I’m a sucker for anime that leaves me an emotional wreck. And as far as that is concerned, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms left me wanting to curl up in a ball. I briefly mentioned in my coverage of Crunchyroll Expo that this film will make you want to call your mother. My mother passed away three years ago. So it drove home even deeper how important she was in my life, though sometimes growing up, I did not realize or appreciate it. It took me a while to process Maquia and it was a good thing I saw it in an English dub as through much of my experience watching it had my eyes filled with tears.
Screenwriter and first time director Mari Okada, manages to do something that is beyond impressive for a debut directing effort. Channeling influences from her own relationship with her mother, Okada has crafted a film that is layered in nuance and allegory. It does occasionally fall into some melodramatic traps of coincidence and convenience in order to drive the story to where she wants it at times.
The director made her reputation as a writer for anime such as Anohana and Anthem of the Heart. It is very out of the ordinary for writers to become anime directors, they usually work their way up from animators. In fact, Ms. Okada did not have plans to direct. It was president of P.A. Works Kenji Horikawa who wanted a project from her that was “100 percent Okada.” The result, despite a few flaws, is a piece of work that is both personal and beautiful.
Maquia belongs to a race of beings who are not only long-lived but stop showing signs of age at what would appear to others as teenagers. The world appears to be standard fantasy world that is in transition from medieval to industrialization. When her people are attacked by another kingdom seeking their secret of longevity, she becomes separated from everyone as the population scatters and wanders the countryside alone. She finds a newborn baby boy clutched in the arms of his dead mother who had apparently been killed in a raid. Despite having no idea how to raise a child, she chooses to adopt the child as her own and name him Ariel.
She is taken in by a peasant family that helps her cover up the fact that she is a member of the immortal Iorf clan. Things start to become difficult as it is obvious to everyone in her village that her son is growing older while she seems eternally fifteen. She eventually has to leave but while traveling finds hardship in finding work to support herself and Ariel. No one, it seems, wants to hire a single mother.
The middle of the film takes place while Ariel is in his teen years. No longer able to pass as mother and son, they now must pretend to be sister and brother. As the kingdom they live in prepares for war with neighboring kingdoms, Ariel like teenagers do, struggles for his own independence away from Maquia. Their relationship becomes strained here and throughout his rebelliousness, Maquia still declares that she is his mother no matter what and will always care for him. Ariel knows this deep inside and joins the guard to protect her as she has always protected him.
Parallel to Maquia’s story is the tragedy of Leilia another Iorf who was captured and meant to be a brood mare for the kingdom’s prince. It is hoped that she would give the royal family immortal children but this is not the case as he daughter is perfectly mortal and she is no longer able to bare any more children. She is cast aside and is a kept from even seeing her mortal daughter.
The core theme and focus of the drama that unfolds is motherhood, and the sacrifices they often make and the secret heartbreak they endure alone. As Lelia must endure the pain of separation from her child, Maquia must endure over the struggles of raising a child that she knows she will outlive. “I won’t cry. Moms don’t cry.” is an oft repeated line to show the maternal strength to endure.
This is a plot heavy animated film that takes place in a world that is very well realized. It never takes long unnecessary expository moments to tell us what this world is though. We know enough about the kingdoms, and the history as is needed. The reasons why the kingdoms are warring against each other are easy to figure out by just the dialog. If you are aware of high fantasy settings like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones then the world is not that hard to accept. Despite the familiar fantasy setting, the visuals are still a feast for the eyes. Simply, it’s a beautiful film to look at.
The musical score by veteran composer Kenji Kawai, best known for the classic score to the original Ghost in the Shell movie, adds a score that is full of lush strings and woodwinds. It serves the film well and if you listen to the score on its own, it is quite relaxing.
It’s not expected that a first time director make a perfect film, and Mari Okada does make a few choices that are overly melodramatic and seem to stretch how much I’m willing to accept the plot device of coincidences — even in an anime. Ariel, at times seems more annoying than is necessary. Some of the Leilia subplot remains unresolved in the end as well.
Unless your relationship with your mother is something out of something like Mommie Dearest, you will want to call your mother afterward. Despite it’s epic and large scale setting, it is at its core an intimate story designed to tug at your heart and stir your well of emotions. I have no problems recommending this with the Highest of Recommendations. Just bring the tissue.
The US theatrical release is distributed by Eleven Arts Studio, which ran a limited subtitled release earlier in year. They are now doing a limited release of the English dub. Information on showings and tickets can be found here. It begins to roll out on September 21st. No word yet on a home release.
As of this writing, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms also has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That, to me, is rare for a non Studio Ghibli anime.