Although Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms didn’t make as much of a splash in the U.S. as the Oscar-nominated Mirai, it’s just as worthy of acclaim. It’s also somewhat of a rarity, as it was directed by a woman, a refreshing departure from the traditional boys club of the anime world. Mari Okada has a lengthy resume as a successful screenwriter for her production studio P.A. Works, and takes full advantage of the opportunity to wholly express her vision with this directorial debut.
Maquia is a 15-year-old member of a blonde, fair-skinned, nearly eternal race called the Iorph, content to live their abnormally long lives apart from the world of normal men until they’re invaded and nearly wiped out by the kingdom of Mezarte. After she flees her destroyed homeland, she comes across the devastation of war in the form of a baby boy crying in the arms of his dead mother. She quickly decides to raise him as her own, dyeing her hair to pass as a normal human as they set about acclimating into a regular human community.
Meanwhile, the Mezarte have problems of their own. Their military might is built on the backs of a herd of ferocious dragons, but when the dragons start contracting a deadly disease, their military advantage is slowly diminished. They nearly decimated the Iorph in order to steal their secret to everlasting life, but find themselves unable to utilize the power either through blood transfusions or intermarrying for hybrid children. With other kingdoms circling them for dominance, it appears to be only a matter of time before their proud kingdom suffers defeat.
The two principal stories don’t seem like easy companions, and yet Okada manages to intermingle them via a remaining Iorph forced to marry the Mezarte royal and bear him a child, as well as Maquia’s son who eventually grows up and joins the palace guard. While the jumps in time to age Maquia’s son occasionally get a little confusing, especially since the Iorph don’t seem to age, Maquia emerges as a saintly figure who sets aside the destruction of her own people to focus on raising her adopted human son, even faced with the inevitability of outliving him. Okada makes the case that it’s not how long we have with loved ones, but that we have loved ones at all, a deeply moving sentiment in an achingly beautiful film.
While the film has shades of Game of Thrones with its bloody palace intrigue and dragons, it also reminded me of the classic manga and anime series Aria due to its wistful art, exceptional world-building, and its innocent young heroine. Backgrounds and character designs are equally detailed, although facial expressions seem a bit underdone to me even in an anime setting, with simplistic cartoon features and nearly non-existent noses that almost seem at odds with the realism present in every other facet of the production. That small quibble aside, Okada has crafted a sentimental fantasy that utilizes the power of passing time to drive home its focus on family and cherishing every moment we have with loved ones.
The Blu-ray includes a nearly half-hour bonus featurette about the film, mostly comprised of an in-theater Q&A with Okada and her studio boss, but also revealing some footage from production meetings. The film looks stunning on Blu-ray, a beautiful transfer of its lush artwork with vibrant colors and fine line work. Sound options include both Japanese and English DTS-HD 5.1 tracks to satisfy both dub and sub fans. English subtitles are great, with expert translation that fully conveys the masterful story.