"I hate myself."
That's an unusual statement coming from the hero of an animated film, let alone in the first two minutes. But twelve-year-old orphan Anna (Sara Takatsuki), the protagonist of Hiromasa Yonebayashi's lovely anime When Marnie Was There, has no illusions about her place in the world: There's an invisible magic circle containing everyone else (i.e., all the seemingly normal, non-anhedonic people), and she's forever on the outside. And as far as she's concerned, she deserves it.
The young girl who's been orphaned or otherwise experienced parental trauma is an anime staple, and there's usually something about their turmoil that also feeds their inner strength. But Anna lacks her predecessors' pluck. She's the PG-rated equivalent of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, scarred by the past and lacking the mechanisms to cope with the world, and convinced that she's ugly, stupid, moody, and unpleasant. But while its main character begins in a darker place than usual, When Marnie Was There is unmistakably a Studio Ghibli picture: bright and frequently joyous in spite of Anna's pain, and never less than impeccably animated.
Prone to asthmatic episodes that double as panic attacks, city girl Anna is sent by her kindly foster parents to live with her aunt and uncle by the sea for the summer. She doesn't fare much better in this marshy paradise until she meets a young girl named Marnie (Kasumi Arimura). Marnie connects with Anna like nobody else ever has, and Anna begins to realize that she's worthy not only of being loved, but of being loved unconditionally. Unfortunately, all evidence points to Marnie being either a ghost, a figment of Anna's damaged psyche, or possibly both.