After working with screenwriter Mari Okada for a number of years, producer Kenji Horikawa needed to learn to work with the artist in a different way, as she set out to make her directorial debut with Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. An ambitious anime that conjures up a singular, fantastical world, the Oscar-shortlisted feature centers on Maquia, an immortal girl who takes a newborn baby boy out of dire circumstances, raising him as her own, and watching the relationship blossom into myriad complexities over the years.
Certainly, Maquia was an ambitious project for any director to take on, and particularly for a fledgling helmer. “It was such a big project that a lot of people weren’t sure that she could do it, so there was some resistance met there, and that was also a challenge to push through,” Horikawa reflects. “A lot of really amazing talents came together for this film, so my first question was, how do we get them to all recognize her as a director, when she has such little experience?” In addition to this resistance, Horikawa contended with the realities of the anime market, working for a long time to secure a green light. “Looking at the market, fantasy is a genre that has a really high hurdle,” he explains. “The competition is really fierce.” In close collaboration with Okada, the producer helped bring to fruition a visionary work, that could only enliven the form.
What was Mari hoping to explore, thematically, with this film?
We went around the world, touring with this film, and we got a lot of questions for Mari, because she’s a female director. I don’t think she actually consciously thought about the fact that she’s a woman, and that this was sort of a female-centric story. She wasn’t necessarily trying to push that. It was really just her upbringing that was the biggest influence on this story.
It’s largely about a character that is left behind by society, experiencing time at a different pace than society as a whole. That was the biggest theme, I think, for this one. Another big theme was how the relationships between people change, as we grow older. It wasn’t really so much about society, as it was about the humanity of director Okada, and her personal story.
What were her inspirations in crafting the film’s fantasy world? It seems that Mari put a lot of thought into constructing a unique universe for the film.
In a lot of the interviews that she’s had so far, she’s spoken a lot about the fantasy world, and the reason she picked non-reality. It’s because these relationships that she portrays are so raw and real. There’s even that aspect of the mother and son’s love, so there’s a weird kind of tension there, and if it was based in the real world, it would probably be a little too weird. To feel the subtleties of these different human relationships, it felt appropriate to use a fantasy world, rather than live-action or real-world animation.
What was important to capture, when it came to Maquia’s visual style? How was the film’s world brought to life on screen?
Akihiko Yoshida was the person who created the original character designs for this film. Mari really loved his work, and loved the worldview that he created. When I saw his design, I felt it was different from what Japanese people typically love in the animation world, and I specifically wanted this film to appeal to a global audience. I felt that it was different from the typical Japanese characters that you would see, but it was a design that anybody can dive into. The art director on this, who did the design of everything, his name is Tomoaki Okada. I think he did a really excellent job of portraying the Renato, the dragons, the minority tribe, and all these different fantastic elements that I think people tend to really love. He did a great job there, and created this really storybook-like design. He’s a really talented person, and he took little hints from lines in the script to create this whole world. Rather than taking really detailed instructions, it was more based on taking hints from little comments here and there, where he was able to create this entire world for us.
Was it challenging, artistically, to handle the passing of time with your characters? While Maquia never ages beyond a certain point, we see her son Ariel go through a real evolution as he comes of age.
It wasn’t such a big challenge, actually, to draw Ariel changing form. But a lot of the sub-characters, they’re all human, so they get older, as well. When some of these more minor characters showed up intermittently, we were worried that the audience might not understand who they are, if they see them as their older selves. So, that was a challenge that we dealt with.
What was the biggest learning curve Mari faced, in making that leap from writer to feature director?
As a producer, the thing I thought about a lot was that this is anime, which means it’s all drawn. To know how to give instructions, to say, “I want these types of faces in these moments,” and what to communicate in order to achieve a particular result, is something that she wasn’t really aware of. That’s also what would make her feel like a director, if she’s able to give this sort of instruction.
Figuratively speaking, as a writer, she had the weapon of words to express some of these complex ideas to her crew. If the crew had no talent, then they would probably ask for a lot more instruction. But because they had such great talent, they were able to take these concepts and ideas from her and run with it, and let these ideas grow, and be creative on their own to create this amazing world. They were motivated on their own to create these types of things. Mari is very observant of people, and that’s another one of her talents. She can instantly see when someone is struggling with a scene, or struggling with some task that they have. She notices and asks them why, and she’s really good at supporting them and taking that into consideration.
How did the team handle the film’s climax, which juxtaposes scenes of war with new life being brought into the world?
Drawing that scene required a lot of technique, so we used all of our best staff to create it. An important aspect of that scene is that Ariel has his own child, and in doing so, he releases his relationship with Maquia, meaning that he admits that she is his mother that really raised him, and that’s an important moment for his character. Maquia says, “You have the power to decide what our relationship is,” essentially. At the end, Ariel calls her mom, and she understands this and she leaves. That sort of solidifies what this relationship meant for them, at the end of this film.
If you look back on this film 10 years from now, what do you think the takeaway will be?
With any producer of a film, when you finish a big project, you can’t really look at it objectively. Maybe in 10 years I’ll be able to look back at this and say what the best part about it was. I look back some of my old films and I’m surprised at what I was able to do and think, “I probably wouldn’t be able to do that now.” For this film, I hope that there is something great that I see when I look back.
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