Mari Okada’s meditation on motherhood is grand in scope, but more importantly is able to also stay personal and sincere.
What does it mean to be a mother?
That question is at the heart of Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, the directorial debut from esteemed anime screenwriter, Mari Okada, who also wrote the story. Tracing the journey of its title character, Maquia follows the pattern of many of Okada’s best works. As Toradora delves into the complicated matters of romance, Hourou Musuko into adolescence, and AnoHana into friendship, Maquia gives a response that’s complex, meaningful, and moving.
The sweeping tale begins in an isolated village inhabited by the Iorph, a people who live for hundreds of years, spending their long lives weaving hibial, a cloth that tells of and is woven into the fabric of time itself. Maquia is a 15-year-old Iorph girl who is quite timid, contrasted with her friend, the carefree Leilia. Advised by the village elder to never fall in love, lest she be left lonely and forlorn, Maquia makes the decision to form a bond with an orphan infant after the tragic death of his parent and an attack by the kingdom of Mazarte on her own village. As she rears the child, whom she names Erial, Maquia struggles with the question of whether she’s truly his mother. Life becomes more complicated after they leave behind a pastoral life and Maquia takes on the frightening chore of partnering with surviving Iorph to free Leilia, who has been abducted to serve as a marriage partner to the prince of Mazarte, whose strangehold on power is dying along with their mythical dragon-like creatures, the Renato.
Maquia is an ambitious choice for Okada, being the first anime she’s directed. But then again, her experience in storytelling is as strong as anyone’s, both in tales that are small and personal and those larger in scope. She attempts to weave both kinds into the movie, setting into motion several important storylines contributing to the main theme of motherhood and set against an epic, fantasy backdrop that, like hibial woven together by a loom, figure into one continual tale. She succeeds by most accounts.
The heart of the film is in the relationship between Maquia and Erial. There are three time skips, and they are used to great effect as we see both mother and son age and mature. Macquia’s challenge in being a mother evolves with the passage of time, and in that way, the film is absolutely authentic. She experiences the joys and difficulties of motherhood—the ignorance of baby rearing, the delight in receiving an imperfect hibial from a child, the rejection of an adolescent, even “mommy guilt.” Her story is absolutely believable, right down to spiteful words she tells Erial in frustration and the ones she receives back when he becomes older.
Maquia would have been a fine film just focusing on this relationship, without a bigger plot point concerning the pair’s continual hiding and the plans to rescue Leilia, but Okada insists on intertwining characters and backdrops, wars and family concerns, dragons and magical beings. The final half-hour presents payoff after payoff as these connections come to fruition and gems hidden deep in the story are revealed, though they also reveal the movie’s biggest challenge: a run-time already stretched at two hours that could have used thirty more minutes. The film is unable to linger on moments it should, which would have provided for bigger impacts, as in important scenes where characters promise to protect one another; meanwhile, serendipitous meetings and info dump dialogue happens perhaps too often, although that’s somewhat mitigated by the beauty of the screenplay, which flawlessly moves from dialogue that is typically anime in tone to that which is more Tolkienesque.
It’s to Okada’s credit that not only is she able to hold all these strands together, but that she’s able to deliver an emotional punch that is reminiscent of some of the classics she’s written. The movie could be unfavorably compared to a cross between Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, and indeed, it sometimes feels that way, but dynamics between the characters and the real feelings that Okada is able to convey—not just Maquia’s disappointment in herself, but also Erial’s confusion about being a son and Leilia’s despondency involving her own family—keep us knitted into one beautiful tale. And Okada also challenges us by moving beyond the conclusion that a mother’s love is sacrificial, though of course she does; she tells the story of motherhood by examining its many stages, and demonstrating through Erial and his actions what a mother really is. It’s a subtle thing that keeps the film from being overwhelmed with too much story.
The animation is pretty, though sometimes too dull during nighttime scenes, while CGI is integrated very well. I listened to the English dubbed version, and it was quite good. I was previously unfamiliar with Xanthe Huynh, who voices Maquia, but I certainly know her now—she conveys that character’s maturation and aging very well. Michael Schneider was another standout, as was Cherami Leigh, who absolutely owned the challenge of voicing Leilia, whose character change throughout the film is more drastic than any other.
When Maquia comes to a close, it does so quietly, a reminder that a story that at times is full of violence and fanciful imagery is ultimately a personal one for its main character, and for us as well. And though there are a few tears in the cloth that is Maquia, they are few and easily minded, because like Erial’s gift to his mom, it has a heart that is most sincerely and lovingly woven.
Rating: **** 1/2 (out of *****)
Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.