Mari Okada has become one of the most prolific writers in modern Japanese animation, not only contributing scripts to various beloved shows, like a new version of Lupin III, but also writing entire seasons of others and seeing her work adapted across anime, manga, video games and live-action cinema.
With Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms, an intimate story set against an epic fantasy stage, she turns to directing her own material for the first time. It sees title character Maquia, a young woman from an elf-like race, lose her home, family and friends when her land is attacked by bandits intent on capturing its women. Legend has it that her kind never age, making them valuable to other kingdoms.
After Maquia escapes into the unfamiliar outside world, she stumbles across an orphaned baby, whose parents have been slain. She takes him into her care and tries to raise him herself. The film follows the pair over several decades, as one ages but the other doesn’t, while it also becomes clear that Maquia may not be the last of her kind after all…
“A lot of the original screenplays I’ve written up until now have to do with time,” Okada says of her work to date. “I’ve always been interested in stories of relationships between people separated by time, or relationships changing over time, and I wanted to take that to the next level.” When asked whether there’s any sort of recurring theme that unites all her original stories, she adds that “there’s nothing that I always intentionally try to get in there. I always write what I feel like writing at that time. But people tell me, including about Maquia, that I always write about mothers.”
THE INFLUENCE OF CATS
“Another reason I wrote this,” she continues on the subject of the story’s origins, “comes from the fact that I have cats. And I’m aware that time for them is different to time for me. I was aware when I got them that, assuming I don’t have an accident or something, I will have to say goodbye to these little kittens because they’ll die before I do. That’s a heartbreaking thought, but I also wondered whether I could turn that into a story.”
“There was a story I couldn’t tell just by writing the screenplay,” Okada says of the major reasons for making Maquia her debut as a director. “Especially because there were a lot of strong emotions in this film and I thought that, if I just wrote the screenplay, different people would interpret it differently and it might end up going off in the wrong direction. And I know that, sometimes, the fact that there are so many people involved and contributing to an anime makes it into a better finished product, but, in this case, I really wanted to try to do something in terms of expressing emotions that I haven’t been able to do in the past.”
“Making anime is a joint effort involving lots of people,” she continues. “And what’s really difficult is getting everyone on the same page and making sure everyone is moving in the same direction together. That’s difficult enough in itself, and then I went and made it more difficult by choosing a fantasy setting! But I think that I managed to pull everyone together through the process of discussing every day about the background and culture of this world.”
WORKING A TONAL BALANCE
The film has these impressive seamless switches between small-scale intimate drama and large scenes of action, fantasy and sometimes surprisingly strong violence. “That was one thing that I really wanted to try to do with the film,” Okada tells us of managing the movie’s gear shifts. “I wanted to combine the sense of the Japanese anime films that I had loved as a child that were really exciting, as represented by the Renato [dragon-like lizards] in Maquia, with the emotional conflict and human drama that I’ve been writing in my screenplays over the years. The balance was tricky, but that was one thing that I really wanted to get right.”
WOMEN IN ANIME
With prominent discussion around increasing opportunities available for female directors in cinema all over the world, we wonder if Okada feels there’s any significant progress being made in Japan’s animation industries. “There have been more opportunities lately for female directors,” she says, “and I’ve had an opportunity to work with several. Because there have been more and more female directors recently, I think it was a bigger thing on this occasion not that I was female, but that I was a writer.”
“I spent three years working on Maquia with the whole team, and until then I was used to working by myself, writing alone. And the time that I’ve spent working with other people has really inspired me and given me ideas. And it’s brought me to the UK, to Ireland as well, and I’ve had the opportunity to talk to lots of people who’ve seen Maquia now, and that, again, has given me more ideas.”
“I’m really happy about it,” Okada says of the film’s UK cinema release happening so close to its debut in Japan. “I never imagined this happening. I thought that maybe people overseas would interpret the film differently to Japan, but talking to people I’ve realised that a lot of people have really picked up on the bits that were important to me. I thought maybe the image of a mother-child relationship might be different between Japan and other countries. I suppose the love would be the same, but there might be something else different [culturally] when it comes to parents and children moving apart. There might be some different ideas surrounding that. But it turns out that people really understood what I was trying to say in the film. And that makes me happy.”
Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms is in cinemas today. Read our review here.