The story the anime “Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms” tells isn’t exactly a unique one, but there’s real power in how it unfolds, even if many of its elements are familiar. There’s a timid girl who is accidentally ripped from a beautiful, peaceful home and must find the courage to carve out a place in the outside world. There’s a beautiful princess slowly going mad in a castle. And of course, there is all the pain, heartbreak, madness, and ultimately healing beauty of love.
Maquia (Manaka Iwami) is a 15-year-old girl who is part of a race of beings called the lolph, who live in an isolated, beautiful land and spend their days weaving the Hibiol, a cloth containing the story of the passage of time. Although she and almost all of the other lolph have the appearance of teenagers, they are actually immortal beings who slowly age over the course of several centuries. Amidst this beautiful paradise, the orphaned Maquia is timid and lonely, longing for companionship. Seeing this, the elder she lives with warns her against falling in love if she finds herself in the outside world, since she would then experience the true meaning of loneliness.
Utopias have the tendency to fall, and sure enough, Maquia’s home is invaded by the neighboring kingdom of Mezarte, who have come to try to discover the secret of the lolphs’ powers in the hopes of reviving their dying kingdom. In the process, the lolphs are killed or scattered, Maquia finds herself torn away from her home and thrust alone into the mortal world, while her carefree, spirited friend Leilia (Ai Kayano) is captured.
Soon after her arrival in her strange new surroundings, Maquia discovers an ambushed caravan, which contains a dead woman still clutching a baby boy. Unwilling to leave the infant to die, she takes him with her and names him Ariel (Miyu Irino), kicking off an epic journey with the ever-growing bond between them as its center. Finding herself an accidental mother, Maquia is at first unsure whether she has the strength, or even the right, to be a parent to Ariel. But she embraces the role as their bond grows, then frays, and is finally repaired.
All the while, the kingdom of Mezarte is in turmoil. The magnificent, dragon-like creatures that are a symbol of its power are dying. Leilia is forced to become the consort of the prince in the hopes of reviving the royals’ power by introducing a lolph into their bloodline. When her daughter shows no signs of her mothers’ traits, Leilia is locked away in isolation in the palace, unable to even see her daughter, driving her to the edge of madness. Maquia and a few other lolph try to rescue herand fail, driving Leilia’s former lover Krim similarly mad. Unable to accept that time has moved her and Maquia into a very separate future, Krim attempts to force the remaining lolph back into an era that has vanished forever.
Because it isn’t only love that all of the film’s characters must reckon with. It’s the brutal passage of time, with a steady, unflinching focus on how Maquia and her son struggle to come to terms with the fact that she will not only outlive Ariel, but remain a teenager long after he becomes old. There’s a kind of commentary on how the growth of modern life leads to a kind of denial and lack of appreciation for the truths nature has to offer, with an idealistic rural home serving as a backdrop for the growing love between Maquia and Ariel, while the grittier, impersonal city sets the stage for Ariel’s estrangement from his mother as he enters his teen years himself and has to cope with the complications of their situation.
Writer-director Mari Okada has long had a career as an accomplished screenwriter in anime, but “Maquia” is her directorial debut. The film embraces its female-centric premise while mostly eschewing traditional romance for its heroine, preferring to focus on passion of another kind, with the movie’s rich visuals bringing all of its ideals to breathtaking life. That’s not to say other avenues couldn’t be explored more, with some characters, such as the prince, a drunken half-lorph, an elder, and even Leilia, practically begging for further development. Some of the film’s most touching moments also rely far too much on the most unlikely of coincidences, one of which has Maquia ending up at Ariel’s home just as his wife is giving birth. It can’t exactly be overlooked, but it can be forgiven since the movie makes such a good case for love winning out despite the pain it brings for its titular character, without shying away from the ugly realities of a medieval world which is slowly becoming more mortal and less fantastical as time continues its brutal, unstoppable march onward.