Saturday, June 9, 2018

Anime On the Big Screen: “Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 9 June 2018
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 115 minutes
Production Date: 2018
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

So far this year, the anime films Madman has decided to release to cinemas have been stunningly mediocre. A fair few of them have been compilation films, and then only the first or second parts of trilogy compilation films. I’m really not sure who is watching these films and if Madman makes any profit from them. Perhaps with the incredible success of “A Silent Voice” they think any anime in cinemas will be a winner for them. Anyway, yet again I’m off to see another anime film in the cinema. It was a typical Canberra winter day today, though so far the weather seems to indicate it's going to be a much milder winter than previous ones. It rained all morning, but during the afternoon the clouds parted and sun peeked through. Yet despite the wet weather the Canberra Centre was packed with people. Dendy now only shows anime films twice a day, both sessions in the late afternoon regardless if it’s a weekday or weekend; the first at 4pm, the second at 6pm. I went to the first session in which about 20 people of mixed ages, evenly split between the sexes, showed up. Now, on with the film;

Set in low fantasy world the film introduces us to an elf like race known as “The Clan of Partings”, who live in secret and are to the outside world immortal, but in reality are called the Iorph and live for several hundred years. However their appearance is of young teenagers who all have long blonde hair. Life seems extremely peaceful in their small community. The Iorph weave using a looms to create long fabrics called Hibiol. In these fabrics they write and communicate their feeling to others and keep a history of the Iorph. The Iorph also seem to call life itself Hibiol and to a large degree refuse to differentiate the fabric they weave and life itself. One young girl, Maquia, confides in the village elder, Racine, that she feels alone. Racine reminds her that if she leaves the community, she can never fall in love due to the fact normal humans are mortal and will die long before her.

Later at night, Maquia spots her friend Leiria, rushing past her window. Curious, she follows her and discovers she is meeting her new boyfriend, Klim. Maquia is pleased for her, but the joyful mood is halted by the arrival of several Renato, large dragon-like creatures. Riding them are soldiers from the army of neighbouring country Mezarte. They’re here to take the female Iorphs back to their king. Naturally the Iorph resist. To make things worse one of the Renato is suddenly struck down with “red eye”, a disease which makes the creatures go berserk. It takes off a crashes though the cathedral where Maquia is frantically looking for Racine. As the beat mindlessly lumbers through the cathedral destroying everything in its path, the long strips of Hibiol which line the cathedral wrap around it’s body and entangle Maquia. The creature breaks through the cathedral ceiling and flies into the night sky, with the “red eye” disease eventually ending its life as it literally burns up on the inside, crashing into the forest tens of kilometres from the Iorph’s village.

Maquia comes to and turns towards the village where she can see a glow. She cries out knowing it has been torched and destroyed by the Mezarte soldiers. Stumbling through the forest distraught, she comes to the edge of a cliff. Deciding to end it all and jump, she is stopped by the cry of a baby. Maquia follows the cries down to a campsite near a river where inside a tent she is horrified to discover that the camp was attacked by bandits and the crying baby still in her mother’s dead arms. A young trader named Barlow makes himself known which naturally frightens Maquia. He is aware that she is an Iorph and tells her to leave the baby to die. However Maquia refuses and decides to care for the baby boy. Wandering onto a nearby farm house near a small village, Maquia tries to get the baby to suckle on a goat’s teat, but is caught by the owner, Mido. Mido is a single mother with two boys, Isol and Lang. Mido also realises that Maquia is an Iorph and decides to help her out by supporting her, finding her a job weaving in town and dyeing her hair so she doesn’t attract the villagers attention.

Maquia names the orphan boy Ariel and he soon grows into a young boy. When the family dog dies, it dawns on Maquia that her new family will all perish before her which upsets her greatly. Later at her workplace, Maquia's employer makes a trade for a piece of Hibiol cloth which she reads and is horrified to discover that Leiria is to be married off to the prince of Mezarte. She decides to leave her adopted family and head to Mezarte with Ariel. En route, she reunites with Klim who tells her that several Iorph survivors are planning to free Leira before the wedding. While the group are successful at rescuing Leira, she tells Maquia and a disbelieving Klim she cannot go with them.

I won’t say any more about the plot as not to reveal spoilers. As you may have noticed on anime news websites, this film is a major vehicle for screenwriter Mari Okada. Okada has been a prolific script writer for a number of anime for the last two decades, however it’s only in last eight years or so that her reputation has grown. Screenwriting for “Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day”, “Hanasaku Iroha” and “Anthem of the Heart” has catapulted her into the hearts of anime fandom. In more recent times she branched out into scripting live action films such as “My Teacher (Sensei!)” and “The Dark Maidens (Ankoku Joshi)”. Apparently the president of P.A. Works (the studio who animated this film) liked her work so much he gave her the chance to write and direct her own film (or more likely saw an opportunity to promote and market a new project off the back of a "hot" new talent).

Much like her previous movie screenplay, “Anthem of the Heart”, this film also revolves around motherhood and children. To those who have read Okada’s recent autobiography, “How I Went from Not Going to School to Writing Anohana and The Anthem of the Heart”, this should come as no surprise. The book deals with her life as a shut in teenager and her volatile relationship with her single mother. Though I think most of her life was captured in the script for “Anthem of the Heart” (or more correctly Okada got all of her angst about her mother out in that script), in this film the parent and child relationships are far more stable. It’s interesting to note that pretty much all of the promotional material seems to concentrate on fantasy aspect of the film and not the relationship aspect. Interestingly the two major parent and child relationships in the film are of single mothers. Other parent and child relationships in the film also focus on mothers.

I did find that aspect of the film really interesting, as well as the culture of the Iorph and the fact that the two major fantasy aspects of the film, the Iorph and the Renato, have become both endangered species on the verge of extinction in that world. There’s also the Iorph Klim who refuses to believe that his clan is heading into oblivion and manically sets about righting things in the belief his actions will ensure his species survival. Most of the world is fully realised and really well detailed. Okada also doesn’t over explain the world she has thrown the viewers into and is more content to let the viewers know only what is important to the story.

But the dreadfully melodramatic elements of the screenplay did annoy me to no end however. I understand that the relationships between Maquia and Ariel (as well as other relationships in the film) are highly emotional, but at times it came off as overly sentimental and schmaltzy. Like the awful “holy trio” of Key/Kyoto Animation anime (“Air”, “Kanon” and “Clannad”), this film was so maudlin at times it was almost laughable. It’s was so unbelievably manipulative times they should have just put up flashing subtitles saying “Cry now!”. Certainly I’ve seen worse, but as with a lot of modern anime subtlety can go out the window. Emotion is bluntly hammered home, both by the script and the actors who emote like their lives depended on it. It comes off as phony and unrealistic.

Despite the relatively talented staff, the film did feel a bit cheap. The animation by P.A. Works (“Shirobako”, “Angel Beats!”) barely gets a notch above TV anime series quality. Some of the CG cuts, especially a few shots of the Renato, look a little off. The character designs by Akihiko Yoshida (“Final Fantasy”) also seem a little bland in my opinion. One of the best elements is the score, by Kenji Kawai, however while it does reach some amazing heights, particularly in the opening scenes, it’s hardly his best work. Much of it is comparable to his synthesiser based TV work rather than the bulk of his orchestral based, ethereal sounding film soundtracks.

Overall I found this film to be a bit of a mixed bag. I really liked the world building and how the information was drip fed to audience on a need to know basis only. The relationships between the mothers and their children were explored really well. That as well as the fact there were several of these relationships explored in the film was really interesting and something you don’t normally see in an anime film. I also liked the idea of doomed species trying to find their way in the world, which has obviously changed for them, and not for the better. The life cycle of Ariel with Maquia coming to terms that she will outlive him is also explored quite well. But the overwrought melodrama did my head in. I was rolling my eyes at scenes I’m sure Okada was expecting to me to cry at.

I really don’t think these films are aimed at me. A lot of the time I do feel they are like a combination of plots, characters, and dialogue I’ve seen before remixed and presented as something brand new. I also feel that these types of films come off as rather safe and don’t take a lot of risks. Having said that I do think there are a lot of really original and intriguing elements to the story. I just wish the emotion had been toned down or made a bit more realistic. Like Naoko Yamada (“A Silent Voice”, “K-ON!”), Okada has been branded as an amazing new talent in the anime industry. I really don’t think she’s anywhere near Yamada in terms of direction, but like Yamada I think if given the right material (and maybe some mentoring) she will shine. In the end I think the melodrama killed a lot of the film for me. 6 out of 10. Oh, and by the way, remember to sit though the end credits for a post credits still shot!

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