How do you judge a debut? It’s a tough question. Should you hold it to the standards of more experienced peers or make allowances for someone trying to learn? This question was very much in mind following a viewing of Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, the directorial debut of Mari Okada. Her prolific work as a screenwriter encompasses everything from Rozen Maiden and Anthem of the Heart through to the forthcoming live-action Flowers of Evil film.
The titular Maquia is a member of the Lorph, a remote tribe of people renowned for their incredibly long lives and the cloth which they spend their lives weaving. Her quiet, peaceful life is interrupted when an army of dragon-riding soldiers from a neighbouring kingdom attack with the intent of seizing all the Lorph women. Escaping capture almost by accident, Maquia stumbles upon the remains of a travellers settlement with a single survivor – a near-newborn boy clutched in the arms of his dead mother. Desperate for something to hold onto she takes the child and determines to raise him, naming him Ariel. Life will not be easy for the pair however as Maquia knows nothing of the outside world in which she must now live - and on top of everything they will have to learn how to deal with Maquia’s lifespan that will see her outlive everyone she encounters.
One thing is for sure, Okada has really put a lot of heart into her debut and her intention has clearly been to get those tears, even if she has to visit every viewer personally and wave onions in their faces! As the film progresses it makes sure there’s a heavy focus on emotional moments in the pair’s lives, dropping into every fight, reunion and parting. And to be fair to her she does get those tears by the end of the film when… well, no spoilers but it’s not hard to work out what the tear-jerking ending for a film with this concept is going to be is it? The problem is that the sequence in question would probably have achieved the same result at the end of a 5-10 minute clip-show version of the rest of the film…
Okada clearly has a lot of ambition for the film but unfortunately this has lead to some awkward issues that it can’t quite seem to get past. Structurally the film just doesn’t really work and the constant jumping forward in time strips away a lot of the chances the audience needs to become emotionally attached to these characters and their issues. The film actually ends up feeling like a compilation for some non-existent TV series that would have filled in all the gaps over another 20 episodes of content.
A full series would also have helped with the films B-plot featuring what happened to one of the other Lorph women who was taken captive (what happens to all the others is left peculiarly unsaid) and ends up being forced to marry a Prince. This storyline just doesn’t seem to go anywhere and only seems to exist at all so that there can be a big superfluous battle sequence at the end of the film. This ‘everything including the kitchen sink’ approach ultimately leaves the film as a whole feeling unfocused and, at two hours, over-long. It also doesn’t help it stand up against films like Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children which covers similar ground (or even series like Simoun which was written by Okada herself and which certainly forms one of the influences for Maquia).
The one area where the film does excel however is on a technical level. P.A. Works have outdone themselves here and Maquia is easily one of the most gorgeous films in a long time. The backgrounds in particular are so wonderfully detailed and alive that it makes you weep that this wasn’t crafted using cell animation so that you could buy some and frame them! One can only hope that this level of investment is poured into P.A. Works next feature – a little film called Shirobako.
Kenji Kawai’s score helps thing’s along too and whilst it may lack a little in subtlety its certainly powerful and moving in all the right ways.
There’s so much about Maquia that makes you want to love it and I really wish it had just taken another pass or two in the editing room during production as it could have been something truly special. Ultimately though, the film just can’t quite reach the stars it’s aiming for and you do have to accept that it’s likely Okada’s inexperience in the director’s chair that caused at least some of these problems. As a debut work it’s decent enough and above everything it makes you really excited to see her build on this foundation in whatever she chooses to do next!