‘Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms’: Mari Okada’s visuals tell a moving story

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

Mari Okada is one of the most prominent — and prolific — writers in anime today. A native of Chichibu, Saitama, she’s perhaps best known for penning a pair of deeply personal titles that take place there, “Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day” (2011) and “The Anthem of the Heart” (2015). But Okada has contributed to a range of genres, from sci-fi to horror to live-action. What ties these seemingly disparate works together is her interest in people who have been, in some way, emotionally damaged, and the way these people ultimately (re)form human connections.

“Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms,” which marks Okada’s directorial debut, is no exception. The fantasy film, which she also wrote, is the tale of titular Maquia (Manaka Iwami), a member of an elf-like race who live for hundreds of years while maintaining a youthful appearance. Her clan, expert weavers, live in peace on an isolated island, and Maquia enjoys the company of many friends, though it is revealed she is an orphan.

One day, the peace is shattered when humans invade, looking for the secrets of eternal life. Maquia manages to escape and, as she flees, she discovers a human baby crying inside the arms of its dead mother. In an impulsive moment of empathy, Maquia takes the baby, intending to raise him as her own.

Maquia’s relationship with her adopted son, Erial (Miyu Irino), starts off strong, but is inevitably strained when he becomes old enough to realize she doesn’t age — and it doesn’t help that the two must continually move from city to city as acquaintances begin to suspect Maquia may not be what she seems. Meanwhile, Maquia’s childhood friend Leilia (Ai Kayano) has been kidnapped and forced to marry the human king, and a significant subplot tracks an attempt to help her break free.

“Maquia” was animated by studio P.A. Works, who seemingly spared no expense. The animation is excellent, as is the soundtrack, thanks to composer Kenji Kawai (“Ghost in the Shell”). But despite a few impressive scenes of action, “Maquia” is ultimately an intimate family tale. Fantasy it may be, but the theme at the core of the film, about the changing relationship between parents and children as they grow up, is entirely real. It’s also a theme close to Okada’s heart: A memoir she published in 2017 details her strained relationship with her own mother, which she no doubt drew on for the screenplay.

When the first-time director and long-time screenwriter occasionally stumbles, it is when she relies a bit too much on dialogue and not enough on visuals to tell the story. The final 10-odd minutes in particular drag as various characters essentially explain the themes of the film at each other — effective on TV, perhaps, but for a big-screen release, I’d hoped Okada would have trusted more in the image to make her point.

Still, as a well-animated feature that explores the writer’s signature themes, “Maquia” is a solid directorial debut and, with its relatable message, it may also find the prolific screenwriter new fans.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go call my mom.