When Studio Ghibli announced back in August 2014 that they would be halting anime movie productions, there was a collective reaction that it was the ‘death’ of anime films in general, that we were not going to have any more ‘great’ Japanese movies in the near future, especially those released in the West. However, it seems since then, that Ghibli’s departure has instead made a pathway for an explosion of new stories and talent making their way into cinemas and wowing anime fans across the world. We have veterans like Makoto Shinkai making record-breaking movies like Your Name, we experienced the visually creative and narratively strange Night is Short, Walk On Girl from Masaaki Yuasa, we got a trilogy of wildly different sci-fi/fantasy stories from Project Itoh, and so on. This year we have Mari Okada who has worked in the industry since 1998 but Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms marks her debut as a director. As her career has mostly involved her being a script and series composition writer, this sudden turn to direction with no previous experience shocked many people, but has so far in Japan had a very warm reception. Luckily for the UK, we get to experience her directorial debut only several months after the Japanese release and before it makes its way to the U.S.
In an alternative fantasy world, there are many mystical creatures such as wyverns and clans that keep themselves away from the general populace to preserve their secrets. Maquia is a girl from a special race called Iorph that have immortal life spans and weave magical tapestries; she’s merely 15 years old when her village is raided by an outside kingdom that wishes to use the youth and power of her kind for their own gain. Maquia escapes but is all alone in the world, and with her home destroyed, she seems to have nothing to live for until she stumbles upon an orphaned baby boy. Maquia takes the baby under her care, naming him Ariel, but due to her immortal life, she is forced to watch him grow older as she physically stays the same age, and the Kingdom that once burned down her home begins looking for her in hopes of growing even more in power.
Maquia is a high fantasy anime film; that in itself is actually rare – it’s far more common to have modern fantasy (like The Boy and The Beast), sci-fi/fantasy hybrids (Project Itoh’s Empire of Corpses) or for the film to have ‘fantasy-like’ elements in it to give impressive visuals but without losing its grounded themes (like Fireworks). So, to have Maquia be unabashedly in the high fantasy genre is already very refreshing in the anime filmscape of today; if you love worlds such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, you’ll definitely be interested in seeing the world Maquia is born in. It’s clear from the visuals alone that the director had a clear image in her mind about a fully-realised fantasy realm and the politics and creatures that inhabit it. The aforementioned wyverns get a particular focus as their fates are directly tied to Maquia’s clan, but you also get sweeping shots of incredible Greek-inspired architecture of the castles, the villages with their multi-tiered buildings crammed together, and quick glimpses into the dream-like realm of the lorph – the wondrous scope of their closed-off home – before it’s destroyed as the story begins. You could easily make another 3 – 4 movies from the world Mari Okada created and not be bored or repeat stories.
Visually it’s all very impressive; narratively, however, there’s a few tweaks that could have made the difference in helping not only the world-building but to stabilise the narrative. There are a lot of heavy and dark themes prevalent within the movie such as war, betrayal, genocide, implied sexual assault, and more, so a clear distinction of what the world’s rules are, its history and how each kingdom differs needs to be defined. Sadly, a lot of that is hazy; we get that one kingdom is obsessed with the mystical and seeks out the last of the various creatures and clans for their own purposes but for what reason? It’s implied ‘to be powerful’, but that’s as deep as it goes; we get no clear distinction as to when they came to be this way or why the other kingdoms are not in the same boat. This is made worse when they all go to war and the audience has been given no information as to why or how long these kingdoms (how many they are) have been in conflict. As for Maquia’s own tribe, we barely get the establishing on what they supposedly do, or why the tapestry they weave is important, before it’s ripped from them. None of these missing elements ruin the movie, however when the movie breaks away from the main characters and tries to bring outside conflict to centre stage, that’s when the haziness of the world-building starts to become problematic.
The main story however is about the immortal girl suddenly turned mum, Maquia, and the orphan boy she rescues, Ariel. As an immortal, but very young from the start, Maquia is similar to an underage girl suddenly forced to grow up too quickly. Even as she develops emotionally and becomes wiser/older, physically she keeps the same 15-year-old face and mannerisms, therefore she’s required to move on every few years and lose ties with previous friends in order to keep her secret. As all her actions become completely centered around her one and only pride and joy, Ariel, this becomes the main source of conflict, especially as he starts to enter his teenage years and people mistake their relationship to either be of siblings or romantic runaways. As the movie jumps around a lot at random intervals, with sometimes decades going by from one shot to another, it’s disappointing that there is no consistent method of showing the audience how much time has passed. Normally you’d illustrate the passage of time in numerous ways such as passing seasons, seeing night turn to day, showing a quick montage of people aging, or even just a simple text saying ‘X time later’, however, outside of one montage very early on in the movie as we watch Ariel jump from baby to toddler, the rest of the movie just hurdles from one age bracket to another. As the main character is an immortal that never ages, the time jumps became an unwanted distraction that could have been easily fixed.
Due to the unique nature of Maquia and Ariel’s relationship, it’s interesting to see how this dynamic is portrayed. To give credit where it’s due, the director isn’t afraid to tap into or at least bring up uncomfortable themes and emotions that one teenage boy is likely to experience when their mother is forever youthful and many people mistake her to be his fiancée, to his clear discomfort. You think the movie at times plans to go one direction, but then eventually ends up going another, so the film always keeps the audience on their toes as we explore their growing tempestuous relationship. There’s also another lorph who ends up being a mother, but with a completely opposite relationship to their child. I won’t say what to avoid spoilers, however their build-up and payoff, in conjunction with Maquia’s and Ariel’s conclusion, create very different and ultimately confusing messaging about motherhood. I walked out of the cinema not entirely satisfied or sure of what the movie was going for in regards to this messaging; a lot of this however may have to do with the director’s turbulent relationship with her own mother, which you can read more about here (recommended, as it’s interesting to see how Mari Okada has progressed in her career to here) and since this anime film is meant to be a ‘100% Mari Okada anime’ that’s probably why her perspective on motherhood comes across as complex and confusing. The movie seems to be aiming for an emotional high and uplifting message overall, which is admirable to say the least, but it doesn’t quite work.
The animation, provided by P.A. Works, is glorious; they really bring the fantasy world to life and there’s so much detail in the backgrounds, the style of clothing the royals wear, how the wyverns fly across the sky; all of it is beautiful. That alone is enough to see it in cinemas. Character designs are also very detailed; the lorphs look very different to the people that live in the Kingdom, however due to all the lorphs being thin, child-like and blonde, some of them start to bleed into each other; just a small change of eye shape or face design in one or two of them would have helped make the few we do see stand out a bit more, especially as they come in and out of the story a lot.
Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms is almost a review within a title; Mari Okada obviously has a lot of talent and fascinating ideas that I’m sure we’ll see blossom in years to come. Her directorial debut may not be perfect but there’s certainly enough here to admire and, perhaps with hindsight, see where her future masterpieces may stem from. A lot of anime director’s first films have delivered less promising results, so that itself is enough to recommend seeing Maquia in cinemas this summer and keeping an eye on Mari Okada in the future.
Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms is in cinemas 27th June by Anime Limited; for full list of cinemas and to purchase your tickets, click here.