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Mari Okada, who has written the screenplays for some 20-odd animated films, including the iconic Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, debuts as one of Japan’s rare female anime directors in the melancholy and poetic Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (Sayonara no Asa ni Yakusoku no Hana o Kazarou). Set in a medieval fantasy world that recalls The Hobbit and The Game of Thrones, the story describes how an immortal girl called a lorph is abducted to the world of humans and adopts a baby, only to watch him grow up and age, while she remains the same.
Known for the unusual degree of creative control she has enjoyed over her anime projects, Okada both wrote and directed Maquia, which showcases her ability to depict complex relationships and project delicate character arcs. The film examines what motherhood means in a woman’s life, but it offers no clear-cut answers, preferring rather to dance around questions of responsibility, self-sacrifice, etc. This doesn’t detract a whit from its heart-breaking poignancy and the storm of emotions that leaves half the audience sobbing by the final scenes. This memorable anime, which was awarded the best animation prize at the Shanghai Film Festival, has been rolling out worldwide since February and will hit the U.S. in limited release through Eleven Arts Anime Studio in late July.
The free-flowing artwork is unmistakably Japanese in its preference for soft pastel colors and deep blue hues, and huge-eyed characters with snub noses. Maquia looks like a little girl with a high-pitched voice, which she will keep throughout the pic as the years roll by. In a fantasy kingdom filled with Greek columns where only women reside, she lives with other blonde girls under the leadership of the stern Krim. Far from being Amazons, these ageless beings quietly carry out their mission of weaving the “Hibiol” cloth which measures the passage of time, very much like the Fates weaving their tapestries of human destiny.
In many ways, Maquia seems to represent an every-girl; not particularly witty, brave or adventurous like her high-spirited best friend Leilia, who jumps off waterfalls and flies laughing through the air. Their idyll is soon interrupted by the arrival of an army of fierce mechanical dragons, flown by soldiers under the command of the handsome Izor. Maquia’s abduction is terrifyingly rendered aboard a defective dragon that glows red-hot before crashing in a forested land. Completely alone now, she realizes she can never go home. Then she hears a baby’s cry.
Though Maquia has been clearly warned never to fall in love, she loses her heart to the infant, whom she finds in a cottage that has been attacked by raiders. He is tightly clutched in his dead mother’s arms. She pries the orphan out of the murdered woman’s grip and calls him Ariel. Later they are taken in by a kindly peasant woman who is raising two sons on her own on a farm, giving way to long summer days of freedom and happiness in the lush countryside.
Getting the worst of the raid on the lorphs is Leilia, who is taken to the invaders’ capital of Mezarte to become the bride of an obnoxious prince. She is supposed to inject the royal lineage with the seeds of immortality, but at a high price. This subplot is barely developed, yet it paves the way for the arrival of the angry Krim, who appears on the earthly scene like a war goddess.
Meanwhile, Maquia and Ariel arrive in the city and go into hiding from the royal guards, who are on the look-out for lorphs. Amid immense industrial smokestacks and intricate water wheels servicing the medieval-looking city, she finds grueling work in a tavern and learns how many sacrifices are required to be a mother.
Although Maquia matures emotionally, her body remains about the same, while Ariel grows up before her eyes. As an affectionate tyke, he swears he will protect her; then he reaches the stage of teenage rebellion. Just as was foretold, Maquia’s heart is broken, and her desperate efforts to convince herself she’s not a “real” mother make for some of the most touching scenes in the film. The storyline doesn’t explore motherhood much farther than this, but the emotional resonance is powerfully evocative.
But much more is still to come, including a civil war in Mezarte fought with cannons and swords. The deadliest enemy of all, of course, is Time, and he takes center stage in a protracted, extremely teary and moving ending.
Adding to the lyricism of the film is the dreamy, epic theme music by Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell), while other incidental music sounds tacky and syrupy to Western ears.
Production companies: P.A. Works, Bandai Visual, Cygames, Hakuhodo DY Music & Pictures, Lantis
Voice cast: Manaka Iwami, Miyu Irino, Yoko Hikasa, Hiroaki Hirata, Yoshimasa Hosoya, Yuki Kaji, Ai Kayano
Director-screenwriter: Mari Okada
Producers: Naoko Endo, Kenji Horikawa, Hirohisa Kikuchi, Tomomi Kyotani, Nobuhiro Takenaka
Director of photography: Satoshi Namiki
Art directors: Kazuki Higashiji, Tomoaki Okada
Editor: Ayumum Takahashi
Music: Kenji Kawai
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (animation competition)
World sales: Hakuhodo DY Music & Pictures
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