Stray Thoughts: Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

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Note: this post contains spoilers for Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. Read at your own risk!

Welcome back! It’s been a rather lengthy hiatus for the blog, but after getting an opportunity to see PA Works’ new film, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, I felt compelled to write about it. I saw the film on Saturday, but even four days later, its story is still fresh in my mind.

For the uninitiated, Maquia is a fairly noteworthy release in anime fandom in that it is the directorial debut of Okada Mari, a prolific screenwriter known for her work on television series such as AnohanaMobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans, Toradora, and Hanasaku Iroha, as well as films like Anthem of the Heart. Supposedly, PA Works (the studio behind Hanasaku Iroha and A Lull in the Sea) offered her the opportunity to create what they called a “100% Okada anime,” a few years back, and this is the result.

And I loved it – it’s probably my favorite Okada work, next to Hanasaku Iroha, for its emotional storytelling. The script is tight for the most part, but given that I’ve mostly enjoyed the series Okada has worked on, that was to be expected. Even from a visual standpoint, the film is sound – it’s got great shot composition, beautiful backgrounds and colors, unique character designs (courtesy of Yoshida Akihiko, of Final Fantasy TacticsBravely Default, and NieR: Automata fame), and consistently stunning key animation. Okada and PA Works pulled all the stops to make this film stand out, and it shows.

I particularly liked that the plot and setting are somewhat unusual for an anime, at least from what I’ve seen lately. Though it has a medieval fantasy-type setting (think SNES-era JRPGs), where steampunk style mechanical designs and cobblestone cities abound, the film is mostly a pretty insular piece about motherhood, focusing on Maquia and her life with her adopted son, Ariel.

Maquia is part of a race known as the Iorph, who stop physically aging at age 15 and can’t die of disease or other natural causes. The Iorph spend their days weaving tapestries known as Hibiol, which contain their life stories and can be used as a means to communicate with each other. Maquia is told by an elder never to fall in love with an outsider, for if she does, she will come to learn the meaning of loss and loneliness. One day, humans invade the Iorph homeland, capturing some of Maquia’s friends. Maquia is able to escape, but in the process, she encounters an orphaned baby in the arms of his deceased mother. Maquia, sympathizing with his plight, decides to name him Ariel and raise him herself.

The film then is a series of extended vignettes about Maquia’s life with Ariel. Due to Maquia’s status as an Iorph, they find they can’t stay in one place too long, so Maquia takes it upon herself to do odd jobs and travel the world to create a somewhat stable life for her son. Along the way, she encounters members of her race, and tales of conflict intertwine with her struggles to be a mother to a mortal, knowing that she will outlive him.

Okada has written several stories with motherhood embedded as a theme, and the passive ways in which our parents effectively or ineffectively nurture their children is something she has touched on to great effect, most notably in Anthem of the Heart. Having read her memoir recently, its clear that her experiences growing up with a single mother in rural Saitama impacted her perspective. But though these themes are explored in her works, they have always been through the eyes of the children, rather than the parents. Maquia bucks this trend, as in several sequences throughout the film, she struggles to convey her feelings to Ariel, whether trying to explain why his good behavior is vital for her finding work, to scolding an older Ariel for drinking too much at a bar. Both of these sequences effectively demonstrate how difficult being a parent can be, and seeing her struggle to fill that role is pretty atypical in anime and manga.  Okada points out in her memoir that her own mother was seen as someone unfit for her role due to her young age; perhaps there are parallels in Maquia’s character.

My main gripe with Okada’s writing is that she likes to use melodrama to drive the emotional aspects of her stories, and sometimes this can lead to characters shouting the themes of her story at each other. Anthem of the Heart was a sort of messy film due in part to this choice. Maquia does unfortunately fall prey to this trope, but not to the same degree as her other works. There is a sequence towards the end where Maquia and an adult Ariel are discussing the nature of their relationship – by this point in the film, Maquia has been brought to a rival nation currently at war with the one Ariel is serving, and they are not publicly seen as mother and son but now brother and sister – and she starts to convey her love despite her inability to age. It was a slight disappointment in an otherwise fantastic story, mostly because the film had been so effective at conveying these themes without dialogue and purely with visuals before. This scene came off as a sort of knowledge check for viewers, and it was unnecessary.

Even so, I admit that this sequence made me choke up. Though the scene serves an iffy narrative purpose, I did love that there were callbacks to earlier parts of the film, callbacks to their shared experiences. If you’ve ever had a conversation about the old days and just the mention of a phrase or an object took you back in time, this scene had moments like that. It felt so true to life, and it felt like these were real flesh and blood people, not just characters. I literally watched their life story, and seeing them having to part really got to me.

And by the end of the film, I was openly weeping. I’ll say it like this: Maquia promises baby Ariel that she won’t cry in her role as his mother, and when she visits an elderly Ariel on his deathbed, she tells him that she’s unable to keep her promise, then starts to sob serious tears. From there, we see flashbacks of their life together, and that was all it took to break me down. This sequences captures what it’s like to lose someone, to have your heart break at a moment’s notice. Though it’s a story of motherhood, its themes of loss are universal. I felt the urge to call everyone I care about just to let them know how grateful I am that our paths crossed. I don’t usually get invested in films or characters in that way, so this one threw me for a loop in the best way.

Script gripes aside, Maquia was a phenomenal film, and a spectacular directorial debut from Okada. Though limited screenings have finished in my area, I’m eager to view the film a second time. If you have the opportunity to see this movie, do it! There is so much talent and passion behind this project that I can’t help but want it to succeed. If you have even a passing interest in Okada’s work, this film is essential viewing.

This commentary is based on the Japanese language version of the film. 

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms released in Japan in February 2018. Eleven Arts premiered the film in North America in July 2018 and are currently screening the film in Japanese with English subtitles in limited release. Click here to see if the film is playing in your area!

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