Mari Okada has been a prolific script writer for anime for most of the 21st century thus far, her works populated with vivid, firmly realised characters and engaging dialogue. Okada has made little secret of the fact her own complicated life has inspired much of her creative process. Without going too deep myself I can relate to a lot of what she’s revealed about her childhood in particular and thus have always found relatable themes in her scripts.
Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms is the first example of what has been termed ‘100% Okada anime’, with Mari taking the director role for the first time. In a European inspired fantasy setting, the Iorph are a kingdom of angelic looking people gifted with unnaturally long life. They spend their days tending to their land and weaving Hibiol cloth, their race’s form of writing. Their longevity means Iorph pursue isolation in this form primarily to escape the pain of forming bonds with and then losing humans with much shorter lifespans. This genetic gift sees their kingdom attacked one night by a more aggressive neighbour, seeking to claim this effective immortality for its royal lineage. In the confusion young Iorph girl Maquia is spirited away from the kingdom and discovers a human baby, the sole survivor of a camp raid. Despite the warnings and her own lack of maturity Maquia takes the orphan into her care, naming him Ariel.
When Okada discusses her past her tense relationship with her mother is always at the centre. Thus it is perhaps no surprise that analysing the parent/child relationship is a recurring theme of her works and takes centre stage here in her premiere in the director’s chair. The ethereal nature of the Iorph is a clear metaphor for this and although we see a clear distinction between children, teenagers and adults amongst their race it seems obvious that one of the themes Okada wants to explore is the question of where does a young woman end and a mother begin? Maquia is young for her age and depicted with good natured but clueless, crybaby tendencies when we first meet her. Even faced with the possible extinction of her race her first instinct is to show kindness to the orphaned Ariel and nurture him in the way her community did for her. She finds a mentor figure in a mother raising her own two young boys but this is where the steady creeping tension begins; Maquia is biologically destined to outlive anyone she welcomes into this new life she is forging. This is highlighted subtly and effectively by having the family dog grow old and die during the time Maquia raises Ariel from infant to young boy, a microcosm of her predicament. Okada has always been brilliant at juxtaposing the inevitable coldness hardwired into reality with the resilience of human spirit to find value in life.
If this were not bad enough, her lack of physical ageing also requires that Maquia regularly move around lest her origins become apparent to her neighbours or agents of the earlier invaders. It’s here that Okada tackles the subject with something drawn more from our own reality with Maquia cast as a single working mother who is trying to suppress her own feelings to care for her increasingly rambunctious son. Much of this takes the form of drawing on her prodigious weaving skills for employment. In one scene, an enthusiastic Ariel messes up hours of work believing he’s helping only to be snapped at by his mother at breaking point. It’s a scene that will be instantly relatable to parent or child alike.
Tensions rise further as Ariel comes of age and the relationship with his ‘mother’ grows more strained. The youthful devotion has vanished upon seeing through any chance she was his biological mother and first impressions suggesting a pair of runaway teenage lovers. Here the story deals with the ever looming problem for parents of ‘empty nest syndrome’, where the young life you have sacrificed everything for now wants distance from you to form their own life and this carries the remainder of the story.
Although the relationship between Maquia and Ariel is the heart of the story, we also explore what became of the captured Iorph. This primarily focuses on two older friends of Maquia who were a couple but split apart by the invasion, with the female Leilia being taken in hopes of breeding a new immortal heir for the kingdom’s prince. It’s here that Okada explores a slightly more controversial example of motherhood, with Leilia treated as little more than a trophy wife for the prince and the child she produces kept isolated from her after birth. Much of the film’s exploration of motherhood is that it doesn’t always occur in some idealised happy form and in Leilia’s case we see elements of a child that exists because of effectively rape. The film arguably doesn’t explore this as fully or with as satisfying a conclusion as it does with Maquia’s plight but Okada deserves full credit for acknowledging that there is not just one possible direction for the tricky subject she is attempting to tackle. To cite my own experience, I know how it feels to be a child born of what feels like a loveless union and question your own existence; Okada’s own introspection of these themes spoke to me in much the way Anno’s introspection of depression and maturity did when I first watched Evangelion.
Visually the film is beautiful. The fictional setting is captured in sumptuous detail with elements such as lush, rolling fields and vast fortress cities. However, although the 2D elements are handled well, the cel-shaded CG elements aren’t as well composited as they could be. Thankfully these are primarily only used for occasional appearances of the Renato, a dragon-like beast of burden whose violent dementia is the primary cause for the plan to birth an immortal heir.
Most of the cast are anime voice acting veterans, with relative newcomer Manaka Iwami taking the title role and delivering a strong performance that properly explores the gauntlet of emotions and heart of simple joys that encapsulates the character of Maquia. Yuki Sakurai voices the younger years of Ariel, again proving my case that anime gets better performances this way than casting adults in child roles. Miyu Irino steps up for the remainder of the story, with his talent for portraying conflicted young men perfectly suited for the older version of the character.
The soundtrack is composed by Kenji Kawai who has proven to be one of my favourite Japanese composers for his versatility. Kawai is an expert at composing unique tracks that can be comforting one second and fill you with intense dread the next. His style is an ideal complement to the film’s themes of relatable interpersonal drama occurring within a fantastic setting.
Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms is a tour de force for Mari Okada, a perfect show of why she was given the opportunity to express such a personally led creative vision in the first place. She has chosen to explore themes close to her heart but as ever shows that in confronting the dark and frightening elements of life and mortality we may indeed find all the more reason to cherish and celebrate life. This is a perfectly structured tale that will emotionally bombard you but leaves you with closure unlike many other Japanese films. Absolutely ensure seeing this in the cinema is weaved into your own Hibiol.
Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms will screen in select cinemas in the UK and Ireland from 27th June. Tickets and locations are available via the official booking site.