear increasingly inconsistent with the world around them. To the protagonist caught up in the ways of the world, these Stars and Moons offer an alien charm which is captivating to the man caught unawares.
Marnie offers something different. She engages Anna.
Marnie spends much of her limited presence interested in getting to know Anna, as well as opening up about her own private and inner life. Their first full evening spent together is comprised primarily of the two rowing throughout and exploring the marsh, going back and forth asking each other questions, an openness that only increases throughout the story.
Marnie demonstrates free agency.
We are offered a look into Marnie’s inner life, including her thoughts, feelings, and motivations. She is undergoing her own growth and overcoming her own obstacles in parallel with Anna. When Marnie Was There follows the story of Marnie nearly as closely as it does the story of Anna. The Kingkiller Chronicles are all about Kvothe, not Denna. Marnie acts with her own subjectivity that draws her into the foreground as a character and past being relegated to a background fancy of Anna’s.
Marnie maintains a ‘ghost’ status.
This arc may not be unique among our Stars and Moons, but Marnie follows it to completion. She acts directly as a ghost character (whether literally or as narrative device, you decide) who remains stuck in a time loop at the marsh house until the regrets of her life can be resolved.
This regret is from the parallel abandoning of Anna: both in Marnie’s previous life as Anna’s grandmother (again, implied, not explicit), passing away and abandoning the infant Anna; and in Marnie’s current life, abandoning Anna during the storm at the silo. This instigates the final stage of Anna’s coming of age arc: forgiveness. The final confrontation between them in Anna’s dream ends with the two forgiving each other; peace is struck, and Marnie can ‘pass on,’ concluding her own arc as a ghost character.
I brought up previously that heroes Rick, Kvothe, and Jake are all situated precariously near the conclusion to the tragic arc. Anna, on the other hand, makes her run through the coming of age story.
The two stories, tragedy and coming of age, look remarkably similar in their development. The two begin in a static state, usually predicated by some lie or ignorance, which is upset when the hero is thrown into an unknown and changing situation, and the hero returns with a new status and new understanding of the world.
Anna struggles futilely in her relationships with others and herself; she meets and goes on adventures with the incredible Marnie; she learns about herself through Marnie and their experiences together and returns to her family at peace.
Rick Blaine (see: article) goes through a torrid love affair with Ilsa, and everything seems perfect; Ilsa stands him up as he’s getting on the train; and she returns when he is in Casablanca, to reveal that she had been married, and the situation ultimately ends up where the two cannot be together—the conflict is resolved.
Does Anna’s relationship with Marnie ever more closely reflect the tragic arc? Or is each parallel stage of the progressions distinct in a way that makes them fundamentally different?
The middle portion of the coming of age story tells of a child who is invited to visit a fantasy world, who finds acceptance there and in parallel, acceptance in her life back home. Marnie invites Anna to come into her life, and Anna reciprocates with open mind and heart to actively become part of this world.
The tragic hero is dethroned. He is cast into exile from the seeming natural order of his life. Rick is physically escaping Ilsa and Paris when he isolates himself in Casablanca and when he later sends Ilsa away on a plane to Portugal with Laszlow. When something revolutionary enters his world, his reconciliation with it becomes a passive one, to try and outrun some uncontrollable force.
The finales of the tragedy and coming of age story diverge, as well. The tragedy represents the end point in the hero’s life. The tragic hero built his house on the edge of a cliff, and the hand of fate pushes it over into the sea below. The child coming of age is just beginning her life, and the resolution offered is a stepping stone to the rest of her life.
Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley are both aware of their chemistry and feelings for one another, but after a lifetime, they have come to an admission that they cannot be together. The Sun Also Rises follows Jake in a state of wandering, regret, and retrospection.
Anna and Marnie leave each other with mutual forgiveness. And Anna returns with optimism from her summer with the Oiwa family, and she chooses now to renew and cultivate her relationships with her foster mother and with her marsh mansion resident and painter friends Sayaka and Hisako. This is just the beginning.
Marnie is an angel to Anna. She is also human. She is also ‘ghost.’ And she is also the object of tragic affection.
Anna, however, is not a tragic hero. When Marnie Was There tells a different story, one of discovery and forgiveness. It tells the story of a fallen star and a girl coming of age who paints that star back in the sky. But Marnie is the moon, too, and she revolves around the earth in tandem.
The Stars and the Moon.