Mari Okada

153: Maquia: When the Promised Flowers Bloom Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Something that’s unfortunate not only in the animation scene, but the theatrical animation scene in general is that there is a huge lack of non- white male directors. At least, I find that to be a major observation. Maybe it’s a lack of awareness for the directors in question, because we know about women like Lauren Faust and Nora Twomey, but it could also be the fact that many powerful male creators for studios like the ex-head of Pixar and other areas of the animation scene have ruined the chances and passion many non-white male had with working in animation. Not every great story is going to come from one type of person. The more diversity we get with animation, the more stories we can tell, and the more voices that can be heard. A darn good example of getting a unique voice that told a compelling and powerful movie would be Mari Okada’s Maquia: When the Promised Flowers Bloom. Released last year by Eleven Arts in the states, Mari Okada’s fantasy drama was her first theatrical directorial debut for which she also wrote the script. This is on top of a successful career of writing, including Anohana, Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, and The Anthem of the Heart. So then, let’s dive in and see why this was one of the best animated films of 2018.

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The story follows a young woman named Maquia, dubbed by Xanthe Huynh. She is a being known as a Lorph, a race of human-like individuals that stay young and live longer than normal humans. They also weave their stories in these giant cloth-like fabrics. One day, a kingdom attacks her people to take a maiden from her clan to offer to the kingdom’s prince, so they can make long-living children and keep the kingdom afloat forever. Luckily for Maquia, she escapes when one of the dragon creatures the knights rode on goes berserk, and she ends up riding on it out of the reach of the kingdom. She then finds herself in a village that was attacked by bandits. Among the debris, she finds a human baby in the arms of his dead mother. Maquia decides to take care of the infant as the film follows the challenges of raising a child, learning about life, the trials of love, and being a mother.  

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So, what really cements Okada’s writing and directorial work in this film? Well, the themes this film tackles of loss, love, and motherhood. We have seen those themes before in films like Wolf Children, which has unfortunately been compared and contrasted with Maquia due to the focus on a mother raising a kid in a unique situation. What makes this film so dastardly with its way of using emotionally powerful moments is how Okada catches you off-guard. It’s like she sneaks up behind you, pokes you with a knife to tell you to get ready, and then when the time comes, stabs you right in the feels to deliver an extra powerful punch to your heart. I don’t think I have seen a film like Maquia that has made me cry harder the two times that I have seen it. Its themes are beautifully woven into the story as you get involved with the trials of Maquia taking care of this child when she is, considering her kind, young herself, and doesn’t really know what to do. You watch as decades pass and she stays the same, but everyone grows up and dies around her. You watch as her son gets older, and the challenge of their relationship and dynamic starts to get in the way of how they come off to other people. Everyone, from the kingdom to the immortal beings, see the rise and fall of mystical creatures becoming extinct and the fall of the kingdom at the end of the film. It’s a brilliantly somber but touching film that, while having incredibly gorgeous animation, shows Okada’s strengths as a writer. You feel heavily invested with the characters and what is going on with them. You want to see Maquia become a mother, you want to see her make sure her son grows up, you want to make sure the son doesn’t get killed, and you want to see her friendships blossom and stay connected. It’s a well-paced story that knows what main plot elements to focus on, and when to sparingly show off what is going on with the other characters.

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Animation-wise, Maquia is a gorgeous movie with beautiful vistas, great camera work, soft rounded character designs, and very well composted CGI. Yeah, once again, a Japanese animated film shows how to do it properly where many anime series fail in regards to the CGI. It can still be noticeable, but it’s not as distracting as say, any of Polygon Pictures’ products or that horrible Berserk continuation. In terms of the original language and the dubbed version, I think you can’t go wrong with either. Xanthe Huynh is incredible as Maquia and simply goes through the gambit of emotions, and you believe her every time. The other actors are good as well with Ryan Shanahan, Eddy Lee, Cherami Leigh, Kevin T. Collins, Brooklyn Nelson, Marc Thompson, H.D. Quinn, Ryan Bartley, and many other voice actors do great with their respective roles. While the music is nothing that you haven’t really heard before, Kenji kawai, the composer for shows and movies like Patlabor, Ranma ½, Devilman, Project A-ko, Burn up!, Ghost in the Shell, Dai-Guard, and Ip Man still delivers a sweeping epic score and soothing tunes that pull you into the experience.

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If I had to complain about something with this wonderfully touching film, I would say that the art direction isn’t all that creative. Yes, it’s a more human and adult story, but when you have the character designer Yuriko Ishii, who was inspired by the artist who did Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and Tactics Ogre, Akihiko Yoshida, you kind of expect something more creative. It all looks great visually, but there is nothing that unique or outstanding about the fantasy world that they live in. Also, while it’s not as bad as other films or anime series, you can definitely see when they use CGI. It’s not a major detractor, but it’s something worth noting. I also found a few times where the dub sounded like it got slightly drowned out by the music.

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Even with those criticisms, they are incredibly minor, because Maquia is such a powerful and moving film. It makes me excited to see what other directing gigs Okada will get in the future, and it makes me want to check out what she has done in the past. It’s finally out on DVD, but heads up. You can only get the Japanese dub version with the Blu-ray version of the film. The DVD version only comes with the English dub. Still, I’m happy and hopeful more people can finally check out this classic from Japan. Now then, we travel from Japan to go on a trip around the world! Next time, we are going to check out Laika’s newest film, Missing Link. Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Criterion/Essentials

Animation Tidbits #7: Annecy 2018 Edition Part 2

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this editorial/list!)

Last time, we looked at the Annecy’s In Competition line-up of films. Now, we are going to look at the Out of Competition films. These are the films that are showing, but not competing for the awards. It doesn’t make them any less interesting or important, because some of the films in this section are important. Let’s not waste anymore time, and let’s dive into the films that look the most promising to me. If you want to see part 1, you can go to this link right here! Let’s get started!

Out of Competition

Captain Morten and the Spider Queen: While its use of stop-motion might be more similar to something like My Life as a Zucchini, and less of the Aardman and Laika-style, this film does look creative. The story is about a boy who is shrunk down to a small size, and must sail his toy boat across a flooded café, avoiding the Spider Queen and Scorpion Pirate. Hopefully, they take advantage and have some fun with the “I shrunk down to the size of an action figure” setting, and it also seems like it’s going to be more than just a “shrinking movie” with everything probably having some kind of symbolic meaning to it.

Chris the Swiss: Here is one of the few partly animated, part-documentary films from this event. Chris the Swiss tells the story of, well, a Swiss man named Chris, who decades ago joined an army, and died. His cousin, an animation film director, decides to investigate what exactly happened with Chris, from what was going on at the time, and from the journals and war reports going on. I’m definitely curious to see where this takes us, in terms of the story, and how much animation will be in the film. It definitely will give us some unique visuals and a dark and interesting tone you don’t see in a lot of animated features.

Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires: There is a surprising amount of stop-motion at this year’s festival. Chuck Steel is essentially an 80s action cop film about Chuck Steel, who must save the day from an outbreak of Trampires, a horrific mixture of vampires and homeless people. It’s definitely aiming for that dumb schlock fun, and the stop-motion reminds me of the work by Will Vinton. It has a lot of detail and personality, and while it definitely shows the budget at times, Chuck Steel will hopefully be a fun time.

Hoffmaniada: Man, we are just getting so many of stop-motion projects this year. This is the story of a writer who gets sucked into his own book, and must escape the world in which the book takes place. It seems like it would lead to many creative and surreal visuals. I have seen about 30 minutes of the film, and it looks great. Sure, it looks like if the Rankin & Bass team had more budget in their specials, but the designs look great, and it reminds me of a lot of period dramas, due to the designs. Hopefully we can get a distributor like Good Deed Entertainment to bring it over.

Liz and the Blue Bird: From director Naoko Yamada, the individual behind the critically acclaimed A Silent Voice, is back with a new film called Liz and the Blue Bird. It follows the story of two female high school students, as they bond and get over challenges that life brings them while they are in band class. I think everyone can relate to when reality strikes you down, and starts to cause fissures around your life that will inevitably cause change.  It definitely looks interesting, and since it’s the same studio that did A Silent Voice, the animation is gorgeous. Sure, it has a bit of that “anime-style” that will probably turn non-Japanese animation watchers off, but the story sounds promising, and from what reviews I have read, it sounds like it’s going to be a good movie.

Maquia: When the Promised Flowers Blooms: What’s fairly cool about this year’s selection is that there are two female-directed Japanese-animated films. Liz and the Blue Bird, and this film, Maquia, by director Mari Okada. This one tells the story about a young woman named Maquia, who lives with a bunch of magical beings that weave the threads of human fate. One day, an invasion happens. She survives, but also finds a young boy to take care of, who was a survivor of the attack. Like our previous film on this list, it has some anime design choices I don’t personally care for, like the human designs, but I can overlook that, due to the goal and themes of the film. Okada is implementing themes of motherhood and adolescence into a touching tale. I trust she’s going to do a good job, and on top of Mari Okada, who was the screenwriter for The Anthem of the Heart, you also have character designer Akihiko Yoshia (Final Fantasy Tactics), and the music will be composed by Kenji Kawai, who did the music for Ghost in the Shell. I just love that more female directors are getting to work in animation, and are bringing in new perspectives, something that is sorely needed in animation.

North of Blue: This film by famed indie animation director Joanna Priestley is a visual wonder. It’s a film that’s more of an emotional and visual experience about our history and connectedness. It’s definitely a film that you are either going to love, due to all the emotion that the downright amazing visuals bring, or think it’s all style and no substance. I didn’t know what to expect when I watched the trailer for this film, but I can’t wait to see it!

On Happiness Road: So, I have been on the record of loving Only Yesterday, because it brings up adult topics of being adults, and looking back at our past to see if we are fine or happy with where we are now. This animated feature from Taiwan, On Happiness Road, directed by Hsin-Yin Sung, looks to capture that aspect that I loved about Only Yesterday. Yes, the animation looks more like a really good indie animated short from YouTube, but I think what’s going to help this film is the lovely visuals, writing, and the characters. I think everyone has had a moment to look back at where they are now, and wonder if they are accepting of what has happened since being a child. Plus, how many animated features from Taiwan do you see that look super promising? I can’t wait to see how this one turns out.

The Last Fiction: This action fantasy flick, based on the Iranian tale, The Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), is coming to us from Iran by director Ashkan Rahgozar. While there are definitely bits and pieces that you can point at to show off the budget, when are you ever going to get an action animated feature? So many US-made animated features don’t have variety, and while some have action sequences, a lot of them are played up more for laughs, than to watch something thrilling. It looks like a grand epic, and while it can definitely be compared visually to something like Avatar: The Last Airbender, I’m happy to see something coming from Iran. The more countries that invest into high quality animation, the better.

The Tower: I swear this is the last stop-motion film on the list. There are simply too many to count this year! This multi-country collaboration is a mix of 2D flash animation and stop-motion about a young girl living in a refugee camp. While its stop-motion looks like the style used in shows like The Amanda Show or the Oscar-nominated Negative Space, and the flash animation might not look impressive to many, it’s going to have to come down to the story and the characters to push us through the experience. I definitely think this has potential to be well-received, but we will have to see.

The Angel in the Clock: While I can definitely criticize some aspects, like the art style and the animation looking a bit too child-friendly, I have to give respects to Mexico for their entry in feature animation. It’s also a story that would get no traction from the big animation studios here in the states. It’s about a young girl who has leukemia, who wants to stop time. She then meets an angel named Malachi that lives inside her cuckoo clock. I love the idea that this film is going to be tackling such a dark and uncomfortable topic, and talking about how more people need to learn to enjoy what’s happening here and now, and worry less about the future. Like I said, the animation and designs are not my favorite, but the visuals look great, and I’m always down for more films aimed at children to tackle different topics.

A Man is Dead: And finally, we have this hour-long French animated feature called A Man is Dead. It’s based on the comics that are set during the strikes in Brest back in April of 1950 that caused the death of a union worker. While again, definitely showing its budget, it also does a good job to bring us into this rather tough and violent time period. Yes, the characters look like French comic characters with the small dot eyes, but we will have to see how the story and pacing carries over the span of the film. It doesn’t have a lot of time to get an entire story told, because it’s an hour long, but as usual, any film that talks about certain periods of time that are unique and original through the power of animation, gets my thumbs up and approval.

Thanks for reading! Next time, we will be looking at the films in the “Work in Progress” section!