Hitchcock once said that drama is life with all the dull bits cut out. Well, the master of suspense sadly died long before the release of Maquia, a two-hour anime that’s full of drama and, unfortunately, also studded with a bewildering number of dull bits.
Directed by Mari Okada, Maquia is a fantastical allegory with an epic sweep. Beginning in an idyllic land that appears to literally comprise ivory towers, the story introduces us to the title heroine – a 15 year-old member of the Iorph, an elven race of master weavers who can live for hundreds of years. Cut off from the outside world, the Iorph’s tranquility is disrupted by the arrival of the Mezar, a more advanced civilisation who arrive on gigantic, semi-tamed dragons and kidnap the Iorph’s womenfolk.
When the dragon she’s riding falls sick and drops out of the sky, Maquia slips from the Mezar’s clutches, and finds herself alone and frightened in the harsh outside world. After rescuing a baby from certain death in a village ransacked by robbers, Maquia – still a child herself – winds up as a surrogate mother. She names the baby Ariel, and for a while, finds refuge in a farmhouse with a woman named Deol and her two boisterous sons.
This is merely the start of a labyrinthine, somewhat episodic plot that sees the almost ageless Maquia remain the constant as children grow into adults and empires reach their zenith and crumble around her. The world Okada forges here is nicely done: a quasi-renaissance civilisation of castles, dragons and water-powered iron foundries that feels at once fantastical and familiar.
Nor can Okada be faulted for the scale of her ambition; Maquia unfolds over the course of what must be at least 70 years, and there’s a pleasing kind of disorientation in the way she lets the eras simply slide by without explanation. Like Maquia herself, we feel almost divorced from the flow of time; characters who were mere toddlers in one scene are drinking in a bar the next. All this, combined with some distinctive character designs by Akihiko Yoshida, go into an anime that’s ethereally beautiful in one scene and hard-edged in its depiction of war the next.
Thematically, though, Maqiua’s about as subtle as a bus colliding with a shop front. Motherhood is the thread that runs through the decades, and the movie would have been better served had it remained delicately woven in rather than discussed out loud – often in the midst of tears and wails of anguish – by every last character. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another recent feature film – animated or otherwise – that features quite so much crying and naked despair.
When they aren’t sobbing, Maquia’s characters are talking; even by the standards of TV anime, which tends to have more dialogue than big-screen animation for a variety of reasons, Maquia is mind-numbingly verbose. Scenes that, had they unfolded in silence, with a single, well-chosen image left to tell the story, could have been hugely emotional. Instead, characters talk and cry and talk and cry all over it.
By minute 100, the goodwill built up by Maquia – both the character and the film – has long since ebbed, and it’s possible some audience members will start tittering nervously at all the emotional incontinence. Eminent composer Kenji Kawaii’s music is reliably brilliant in places, but in Maquia’s more overwrought moments (and boy are there a lot of them), the swooning theme only serves to underline how melodramatic the film is.
At one stage, one recurring character – between weary swigs of red wine from a carafe – asks a grief-stricken Maquia, “Are you done yet?”
“I’m not,” Maquia says huffily, her bottom lip quivering as though she’s about to burst into tears again. By this stage, your humble writer was about ready to join her.
Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms is out in UK cinemas on the 27th June.