Lesbian Love Is At The Heart Of This Animated Classic From Studio Ghibli

The queer read on Studio Ghibli's "When Marnie Was There."

“I hate myself.”

So begins the incredibly uncanny animated parable of queer childhood, When Marnie Was There.

studio ghibli

We’ve all had the experience of seeing queer subtext in straight movies—and often wondering whether we’re just imagining things or projecting or own gay vision onto something that isn’t actually there. This Japanese adaptation of the 1967 British children’s book of the same name is truly mind-blowing in the overtness of its queer romance between a young girl and her mysterious new female friend.

Brought to the screen by Hayao Miyazaki’s legendary Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There came out in theaters in 2014. As the mother of two daughters I have seen pretty much every Studio Ghibli movie multiple times—masterpieces of children’s cinema like Howl’s Moving Castle, My Friend Totoro, and that one with the raccoons and their magical expanding scrotums. (I’m completely serious—if you haven’t seen Pom Poko go find it right now and prepare to be amazed.) The kids have gotten older, though. The last one we saw in theatrical release, Miyazaki’s Oscar nominated The Wind Rises, was back in 2013. When the theatrical release of Marnie happened the following year neither Hazel (now a 19-year-old college freshman) nor Sylvie (14 -year-old high school freshman) was interested.

When I finally got around to watching it last month (by myself on Blu-ray, since like most Studio Ghibli films it is not on digital and is only available on disc) I was amazed to discover a film packed with endless proclamations of love between the two young female main characters. When the super-dykey looking Anna (voiced in the U.S. release by Hailee Steinfeld) is sent off to the countryside to live with a whimsical pair of foster parents, she spends her time roaming the rural landscape and discovers a mysterious old house at the seashore where she meets the very beautiful, very blonde and very femme-y titular character, Marnie (voiced by Kiernan Shipka, aka Mad Men’s Sally Draper), with whom she becomes instantly infatuated.
 

GKIDS
 
“You’re my precious secret. I’ve never told anyone about you and I never will,” Anna proclaims in dulcet closet-y tones to Marnie as the two clasp hands in Marnie’s boat, basking in the moonlight before Marnie decides to give Anna a rowing lesson, straddling her from behind. In the next scene the girls dance together on the patio of Marnie’s opulent mansion with the girls pressing their bodies together and Marnie commanding Anna to follow her lead. “Don’t tell anyone our precious secret,” she repeats.

The heavily romantic dialogue exchanges continue throughout: “I missed you. I called for you and in my heart I shouted,” says Anna.

“I love you more than any girl I’ve ever known,” returns Marnie.

Imagine how exciting it must be for all those proto-lesbian youngsters seeing this movie and hearing exchanges like this (the Common Sense Media rating suggests it is appropriate for kids ages 9 and up. I heartily agree).
 

GKIDS
 
Eventually it becomes clear that the film is blending the real and the imaginary, and that perhaps Marnie is in fact a figment of Anna’s imagination. It seems the answer to the mystery of it all might be found in the phallic brick silo where ghosts are said to live. Courageously venturing to the silo, the girls end up trapped there one dark and stormy night until, abandoned by Marnie, Anna eventually emerges—running home in the rain in a scene where she literally looks like the legendary lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel (of Dykes To Watch Out For and Fun Home fame).

As is the case with so many mainstream lesbian fantasies all of this apparent lesbian romance comes crashing down in the film’s eventual convoluted explanation of the ghost story plot.

A helpful commenter on the IMDb page for the film shares that the original book had a similar explicit romanticism between the girls and also featured a tacked-on crazy plot twist to explain away the lesbian love story aspect.

Despite the elaborate wacky ending, LGBT viewers can’t help but enjoy this wildly passionate queer allegory. With its whimsical, imaginative, magical storytelling and incredible animation When Marnie Was There is a terrific tale for longtime Studio Ghibli fans and newcomers alike.

And since we all need actual lesbian movies as well—feel free to check out my Best LGBT Youth Movies list, which includes these Top Ten tips for your streaming queue: >D.E.B.S, Circumstance, Tomboy, Show Me Love, The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love, Loving Annabelle, Pariah, But I’m a Cheerleader, Mosquita y Mari. And… the first 30 minutes of Blue is the Warmest Color.
 

Jenni Olson is a is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF