What to Make of Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms
August 1, 2018 § Leave a comment
In a way, it is comforting to know that the opportunity to make a feature-length film like 2018’s Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms did not change its writer and director, veteran scriptwriter Okada Mari, in the slightest.
As it is with many of Okada’s more fantastical scripts, like Fractale and Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, the premise is the strongest part of Maquia. A king’s greed scatters a peaceful race of immortal weavers called the Iorph to the four winds. We follow one of their number, the titular Maquia, as she lives out the many years of her life in hiding, the self-appointed caretaker of an orphaned infant whom she found in her travels. The concept of how painful it would be to watch a loved one grow old and die, while time stands still for you, has existed in popular culture since Arwen and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings (and in culture at large since Eos and Tithonus), but Maquia is perhaps the fullest exploration of that theme that I’ve ever seen, mostly because it focuses so closely on Maquia’s experience as Ariel, her adoptive son, ages physically and emotionally, eventually surpassing her and leaving her behind. This structure is even reflected in the setting of the movie itself, where the Iorph and Renato (read: elves and dragons) are dying out and yet life goes on, without their mystique and grandeur. Sure, it’s a parallel that’s only articulated once in passing, by the military commander who is directly responsible for the destruction of Maquia’s people as an effort at atonement, but it’s still a nice moment of resonance between Maquia’s story and the story of the otherworldly place in which she lives.
Of course, the decision to situate such a story as otherworldly, in order to make its premise a plausible one, also has its downsides. I’m not even talking about the unspecificity of detail that Western-style fantasy settings often exhibit in anime, a shortcoming that Maquia manifests most clearly in the cookie-cutter politics and word-salad culture of the kingdom of Mezarte where it takes place. No, there are other confounding factors at work that seriously detract from the emotional core of the movie. For instance, much is made of how the Iorph are a society devoted utterly to weaving, to the point that they record all of their words, deeds, and memories in the warp and weft of the textiles that they produce, but there’s no real payoff there. The dialogue of Maquia and her fellow survivors is sprinkled with analogies to cloth and weaving, but that’s the extent to which the unique lifestyle of the Iorph affects the plot of the movie. After leaving the theater, I speculated with a friend that Odaka’s fascination with the operation of a foot-treadle floor loom may have been the initial seed for what became Maquia, but that it clearly got buried under everything else as the project took root and started to grow, as seeds tend to do. Similarly, albeit less understandably, a massive war erupts in the third act, but its actual consequences in the plot are merely to prompt some characters to action and clear a few others from the stage. Once Maquia, Ariel, and Maquia’s childhood friend Leilia have made their critical choices, the war ends as quickly and neatly as a sporting match, with the losers sitting quietly in timeout.
The arbitrariness of the world of Maquia also serves to compromise much of the characterization of the people living in it. Okada’s scripts are notorious for being stories where the characters cry a lot and you cry with them, but here that impulse towards catharsis verges on self-parody. For all of her purported emotional strength, Maquia scarcely makes it through a single scene without breaking down in tears about something. She cries when Ariel runs away and she cries when she gets him back, she cries when they fight and she cries when they make up. Sometimes, thinking about past times that she’s cried, she cries all over again. Indeed, the principal means by which the characters interact throughout the movie is by exclaiming their feelings between sobs, whether happy or sad. How am I supposed to enjoy the finale, which has more climaxes than Peter Jackson’s Return of the King adaptation, when it really just boils down to a succession of characters laying out the rationale for their actions during the previous two acts, usually concerning the meaning of love or the importance of letting go, and then making some grand gesture to drive that rationale home? It’s every bit as exhausting as if I were stuck in real life with a bunch of people who won’t stop yelling and crying. This emotional fatigue, secondhand though it was, left me feeling alienated and questioning the utility of every plot point. Did I really need Leilia’s relationship with her unwanted daughter, the movie’s half-baked attempt to problematize the issues of consent surrounding the relationship between Maquia and Ariel, to be explained to me twice, in the course of two separate scenes? Okada’s simply not willing to risk that I didn’t need that, even if both scenes are less impactful as a result.
And yet, for all of the criticisms that I’ve raised in this review, I can’t deny the fundamental power of the movie, especially in its last moments. Maquia returns to an aged Ariel to thank him for the life that she’s had because of him and to wish him well, before leaving to meet the next person whom she’ll lose to death someday. It’s the one time where I found myself actually wanting to cry along with Maquia, despite the fact that her breaking her promise as a mother not to cry in front of her child would have been infinitely more moving if she hadn’t already spent the whole movie breaking it. Like her, I had watched Ariel grow up, through the magic of artful jumps in the chronology, and I had seen him become a different person as a child, a teenager, and an adult. It was truly sad for all of that to be gone and for the feelings that he’d had towards Maquia, however confusing for him and for us, to go with him.
Ultimately, Maquia: Where the Promised Flower Blooms is a simple movie, with beautiful art by PA Works and music by Kawai Kenji, that’s undermined by a desire to say too much—hardly a novel transgression from a first-time director. The story of a young girl loving someone and then letting them go is what’s worth seeing here, without all this nonsense about royal bloodlines and weaving tapestries and jealous ex-lovers and feudal warfare. Really, we should count ourselves lucky that it’s worth seeing even with those things.