Most of it was nice. It's pretty, delicate and very well done. It's standard Ghibli, although ironically this was Ghilbi's last film before the studio shut down and it had very little involvement from either Miyazaki. (Hayao chose the original novel to be adapted, but he wasn't involved in the film's production since he'd had retired the year before. He announces his retirement quite often, though, and he's since returned to work on another feature film that might hit cinemas around 2020.)
Anyway, most of the film was what I'd expected... until the last fifteen minutes, which surprised me. They're powerful emotionally.
Frankly, it's better than most Ghibli. That studio's brilliant at lots of things, e.g. fantasy, charm, imagination, etc. What it doesn't often make, though, is a tear-jerker. This is one, unexpectedly. It just quietly, gently becomes one at the eleventh hour.
It's based on a 1967 young adult novel by a British author, Joan G. Robinson. In the original, a girl called Anna moves to Norfolk for her health and finds a girl called Marnie in a house by the marshes. The Ghibli version is so faithful to this that it arguably creates problems. It's set in Japan and everyone's speaking Japanese, but they've done a Western-style house, Marnie as a blue-eyed blonde and the girls with their names from the original book.
With Anna, we're fine. That's a Japanese name too, as it happens, so she can be from Sapporo in Hokkaido.
With Marnie, though, she's got a blonde father and we're told that their house was built by foreigners... but if that's so, would it really be okay to do all that later renovation work? Her mother looks as if she might be Japanese, which would explain why the family's living here, but if so then it's extremely improbable that Marnie would have blonde hair and blue eyes. I think people's colouring is something we just have to accept here as artistic licence, since it can be hard to judge a character's intended ethnicity in this medium.
The story's gentle. It's a calm, sympathetic exploration of someone with a manageable medical problem (asthma) and a more severe personality one. Anna's pretty messed up. We'll learn the reasons, but suffice to say that she's super-polite, doesn't show emotions and will get surreptitiously annoyed if people try to encourage her to look nice or make friends. She looks masculine, in face, dress and hairstyle. She doesn't go so far as to use men's language and no one mistakes her for a boy in-universe, but she's basically rejecting her own identity.
The house on the marshes, though, is going to show her strange things. It's clearly abandoned, except that sometimes it's not. Is it haunted? Are we looking at time travel, or variant timelines? (One character says it contains ghosts, but he's almost comic relief and we don't take him seriously.)
Sometimes, when the wind is right, that house contains Marnie.
There's romantic subtext between Anna and Marnie. There's so much, in fact, that plenty of anime fans forgot that this was Ghibli and talked themselves into expecting schoolgirl lesbians. They then loudly expressed disappointment. (In fairness, Ghilbi are laying it on startlingly thick and that would have been the default position of an awful lot of modern anime.) Personally, though, I disagree and think that that's a reductionist reading. Firstly, they're twelve-year-olds. No one's going to start shagging anyone and I'm pretty sure neither of those lonely girls had ever even thought to consider their possible sexuality, so is there really much point in trying to insist on what's romance and what's an intense childhood friendship? Secondly, though, and more importantly, the all-important thing for Anna is that she's acquired a friend at all. She's breaking out of her shell. She's being affectionate with another human being. That's a huge deal for her, being effectively the difference between being a robot and a person. She learns about smiling.
I think it's a remarkable film. However I should admit that Tomoko's more sensitive than I am to anime voice acting in Japanese, especially when it comes to Ghibli films. She thought at least one of the voice actresses sounded too old. I didn't have a problem with it, but in this regard I think Tomoko's opinion probably trumps mine.
Of the Ghibli films I've seen, I'm tempted to call this the best. That's a tough call to make, though. It's only the best by certain yardsticks, while in other ways it's being left in the dust. It can't compare with Miyazaki in terms of being magical, whimsical or enchanting. Even its emotional punch is weaker than Grave of the Fireflies, although the difference there is that this film doesn't rip your bleeding heart out of your chest and leave you dumbstruck in horror. This is a feelgood film (although of course moving and emotional) and I'd be very happy to watch it again, which isn't something I'd say for Grave of the Fireflies.
This film was Oscar-nominated. I approve.