Reviewby Theron Martin,
Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms
15-year-old Maquia is an Iorph, a race of eternally-youthful blond immortals who live apart from the rest of the world, weaving a special cloth which tells the story of the world. At least that's the case until the king of neighboring Mezarte decides he needs Iorph blood to help retain his kingdom's prestige, because the dragon-like Renato that have long been Mezarte's trump card are dying off. A night of terror results in Maquia being separated from the rest of her people, cast out alone into the world. She soon finds a newborn whose parents were slaughtered by bandits and decides to raise him. As the years pass and the child she names Ariel grows up, she struggles to be a proper mother, while her relationship with Ariel gradually changes.
This feature film was far and away my pick for the best anime of 2018 based on a theatrical screening, and a second view on Blu-Ray only reaffirms my feelings on it. It's a movie packed with cathartic potential, telling a story that's very much an ode to motherhood but also has a compelling enough fantasy setting to attract genre fans. The strong balance of both these aspects is what ultimately makes this movie a shining success.
The story is the brainchild of prolific anime script writer Mari Okada, who also took her first foray into directing with this original project. She has penned a number of potently emotional dramas about relationships between parents and siblings, but to my knowledge this is the first time she has taken a parent's viewpoint in such a relationship, making Maquia stand out compared to her previous efforts. The struggles that Maquia faces as a single parent no doubt are heavily influenced by Okada's own experience with being raised by a single mother, and in some ways I have to wonder if Maquia is a reflection of the person that Okada wished her own mother could have been.
The focus on a parent's point of view invites inevitable comparisons to Mamoru Hosada's Wolf Children, but the two are only similar in the high regard they have for the mother's efforts. While Maquia is somewhat idealized, she doesn't come off as saintly and self-sacrificing as Hosada's Hana; the story makes it clear that Maquia needed Ariel every bit as much as he needed her, making their relationship not a great sacrifice or labor of love but a mutually beneficial bond. Being Ariel's mother gives Maquia direction at the time in her life when she is most lost, establishing an emotional bond that will always be a part of her, even if she outlives the relationship. That ultimate understanding makes the movie's epilogue especially poignant and fulfilling.
But the movie isn't just about Maquia. Seeing the way Ariel grows over time and how his relationship with his adoptive mother changes with the passing years is also a real treat. His frank admission late in the movie about how he really feels toward Maquia is arguably the movie's most powerful scene. Starkly contrasting this is the story of Leilia, the Iorph peer of Maquia who was stolen to birth a child by Mezarte's prince as part of the kingdom's desperate attempt to maintain their fading reputation. Her relationship with the daughter she's never allowed to see is vastly more conflicted and painful, which makes her eventual encounter with her daughter all the more poignant in an utterly different way. The supporting cast is also populated with smaller but sharply-defined roles, one of the most interesting (and perhaps underused) being the guard captain who's sympathetic toward Leilia but still bound by his duty.
The story isn't just about Maquia's struggle to be a mother, either. It's set against a backdrop of a world transitioning from an era of legends to an era of industry. While dragons die off and the Iorph struggle to recover lost members, guns and cannons are forged for battle, and those who chafe under the shadow of Mezarte's former glory await their opportunity to strike. This greater picture is never focused on much, purely providing a venue to frame the story rather than overtaking the plot, but the degree to which the world is developed without much exposition is still remarkable. The seamlessness with which the passage of time is handled also stands out; excepting the epilogue, the movie covers a period of roughly 18 years with effortless grace.
If the movie has a weakness, it's in the character designs, and even then that's only relative to the rest of the film's beauty. The designs do a reasonable job of contrasting the Iorph (an analogue for elves despite their lack of pointed ears) with ordinary humans and making Maquia's eternal youthfulness convincing, but the overall character designs are not quite as refined as many other efforts by P.A. Works. This is more than compensated by an impressive animation effort and detailed background artwork, especially the soaring stone edifices of Mezarte, the weathered ruins and carved houses of the Iorph homeland, the farmhouse where Maquia raised Ariel for a time, and the polluted industrial power of one foreign nation. The degree of identity and history allowed for each setting is quite remarkable for its limited emphasis. There are a few action elements to the story, and some moments can get bloody, but this is not an especially violent film overall.
The musical score by venerable composer Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell, Moribito, Mob Psycho 100) hits all the right notes as a fitting complement to the movie. Thanks to Kawai's efforts, the score swells effectively for emotional or dramatic scenes and beautifully promotes the more bucolic elements in quieter times. Closing song “Viator” by rionos is a lovely number that naturally flows out of the final scene to provide a perfect finish.
The English dub for the movie is provided by NYAV Post, and a more fitting English interpretation is hard to imagine. Xanthe Huynh has exactly the right voice to play Maquia and delivers on her emotional moments, while a succession of different voice actors make Ariel convincingly sound like he's actually aging; in fact, all of the children sound unusually age-appropriate by anime standards. Cherami Leigh also deserves special mention for a more limited but still emotionally effective performance as Leilia. The dub comes on separately-released Blu-Ray or DVD versions, which contain only trailers and a 22-minute behind-the-scenes featurette as extras.
Whether or not Mari Okada goes on to direct more anime, her debut creation is a passionate success. Generally strong production values and a story rich in emotion and symbolism make Maquia a worthy addition to any anime collection.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Emotional and compelling story, efficient use of world-building, strong English dub
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