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When Marnie Was There Was Almost an LGBT Classic

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Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There is structured like a queer coming-of-age story, at least until the very end.

Between the 21 Studio Ghibli films released from 1986 to 2014, not one of them featured an openly LGBT+ character. Of course, that isn’t a critique on the quality of these films, since they rarely focused on any kind of romantic relationships. For the most part, the themes of friendship and platonic love have been at the forefront of the anime franchise.

However, 2014’s When Marnie Was There looked as if it could be an exception. The psychological drama undeniably had homoerotic themes throughout that appeared to be setting up a possible love story between two girls.

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The LGBT Undertones of When Marnie Was There

Marnie holds Anna as she steers as boat through the water

The story follows Anna as she discovers a seemingly abandoned mansion, wherein she meets Marnie, a mysterious figure who emerges and disappears without explanation. They develop a strong bond over the course of the film, with Marnie helping Anna come to terms with who she is. But the nature of Anna and Marnie’s relationship isn’t clear until the end of the film, which might lead viewers to wonder, “Is Anna realizing she’s gay?”

Marnie and Anna are very physically intimate throughout the film, often holding hands and comforting each other. Even the film’s poster depicts them with hands held back-to-back, a position that, were they members of the opposite gender, would immediately indicate to audiences that they’re in love. They have more physical contact than Studio Ghibli’s official romantic pairings, whether it’s Sophie and Howl, Ashitaka and San, or Chihiro and Haku. Even if no romance ever came of the budding relationship, there are enough implications to foster subtext.

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Why When Marnie Was There Is Not an LGBT Film

Anna and Marnie are wrapped up inside a coat together

The movie’s romantic subtext is ultimately quashed when it’s eventually revealed that Marnie is actually the ghost of Anna’s grandmother, who briefly took care of Anna following the death of her parents before then passing on herself. The spirit following Anna symbolizes her grandmother’s undying love for her. While this is a moving and fitting end to the story, it puts a serious damper on any potential queer reading.

It also seems When Marnie Was There never had a shot at being an LGBTQIA+ story because Joan G. Robinson’s source material was written in 1967, a time when the canonical portrayal of same-sex relationships was scarce. Although adaptations of ’50s and ’60s books such as John Knowles’ A Separate Peace have played up potential queer coding, once the ending of When Marnie Was There becomes apparent, it completely alters the type of film it is. What at first seemed to be a story about Anna discovering her sexuality was instead centered around her reconciliation with the past. As a result, it’s purely coincidental that the story’s structure resembles a romantic coming-of-age story.

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