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Interview: Mari Okada on Maquia - When the Promised Flower Blooms

by Jacob Chapman,

Beloved anime screenwriter Mari Okada's directorial debut—Maquia - When the Promised Flower Blooms—premiered to English-speaking audiences at Anime Expo 2018 this year, to be followed with a limited round of screenings from Eleven Arts across the U.S. We had the opportunity to discuss this ambitious fantasy drama with Okada herself, what it was like working with Kenji Horikawa on an original story, and where she hopes to take her accomplishments in the future. Spoiler Warning for Maquia - When the Promised Flower Blooms ahead.

Where did the idea for Maquia originally come from, and how long was it in development before P.A. Works was able to begin producing a film?

Mari Okada: As far as original projects go, I had written anohana and Nagi no Asukara about the themes of time and how relationships between people can defer, because of time passing. When I was first told that I could make a new project on my own, I really wanted to make an even stronger story about time and human relationships. From the time we first started talking about the project to now, it was three years altogether. We actually got into production a year and a half ago, so it took half of those three years to complete production.

In that time, how many drafts did you go through to discover what the story would ultimately be, and how much did it change from your original impression?

Usually when I'm writing a script, not directing, the producers and directors say, “Can you change this? Can you change that?” They would give me the orders. But this time, with a producer such as Horikawa-san, he'd just say, “Oh, that looks good.” It actually made me really nervous. So I myself made some changes, but I wasn't made to do so.

I would say it's unusual for a screenwriter to become an animation director. Was that always an aspiration of yours, that you wanted to direct? And what do you think made that unique opportunity available to you?

It is indeed rare for a script writer to become a director. I actually never thought I could be one. However, many of the directors that I've worked would often say to me “you should be a director”, because I always had this really detailed vision. I was describing the details about how scenes should be in my writing, designs and everything. So when they told me, “you should be a director,” I thought “oh, can I be one?” Around that time, Horikawa-san mentioned, “I want to see a 100% Mari Okada film.” So I thought, “How can we make a project that's close to being 100% me?” As a script writer, my work would be tossed around to all these designers and staff members, and it would eventually change form. It is a team effort. Sometimes something would be different by the end, it might even be totally different from what I envisioned. But because I was the director for this film, I could tell all the staff members, “this is the feeling I want, these are the visuals I want.” I feel like I could actually influence the staff members more directly. So yeah, this is closer to 100%.

Having seen the film, I think it is breathtakingly beautiful. How close do you think you were able to recreate scenes as they looked in your head? Is it a frustrating process as a first time director, trying to get an image to look exactly as you're describing it, since you can't just illustrate it?

While I write, I have all of these visions of how the film should look and the story should be and how things should be expressed. When I started with this project, the visions that other people have were not wrong, and I also felt their impressions make a project fuller and richer and deeper. Because I'm not an artist, I couldn't really say "this is how I want it" directly. It was really difficult for me to express what I wanted. I could only verbally explain, because I can't draw or paint. I had to find some other measures to convey my thoughts. But although I'm not an artist, I could tell when it was totally different from my direction. Of course, after a year and a half of spending time together, all the staff members got closer, so I could say what I wanted less politely, I could tell these artists more openly when something was different from what I needed. I could also take a photo of a sky and “this is what I want," present what I was envisioning that way. So that's how the process went.

Another thing that struck me about the film is that it has a very large world. When I watched it I was like, “this could be a JRPG.” It's very expansive. It has that kind of scope. And yet, we don't learn a lot about the political situation, we just focus on this very intimate story of the mother and her son. So to what extent did you need to know about the world-building stuff? Did you plan all that info out, even though we don't see it in the film?

I'm very happy to hear that. I'm very, very happy you felt that way. Strong emotions are not the same as large emotions. I wanted to convey very intimate and very deep emotions. Maquia and Ariel, Leilia and Krim, those relationships are stronger than what you can actually experience in the real world, which is why I made the background a fantasy world instead of the real world. If we tried to convey these deep relationships in a real city or our world, it might seem fake because the emotions are so deep. So that's why this story happens in a fantasy world. When you love someone that deeply, you could make wrong decisions or lose focus sometimes, but you gain so much from loving someone, and that's what I wanted to convey. So like you said, this is a really humongous-scale fantasy world. Many of my staff members were like “why did you do this?” They were cursing at me, and sometimes I was like “wow, gosh, is this really gonna be possible?" But we did use some existing buildings as models, we had reference for some things that existed in the world. Still, in order to really make this focus on the relationships between these people, Maquia and Ariel and Leilia and Krim, it had to be fantasy, and I still strongly think it had to be fantasy.

So Maquia has a very unique challenge in that it has to take decades and compress them down into minutes. What was your philosophy when deciding what to depict from a relationship over time? It seems like a unique challenge picking how long to spend on a certain point in a character's life and how much to leave out.

I already had in my mind that Maquia would be watching Ariel die. So when she sees Ariel as an old man, what would she remember? Naturally, the baby times, when he called her mom for the first time, and when he was being difficult with her, you know like a lot of sons go through that. So those choices came naturally.

In your autobiography, you emphasized that you only wanted to do adaptations for a short time, but then changed your mind and said that originals were fulfilling for you as well. Now that you're a director, would you ever consider directing someone else's writing?

I'm not really sure if Horikawa-san's going to let me do the direction yet for the next project.

Well, setting aside possibilities, how do you feel about it?

So as you know, I'm a scriptwriter. When I read somebody else's script, I can tell "oh okay, this writer is listening too much to suggestions or comments from other people, and they are becoming indecisive." I can feel those kinds of difficulties when I read other people's scripts. So I know that I would be understanding. If I'm asked, I might be interested in directing some project that's written by a much younger or older person, somebody who's had a totally different life from what I had.

What was the greatest challenge you faced when working on Maquia, and how do you think it strengthened you going forward?

I get asked a lot about the difficulties that I faced in this project in interviews. It's that process of making a film, the difference between making film and TV, because a series is quicker and as soon as one episode airs, you get a response from the audience and you can change something or get encouraged in your work. But film is a long process. It could be bland, it could be boring, it's really not as gregarious a world. It goes slowly, and within that time, you've got to keep the staff's motivation up and your own as well.

You have to really believe in a project long-term.

Exactly. So I really felt, as a script writer, that I had an obligation to write something with some significance, like let's make this one line amazing, let's make this a reality. Let's make something to be in the theater. Some kind of motivation needs to be there, because otherwise it's placid until it's actually launched. I really learned that as a scriptwriter. From now on, I'm going to make something that's significant.

Special thanks to Eleven Arts and Anime Expo for making this interview possible.

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