The thing that most surprises me about the Japanese animated feature Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms* is that it is not based on a manga series. Which of course should be no surprise at all, given that the vast majority of films in history have also not been based on a manga series, but most of them don't feel like they were nearly as much as Maquia does. It's a 115-minute feature that feels like it really needed another 20 minutes to even start dealing appropriately with all of its subplots, and even then it would have been a fairly rushed adaptation of much more languid source material. Except that there is no source material, just an original screenplay from the prolific writer Okada Mari, making her feature directorial debut.

That original story takes place in a high fantasy world that's closer to medieval Europe than anything else, where there lives a race of humans called, among themselves, the Iorph. They have separated themselves from the rest of the world on account of their peculiar aging process: they are born and grow normally until they reach their mid-teen years, after which point their bodies simply stop changing, while they continue to live for centuries. To pass the time, they weave hibiol, long strips of cloth that document the history that the Iorph see passing them by, and it is suggested that this hibiol is highly-prized in the outside world. Of course, the secret to near-immortality would be prized even more, which is why the unspeakably beautiful and placid valley where the Iorph live is invaded one day by the imperialistic Mezarte kingdom, which has dominated the region thanks to its control of the "renato", a race of huge, multi-eyed dragons. The renato, already rare in number, have of late been suffering from a disease called "red eye", which drives them insane briefly, before they explode.

So hear's the interesting, frustrating thing about Maquia: none of what I've written so far actually matters. The film is dense with world-building elements, and full of subplots involving Mezarte's attempts to breed Iorph genes into the royal bloodline and civil unrest and any number of things, and it's all extremely busy without being terribly productive. Especially since there's more than movie enough in just the one central narrative that emerges brightly from the general clutter: that of the orphaned Iorph Maquia (Iwami Manaka), who is 15 when the film starts and just about the age where she's no longer visibly aging, and her adopted son Ariel (voiced as an adult by Irino Miyu). Maquia finds the infant Ariel in the protective clutches of his dead mother in a burned-out farmhouse, presumably the handiwork of the same Mezarte military action that has just invaded the Iorph community to kidnap Maquia's best friend Leilia (Kayano Ai), in the process leading Maquia herself stranded in the woods besides the corpse of an exploded renato. As the world rages around them for the next twenty years or so, Maquia grows in wisdom and patience while remaining outwardly a young teen girl, and her great devotion to keeping Ariel save and loved does not prevent him from growing into a sullen teenager who views his adoptive mother as some kind of unknowable freak.

It's a lovely little domesticated fantasy, in which the emotional torments of motherhood are rendered into fable, and it really is sweet and sad and moving, with a perhaps-unnecessarily extended epilogue that decides that subtly manipulating the audience throughout the movie perhaps wasn't enough, so it's time to start punching us directly in the tear ducts. I think I see what Okada was gunning for: a snugly intimate human story told against a grand historic backdrop, and that almost works. The big problem is that this isn't real history, so the film can't simply pick and era and tell a story there: it has to define what the fuck is going on, and this paradoxically takes both too much and too little time. Too little, because I still don't think I know what's going on (or rather, I can only entirely figure out what's going on because I've played a great many Japanese RPGs set in worlds very akin to this one). Too much, because there are enough digressions from the main narrative spine about Maquia and Ariel that it starts to get in the way of those characters and their tribulations.

Anyway, if Maquia is a bit frustrating on the storytelling front, it makes up for it with some staggeringly beautiful imagery. This is the first feature film made entirely in-house at the 18-year-old P.A. Works studio, and it instantly puts that company in the top echelon of anime studios I'll be keeping an eye out for. It is unbearably lush, with eye-scorching colors in all the shades of summer applied to subtly 3-D environments, and then dappled with incredible lighting effects. Early in the film, there are many shots of the hibiol cloths suspended from the tall ceiling of a tower, with diffuse sunlight streaming into the blue gloom and then further diffusing itself as it hits the translucent cloth, with characters staged on either side of the fabric as it gently waves back and forth. I'm not sure if there's any purpose to this other than as a brazen "fuck you, look at what we can do" gesture, and even if there's not, that's reason enough to do it.

The film grows less overwhelmingly showy in its beauty, but it never stops being extravagantly lavish: the very nearly photorealistic backgrounds are treated with just the right amount of hyper-real colors to feel like the right environment for the clean lines of the character designs, which are superb (especially the almost featureless Iorph, who all blend into one impression of long platinum blonde hair and flat noses, with just barely enough there for us to distinguish them - and that often in the costuming). One of the things the film is great at is eyes, strong and "readable" in the fashion of anime, but with digital painting trickery to make them almost glow with color and personality.

It's a stupid gorgeous movie, in short, and an easy recommendation with anybody who likes anime at all. Though I'd hate for it to be somebody's introduction to that marvelous form; the story is sloppy and the fantasy world-building starts fast and doesn't let up. It's not a friendly movie, necessarily. But once you figure out its wavelength and meet it there, it provides some very rich emotions, well-augmented by Kawai Kenji's grandly-orchestrated Romantic score and also by the exquisite cartoon simplicity of the character animation. It's got its share of problems, but as a directorial debut, it has me deeply interested to see where Okada goes next, and I have to imagine that this will be the richest-looking Japanese animated feature to show up in the United States this year, if nothing else.




*A completely spurious translation of the original Japanese title that is apparently too aggressively idiomatic to render in English even literally; IMDb offers three different translations, of which "Let's Decorate the Promised Flowers in the Morning of Farewells" is the one that is the most readily parsed for meaning.