Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms is a film I wish I’d seen in the cinema. Sometimes I am lucky - anime occasionally shows in rare isolated theatrical screenings here in the frozen north of Scotland. I managed to see Mirai, Mary and the Witch’s Flower and My Hero Academia: Two Heroes last year, which (film festivals notwithstanding) may be the most cinematic anime I’ve seen in the space of twelve months. Maquia passed me by though. Apparently there was a wide UK release, but I must either have been unaware of it, or it may not have come as far north as me. It seems unless one is relentlessly plugged into the UK anime twittersphere, it’s easy to miss such fly-by-night events.
Helmed by first-time director Mari Okada, scriptwriter for such varied projects as Kiznaiver, Mayoiga, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, Anthem of the Heart and summer 2019's O Maidens In Your Savage Season, this was the one film I was most hyped for in 2018. It’s only taken me until October 2019 to see it, this time in limited DVD/Blu-ray combo form. Maquia is also the first theatrical movie released by animation production studio P.A. Works, renowned most recently for Iroduku: The World in Colors (which I loved), plus Sakura Quest, Shirobako and Angel Beats. They have a deserved reputation for beautifully animating original works, therefore Maquia makes an excellent fit.
SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOLLOW
Set in a fairly generic JRPG-esque fantasy world (with original character designs fittingly by Final Fantasy XII’s Akihiko Yoshida), Maquia is the name of our main protagonist. She is a member of the “Iorph” race of near-immortal blonde and beautiful people who live peacefully in a secluded city far from other races. During the prologue, she is warned by the Elder (who even at 400 years of age appears little older than a teenager - the entire race looks like children) never to fall in love with an outsider, as they will surely die long before she does, leaving her alone and bitter. Maquia is only a child of 15 and her relative immaturity fits her youthful appearance. When the Iorph are attacked by the militaristic neighbouring kingdom of Mezarte, Maquia escapes when she is caught in trailing fabric and dragged into the sky by a deranged dragon-like creature. She finds herself briefly alone in a confusing, threatening world.
This is where the film really begins - she discovers a tiny non-Iorph infant boy, still alive in the arms of his dead mother. Overcome with concern and compassion, Maquia pries him from his mother’s cold, dead, rigor-mortis-stiffened hands (with some truly horrid sound effects as she snaps the fingers out of their firm death-grip) and takes responsibility for his care. Given the Elder’s earlier advice, one would think that the natural story progression would be for Maquia to fall in love with a human boy her own age and there would follow an epic, tragic romance as he ages and dies to leave her behind. But no - Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms steadfastly refuses to conform to such predictable expectations. This is a story about how Maquia comes to love the baby (she names him Ariel) as a mother - and it is also a story of how Ariel grows and learns how to love. Romantic love is powerful, yes, but what is more powerful, and lifelong, than the profound love of a mother for her child (and vice versa)?
We follow Maquia as she struggles with emotions and practicalities, she makes mistakes and must rely on others for help, always putting the needs of her adopted son first. She is a paragon of self-sacrifice and kindness. While Ariel is an infant, he and Maquia are taken in by the widowed Mido and her two young sons. They provide a safe and supportive environment for Maquia to learn how to parent. Once Ariel reaches the age of 6-or-so, he’s taken by his mother to the capital city of Mezarte where they are embroiled in a failed attempt to rescue Leilia - rambunctious, tomboyish childhood friend of Maquia who has been forced to marry the prince of Mezarte and bear his child. Leilia’s life becomes something of a distorted mirror of Maquia’s, and I’ll touch on that later.
The plot progresses via some time skips - we see Maquia working at a bar while a sullen and resentful Ariel (who others mistake for her romantic partner) toils in the iron mines of another, more industrialised town. They have to move from place to place as Maquia does not age like Ariel does. More than once they are accused of eloping together. Ariel pretends to be her brother, but she still mothers him, much to his irritation. In a particularly heartbreaking scene, he says he can no longer think of her as his mother. As he later confesses, he now feels it is his responsibility to care for her. He realises how much she has sacrificed to meet all of his needs, despite the fact they are not blood relations. As Ariel grows into adulthood, his feelings towards Maquia evolve, all the while Maquia remains a devoted, but ever self-doubting mother. She berates herself for crying because she’d once been told that “mothers don’t cry”.
In order to fulfill what he sees as his “protector” role, Ariel joins the same army that years before had ransacked Maquia’s home and kidnapped Leilia. Following this, Maquia herself is kidnapped and is held captive for years before what is at least the “action climax” of the film, as Mezarte’s enemies form an alliance and lay siege to the capital city, attacking from sea in front and from the mountains behind in an extended and bloody battle sequence that seems quite jarring in comparison to the rest of the movie. The intrigues and politicking of the nobles and the clash of their armies are really only a backdrop to the emotional relationship between Maquia and her now grown-up son. Maquia is able to lend help to Ariel’s labouring wife, and after Ariel fights for the safety of his family, finally he is able to rationalise his love for Maquia, and by extension the love he has for his wife and newborn child.
I found the central relationship between Maquia and Ariel to be particularly accurate and convincing. As a parent myself, I could empathise with Maquia’s frustrations when Ariel did not behave or made things difficult. I deeply understood her self-sacrificial giving of love, resources and forgiveness. I also recognised her perpetual “impostor syndrome” - her perception that perhaps she wasn’t good enough for the role she’d taken on, that because she cried she wasn’t up to the task. Parents have these kind of thoughts all the time, and it isn’t that common for an anime to explore them. Unlike the mother in Wolf Children (a movie I still loved), Maquia is not practically perfect in every way. She does not have a clue what she is doing, but from the moment she casts eyes on the vulnerable, squalling infant Ariel, she resolves to do what is right, even if in a way it is to keep her from feeling alone. Despite her elder’s warnings about falling in love with an outsider - she loves Ariel and admits that although he will eventually die and leave her, it does not invalidate all the wonderful times they shared together. Those times will be woven into the tapestry of her life and will continue long after he has died.
One theme that resonated particularly for me was that of how mothers (or just good parents in general) teach the ability to love. On the surface this might seem like a truism, but when you look at attachment theory and the science of child development, there is a crucial period in infancy where if a child does not have their physical and emotional needs met consistently by a responsible adult, then their ability to love and trust others (and themselves) becomes irreversibly impaired. Your parents teach you how to love. This is why child neglect is such a horrific crime. Children who are emotionally abandoned or mistreated by their parents are scarred for life, and even a lifetime of therapy cannot fully heal the damage. I work with parents who foster and adopt children who have been abused or neglected as infants, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who willingly give their homes, their time and their love to care for children who may struggle to love them back in the way they might hope. Ariel comments that he can only love his wife and daughter because of the love modelled to him by Maquia. He hopes that he can do the same for his own daughter. Interestingly, Maquia herself was not raised by her own parents, but by her village elder. The elder must have done a good job.
Back to princess Leilia, who is perhaps the most tragic figure in the film. She’s introduced as Maquia’s more boisterous friend, a girl who loves life, and is in love with Krim, a fairly intense young Iorph man. While Maquia escapes the destruction of her home, Leilia is captured by Izor, a high ranking Mezarte soldier. The soldiers are interested only in the female Iorph and their ability to bear children with mixed Iorph/Mezarte noble blood. Mezarte as a military power relies on its monopoly on Renatos - their massive dragon things - to act as a kind of fantasy industrial revolution-era nuclear deterrent. While they still have Renatos, their neighbouring countries won’t invade. Unfortunately the age of magical creatures is coming to a close (very reminiscent of 1982 Rankin/Bass animated film The flight of Dragons), and the Renatos are gradually succumbing to “Red Eye”, a disease that drives them insane and then causes them to spontaneously combust. If the royals can incorporate the genes of the Iorph into their bloodline, then that will give them a further advantage.
Leilia is forced to marry Prince Hazel (an utter prick who appears in only one scene) and bears him a daughter. Apparently the strain of this delivery means it is unlikely she will be able to have any further children. Unfortunately her daughter Medmel does not display any of the recognisable Iorph traits. Leilia is locked up in her tower and is never allowed to see her daughter, who seems to be brought up instead by nursemaids and nannies. She spends her days pining for both her child and her lost freedom. Unlike Maquia, Leilia is unable to share her love with her child and it understandably drives her part-mad. She is both resigned to her fate but also bitter and angry, especially when a second rescue attempt (led by Krim) fails in the apparent deaths of all her would-be rescuers. Leila does not receive the emotional or practical support given to Maquia.
Leila’s only value to her captors is as a brood mare - for her womb and for her bloodline. They don’t care about her love or ability to care for a child. Maquia’s value to Ariel however has nothing to do with her womb or her blood, and all to do with her loving and giving nature. Leilia is prevented from caring for her own flesh-and-blood child, Maquia chooses to care for one who is not her own. In her final scene, Leilia does finally get to meet her daughter - and then say goodbye immediately after as she launches herself from the castle walls in a symbolic gesture where she reclaims her freedom. She asks her daughter to forget her, as she will try to do herself - she won’t weave her time in the castle into the fabric of her life, she’ll leave only a small tear to signify it. I was a little unsure how to take this. Was Leilia expressing a belief that any attempt at assuming a mother’s role would be pointless for her now? I can certainly understand her desire to get away from the place though.
Maquia’s epilogue is as tear-jerking as one would expect from the premise of the film, as it takes the narrative full circle and Maquia says her final goodbyes. She’s anything but bitter, and the film ends on a note of hope that life goes on.
This was a thematically coherent and well-constructed film that seemed shorter than its 114 minutes. Mari Okada has been accused of being a “messy” writer, but this debut directorial theatrical release is anything but. I felt there were very few extraneous scenes, everything worked together to further the themes and story. Okada’s characters are human, believable and multifaceted.
The production design was gorgeous, with beautiful background artistry and use of colour to provoke emotional responses both positive and negative. From the clean blues and whites of Maquia’s home to the burning reds and dirty browns of the industrial city, this was a convincingly-wrought world. The English dub was excellent and seemed to keep the meaning of the story with only the most minimal of contextual changes (compared to the subtitles) to make the dialogue flow better. To Western viewers, it may even make more sense to watch this in English as the setting does seem very European in appearance. The Iorph are basically Tolkein-esque elves by another name.
The limited edition box is nice, containing a DVD and Blu-ray, both of which contain English and Japanese voice tracks. On-disc extras are non-existent, which is I think perhaps different to the equivalent US release. It comes with a lovely book filled with interviews and pictures regarding the production process and is a good read. There’s also a poster (not pictured in the image below). This could be the best theatrical anime release of the past few years, and I’d certainly recommend it without reservation.
Writer/Director: Mari Okada
Studio: P.A. Works
Format: PAL DVD/Blu-ray combo pack
Region: Region B/2
Classification: BBFC 15
Languages: Japanese or English, with English subtitles
Distributor: Anime Ltd
UK Blu-ray/DVD Release Date: June 17th 2019 (US Release February 5th 2019)
Japanese Cinematic Release: February 24th, 2018
Run Time: 114 minutes