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Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/11/18 12:55:52

"A throwback in style that feels bold and fresh."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Maquia" reminds me more than a bit of the anime that captured imaginations when I was younger, fantasy that takes some time revealing its details before integrating them into the background, building up a human story that nevertheless came quite be told the same in any other world. It's epic and intimate all at once, meticulously constructed.

It opens in the mythic land of Iorph, where the long-lived "Clan of the Separated" record the knowledge of the world by weaving it into Hibiol cloth. Maquia (voice of Manaka Iwami) is fifteen and a capable apprentice, though far more timid than best friend Leilia (voice of Ai Kayano) and her boyfriend Krim (voice of Yuki Kaji), and when soldiers from the city-state of Mezante arrives riding the dragon-like Renato, she is sent to find the elder, only to find herself carried away when both she and a Renato get tangled by the cloth. She winds up alone in the outside world, though not for long - she soon discovers an infant who has also lost everyone due to war, whom she names Ariel. A friendly widow (voice of Rina Sato) with two boys of her own takes them in, although it can't last: It's one thing to look like a teenager when your son is a baby, quite another when he's six.

Other events push Maquia and Ariel to hit the road that first time, and it's some canny writing on the part of filmmaker Mari Okada, intertwining what are big moments in Maquia's development as a person with larger-scale fantasy storytelling without ever feeling like large groups of people are fighting and dying so that one young woman can learn a moral lesson. Okada jumps forward several times, usually by just enough that the audience can see time has passed but only once by so much that there's a sharp discontinuity to Maquia's life, and the sweep of the movie shows up interesting ways: The pristine fairy-tale kingdom of Mezante industrializes, the dragons burn up from within, and Mido's dog dies, reminding the audience early that some lives happen faster than others. Okada connects fantasy, the end of an era, and personal maturation in an elegant manner.

More specific things resonate, as well. I wonder, for instance, how many teen mothers see themselves in the title character, utterly unprepared for the responsibility placed upon them even when they've made the choice to do so. Okada makes sure that it's seen as an active, difficult choice - Maquia must break the fingers of Ariel's mother to free him from her lifeless grasp, but soon shows she doesn't even know how to get a baby milk. How many children of such mothers feel tainted and unable to have a regular parent-child relationship the way that Ariel does? There is a contrasting story in the palace that is probably not given enough time about separated parents and children who cannot form a proper bond that isn't given quite as much time as it could probably use as well, although the jarring resolution may be deliberate. Both seem like more honest depictions of the missing-parent dynamic than when it's either a plotting convenience or a reason for a quest, thrown into sharper relief by the film's particular fantasy setting.

There's an impressively mature attitude in how it deals with war and politics as well, though it's in many ways a side story. There is no excitement or thrill to its climactic battle, only chaos and tragedy, the ultimate end to kingdoms relying on another era's strengths in a changing world. Leadership, it turns out, is decadent and even absent as the honorable soldiers fight on. There's ugly racism against the Iorph and consideration in the background about how their diaspora should function, from Maquia dying her hair red and putting on a little weight (Iorph are all apparently waif-like and blonde) to assimilate to Krim's violent rebellion. It's not the center of Maquia's story, but not something one can pretend doesn't affect her.

This is not necessarily the most beautiful anime to come out in the last few years; there's a simplicity and flatness to the character design that seems like a bit of a throwback to the 1980s (at least until you look closely at less-static crowd scenes and some bits with a more active camera), but that's fine. It's less overwhelming and doesn't require quite so much of a switch when the filmmakers want to have the audience slow down and think about something. The character designers and animators also do some of the best work in letting time pass so that people and places can age smoothly since Millennium Actress, a nifty feat since the easy choice would be for the Iorph to not age at all, but Maquia's subtle maturation is important.

I gather today's anime doesn't have a lot like "Maquia"; the money is in the manga franchises that don't have as much sweep in a single entry, and are indeed built to fit in between episodes of long-running series. If that makes it a throwback or an oddity, fine; it's a nifty story that reveals more layers the closer one looks, and the type still can't quite be told nearly as well in any other medium.

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