Bring some tissues.
Award-winning screenwriter Mari Okada’s (Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day) directorial debut film is a thoughtful, heartbreaking exploration of motherhood and the cruelty of time set in gorgeous animation. Its music, its framing, its cuts between scenes, and its soft art style that contrasts so well with some blunt violence and cold moments all serve to advance these themes, and save for a few hiccups, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms succeeds wonderfully.
The Iorph are a mythical sort of a people that live for hundreds of years but eternally look like children. They live in isolation and spend their days weaving beautiful cloth called Hibiol. At first their beautiful, closed-off world seemed a little cold and oppressive, especially with protagonist 15-year-old Maquia’s obvious loneliness, but it’s a strong community with interesting customs nonetheless. Their lives are disrupted when a nearby kingdom’s troops and dragons invade to kidnap the seemingly immortal women for one to marry the prince of the kingdom. Maquia is separated from the catastrophe when she’s carried away by one of the dragons and is left alone in the wilderness. This leads Maquia to discover an orphaned baby who she chooses to raise on her own.
From there, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms moves through Maquia’s youth so quickly that it sometimes takes a moment to realize when there’s been a time jump, especially since these shots often start with an unaged Maquia. While they initially took me by surprise, the sudden time jumps and fast pace of the film are a smart reflection of Maquia’s life. The world and the people around her change rapidly, and though her character and understanding of the world certainly grow with time, there’s a part of her that’s always distant because she doesn’t age like everyone else.
Maquia’s appearance and age lend to a meaningful exploration of what it means to be a young mother and the hardships that unfairly come with it. Strangers talk down to her for having a child when she’s still young, she’s turned away from jobs, and other kids tease her adopted son, Ariel. Their mistreatment is painful, and a scene that shows just how society’s expectations weigh on her little family causes heartbreaking ripples throughout the rest of the film.
The stark difference between Ariel as a child and a young adult had me surprisingly yearning for his earlier days in the movie. Even though Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms moves so quickly, there are many great scenes early on of the two of them learning how to take care of each other and be a family. The unique challenges they face as he grows and she doesn’t make his older days far more stressful.
While Maquia and Ariel develop their relationship, a subplot running alongside their journey takes a broader look at the Iorph’s relationship to the world through Maquia’s friends Leilia and Krim. These two have a far more depressing story, and while it’s mostly good, there’s a crucial part that felt far too rushed for the severity of the scene. Another fault in Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms is how some events in the climax were far too coincidental for the sake of bringing certain themes full circle. There’s one in particular that, while intended to be sweet, soured a little because of just how convenient it was.
But no matter what’s happening in the story, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms always looks beautiful. Animation studio P.A. Works took a softer, bright style that works well for the fantasy setting. Gorgeous peaceful scenes early on are a great contrast for the crowded cities and eventual calamity that follow after. The voice acting is marvelous too with Maquia’s Manaka Iwami and Leilia’s Ai Kayano as standouts.