Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Mari Okada, 2018)

maquia poster 1Perhaps because of its often adolescent target audience, the “hahamono” or mother movie is a relatively rare genre in the world of anime despite its importance in other Japanese media. Wolf Children aside, most anime prefer to focus on the problems of young people dealing with an absentee or unreasonable parent who unwittingly enables the teen to undergo the adventures shortly to ensue. Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Sayonara no Asa ni Yakusoku no Hana wo Kazaro), is an exception to the rule in examining the complex nature of motherhood with a sideline in the legacy of familial disconnection, alienation, and the cyclical natures of life and memory. Flawed if ambitious, the first directorial feature from scriptwriter Mari Okada is a sprawling fantasy epic but one with its heart firmly on its sleeve.

Maquia (Manaka Iwami) is a member of the Separated Clan – an Iolf who weaves time and life into being. The life in Iolf is idyllic, if dull, and consists of little other than weaving. Maquia’s tomboyish friend, Leilia (Ai Kayano) rejoices in daring stunts and precocious flirtations that the shy and introverted Maquia can only dream of, while Maquia, an orphan, feels herself alone and remains somehow incapable of bonding with the other children. When Iolf is raided by Mesarte soldiers, Maquia is carried off by one of their great stone dragons. Now forced to explore the world outside of Iolf, Maquia chances on the remains of a ruined camp, stumbling over bodies only to discover a howling baby boy still held in the icy grip of his mother who tried her best to protect him even as she died. Perhaps identifying with another soul so completely alone, Maquia picks the boy up and decides to raise him though she is barely more than a child herself.

As the Iolf age much slower than the average human, Maquia’s quest to find true connection through maternity is destined to end in tragedy. Maquia christens her son Arial (Miyu Irino) and finds a home with a kindly ranch woman raising two sons of her own alone after her husband was killed by a rabid dragon, and begins to bond with her little boy. Meanwhile Leilia has been kidnapped and forced married to the Mesarte prince in the hope that his heir will inherit some Iolf lengevity. While Maquia is beginning to find connection, Leilia now tastes isolation as an imprisoned minority in the imperial court where she is also separated from the daughter born from a non-consensual union but loved all the same.

Though she already feels so alone, Maquia is warned by her Elder that if she wants to experience true loneliness she need only fall in love with a mortal. Maquia falls in love, or rather tries to, but as a mother rather than a lover. Pouring everything into her child Maquia knows the day will come when she must lose him, but for her it is in a more concrete sense than the normal breaking of a mother/son bond. The notion of mortality and differing lifespans is somewhat uncomfortably dramatised by the passing of the aged family dog who reaches the end of his journey long before his master. Though the message is sound is enough it does rather negate Maquia’s insistence that Arial is not a toy, implying that humans are almost like pets to the long-lived Iolf, something to be loved and fussed over in knowledge of its impermanence but something to which a lesser attachment is formed. 

Maquia, however, hurtles in the opposite direction, vowing to sacrifice all of herself in service of her son. Turning down a suitor in order to remain true and pure as an idealised mother figure, Maquia perhaps takes a retrograde step in agreeing to negate her own personality to become “a mother”, but like the classic hahamono, her overwhelming love proves too much for her growing son who grows tired of the burden of a mother’s expectation, longing to be free of her somewhat suffocating need to protect him while belittled by the knowledge that he, a mortal yet still a man, is incapable of protecting her. Maquia must find the strength to let her son go if she is to see him grow, but to do so will require a shift in self-knowledge born of truly learning what it means put another’s interest above one’s own.

Maquia’s struggles play out in parallel with the ongoing political drama surrounding the corrupt and oppressive Mesarte regime which seeks to rule by fear and violence, stealing the gifts of the Iolf only to abuse them. No matter the genesis, Prince Hazel seems to have formed a genuine attachment to his stolen bride (even if it is not returned) and does what he can to “protect” her, while her former love from the Iolf, Krim, has gone half mad through love denied, kidnapping Maquia to rope her into a half-baked rescue plot before threatening to burn the world if he cannot have his love for the price he is willing to pay.

The question is one of whether it is better to connect fully in the knowledge of a coming heartbreak, or hold back in self protection. In this Maquia learns the true meaning of her Elder’s instruction and begins to realise that the fabric that she weaves is spun from love and memory. Nothing is ever truly lost, merely laid down for someone else to pick up, and while parting is inevitable meeting is not and is something to be treasured no matter how painful it may be.


Distributed in the UK by Anime Limited

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Note: there seems to be some variation in the translation of the names of various characters, this review uses Anime Limited‘s list.

Death Note: Light Up The NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

Death Note- Light up the NEW WorldTsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata’s Death Note manga has already spawned three live action films, an acclaimed TV anime, live action TV drama, musical, and various other forms of media becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the process. A return to cinema screens was therefore inevitable – Death Note: Light up the NEW World (デスノート Light up the NEW World) positions itself as the first in a possible new strand of the ongoing franchise, casting its net wider to embrace a new, global world. Directed by Shinsuke Sato – one of the foremost blockbuster directors in Japan responsible for Gantz, Library Wars, and the zombie comedy I am a Hero, Light up the NEW World is a new kind of Death Note movie which moves away from the adversarial nature of the series for a more traditional kind of existential procedural which takes its cues from noir rather the eccentric detectives the franchise is known for.

Ten years after Kira, the Shinigami are bored out of their minds and hoping to find themselves a new puppet to play with and so they drop six notebooks at different places across the world and wait to see who picks them up. The first is a Russian doctor who uses it out of curiosity and compassion when faced with the desperate pleas of a suffering, terminally ill man. Others are not so altruistic, as a young girl with reaper eyes goes on a mass random killing spree in the busy Shibuya streets while the police attempt to cover their faces so they can’t fall victim to her relentless writing. Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) of the special Death Note task force hesitates, uncertain whether he should disobey orders and shoot the girl to end her killing spree, but his dilemma is solved when a strangely dressed masked man appears and shoots her for him. He is special detective Ryuzaki (Sosuke Ikematsu) – L’s successor, and a crucial ally in discovering the Shinigami’s intentions as well as the counter plan to obtain the six books and lock them away to permanently disable the Death Note threat.

As in the original series, Kira has his devotees including the cybercriminal Shien (Masaki Suda) who is intent on frustrating the police’s plan by getting his hands on the books and using them to complete Kira’s grand design. This time around, there’s less questioning of the nature of justice or of the police but at least that means there’s little respect given to Kira’s cryptofascist ideas about crime and punishment. At one point a very wealthy woman begins to voice her support of Kira because something needs to be done about “the poor” and all their “crimes” but she is quickly cut down herself as her well dressed friends attempt to rally around her.

The focus is the police, or more specifically their internal political disputes and divisions. Mishima, described as a Kira geek, heads a special squad dedicated to Death Note related crimes, where he is asssited by the flamboyant private detective Ryuzaki who is apparently the last remaining inheritor of L’s DNA. Mishima remains distrustful of his colleague but the bond between the rest of the team is a tight one. In order to frustrate possible Death Note users, none of the squad is using their real names which places a barrier between comrades in arms when it comes to building trust and solidarity in addition to leaving a backdoor open for unexpected secrets.

Sato’s focus, as it has been in the majority of his career, is genre rather than character or exploring the wider themes of the Death Note franchise from the corrupting influence of absolute power to vigilante justice and the failings of the judicial system. The new Death Note world is a more conventional one loyal to the police procedural in which dogged detectives chase mad killers through whatever means necessary whether on foot or online.

The action, however, is generally exciting as the police engage in a cat and mouse game with Shien even if not as complex as that between Kira and L. The Death Notes are an unstoppable force, corrupting otherwise fair-minded people and turning them into vengeful killing machines acting like gods in deciding who should live and who die. Moving away from the series trademark, Light up the NEW World is, essentially, the generic thriller spin-off to the main franchise but is no less fun for it even if it necessarily loses a little of itself in the process.


Death Note: Light up the NEW World was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Psycho-Pass: The Movie (劇場版 PSYCHO-PASS サイコパス, Katsuyuki Motohiro & Naoyoshi Shiotani, 2015)

psycho-pass movieThe Japan of 2116 is a peaceful place. Crime is at an all time low thanks to the Sybil system which monitors the nation’s citizens issuing them a “Crime Coefficient” rating assessing how likely they are to commit a crime. When a potential criminal’s Psycho-Pass reaches an unacceptable level, the Public Safety Bureau are called in to hopefully put a stop to any criminal activity before it has the chance to occur.

However, the world outside of Japan is not quite so ordered and so its Sybil system has become an important political export. Things are about to get murky as the nearby SEAUn (South East Asia Union) is currently in a state of civil war and its de-facto leader has struck a deal with Japan for additional support in return for trialling the system in a new reclaimed land development. Not everyone is happy with sacrificing personal liberty for social safety and so an active resistance unit working against both the deployment of Sybil and the leader they see as a dictator is continuing to prove a destabilising force.

This all comes to a head when a group of so called “terrorists” manage to sneak in Japan hoping to  take the fight to Sybil itself. After a brief but intense shootout with the PSB, the gang is neutralised save for one which famed Inspector Akane Tsunemori manages to capture and take in for questioning. However, whilst Akane is waiting for the captive to come round from the sedative she gave him, her bosses have taken drastic action which amounts to lethal torture. Akane is horrified, but when the recovered information flags up the familiar face of her former colleague Kogami, she quickly finds herself at the centre of covert, international political machinations which cast her own nation in far from a positive light.

Psycho-Pass: The Movie (劇場版 PSYCHO-PASS サイコパス, Gekijo-ban Psycho-Pass) is the big screen outing for the hit TV anime which has so far spanned two series each with their own distinct narrative arcs. Series creator Gen Urobuchi handled the first season but sat out the second (handing the reign’s over to Murdock Scramble’s Tow Ubukata) in order to work on this film which takes place after season two but was actually developed at the same time so avoids direct reference to its events. For the most part, Psycho-Pass: The Movie works as a stand alone enterprise though it does make reference to plot elements from season one, or more exactly its villain, without further explanation which may leave newcomers feeling lost. Fans of the franchise already familiar with the characters and their relationships will undoubtedly get the most out of the set-up, but in depth knowledge of the series is never a prerequisite for understanding the action.

“Action” is an apt place to start when it comes to the themes of Psycho-Pass: The Movie as it acts more as an exciting side story to the main series than the grand conclusion that might be expected. Broadly speaking, the central concern is the increasing interference of powerful nations in the “domestic affairs” of smaller ones. Akane is as idealistic as they come despite everything she has already seen and is unprepared for the extent her own nation’s complicity in this very dirty, possibly proxy, war. In this country, those with flagged Crime Coefficients are forced to wear a standard issue collar which is designed to explode Battle Royale style and are treated as an underclass not permitted to board the same public transport or occupy the same “public” space as the general population. Once again this sits uncomfortably with Akane, but there isn’t a lot she can do about it.

Kogami, now a drifting mercenary since going on the run from the PSB, has become a rebel revolutionary trying to help the oppressed citizens fight for democracy in this war torn land. To some, he’s a terrorist (though the rebels are never shown targeting civilians or carrying out “terrorist action” so much as acting as a resistance group) but his sights are firmly set on hypocritical, oppressive regimes and especially those acting as puppet states for a third party. Akane and Kogami’s relationship status continues in the “it’s complicated” direction which has progressed throughout the series and they aren’t given very much time to build on that here though their mutual respect for each other adds to the tension as each comes to terms with being on opposing sides yet somehow still “together” in spite of external obligations.

Even if Psycho-Pass: the Movie proves disappointing in terms of its character development (betraying its side story origins), it excels in the action stakes with several impressive, high octane battle scenes not to mention the strange ballooning effect of the explosive Dominator weapons. Though it sets up a complicated, geo-political conspiracy of superpowers exploiting civil unrest to steal puppet states and install dictatorial stooges who oppress the local population into a sublime obedience with the promise of long desired peace, it wisely avoids expository dialogue preferring to keep things moving in a more urgent fashion. A minor entry into the Psycho-Pass world, Psycho-Pass: The Movie is nevertheless an exciting return to its increasingly dystopian universe and even if it adds little in terms of themes or characters, does at least point towards a promising continuation of the series.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Psycho-Pass: The Movie has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US).

English Subtitled trailer:

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (攻殻機動隊 新劇場版, Kazuya Nomura, 2015)

Ghost in the Sell new movieMasamune Shirow’s cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell burst onto the scene in 1989 and instantly became a genre classic. Mamoru Oshii then adapted the manga into a much lauded anime movie in 1995 which almost came to define cyberpunk animation even if it emerged towards the end of the genre’s heyday. A sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence followed in 2004 as well as a TV anime spin-off Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Now with the 20th anniversary of the original animated movie, the series has yet again been adapted into a series of entirely new anime OVAs under the name of Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (攻殻機動隊 新劇場版, Kokaku Kidotai – Shin Gekijoban) is the big screen outing of this latest incarnation scripted by Tow Ubukata who also produced the very GITS influenced Mardock Scramble.

Following on from the Arise OVAs, we find Major Motoko Kusanagi at the head of her gang of cybernetically enhanced former soldiers operating as security consultants with a special focus on cyber crime. Still outside the government aegis, Kusanagi has managed to wangle herself some extra funding and official patronage when she’s brought in to handle a sensitive hostage situation as seven disgruntled soldiers take a number of hostages inside a financial institution.

Though Kusanagi & co have the situation well in hand, they are about to have the rug pulled from under them firstly by the reappearance of the Firestarter virus which corrupts the memories stored on an infected cyberbrain wreaking havoc with their new captives, and then secondly as the hostage situation itself turns out to be a high level diversionary tactic designed to provide cover for the assassination of the prime minister. Kusanagi and her team quickly discover there’s far more going on here than they could ever have imagined and soon enough Kusanagi herself becomes the centre of a hi-tec conspiracy.

Like the Arise OVAs which preceded it, The New Movie maintains a much heavier focus on action set pieces than the philosophical contemplations that made Ghost in the Shell such an important entry in the cyberpunk catalogue. Though the ideas are not entirely absent, they are presented as background much more than an essential component of the series.

That said, the film does touch on some quite prescient issues firstly with the role of the soldiers which highlights the pressures ordinary rank and file officers are under when they see their service has not been valued and they’re about to be sold out by the country they risked their lives to protect. They are also, apparently, not well cared for by military authorities who kit them out with second grade equipment which they then also fail to maintain leaving many of their number literarily falling apart as their components become “obsolete”.

Ironically enough, Kusanagi also thinks of her team as component “parts” in a well functioning machine. She congratulates herself by praising them as a prime selection which she has been lucky to find – they need to look after themselves because a replacement component would be a hard thing to come by. However, if they begin to malfunction in some way, she will “purge” them rather than allow them to corrupt the rest of her system. This way of thinking seems cold to some members of the team, particularly to Togusa who’s the least “enhanced” among them. Raised by the military, Kusanagi is a born leader but not one to whom warm words come easily so this, actually rather apt, metaphor is as close as she will allow herself to get in letting the guys know that they each have their specific place within her grand plan. Though she needs them to perform as expected, they are important to her on both a personal and professional level.

This is where we’ve been heading with Arise – the origin story of Section 9 as it comes to be in the original movie, and of Kusanagi herself. Unsurprisingly the conspiracy turns out to have a lot to do with the Major’s own past and a few buried “ghosts” which must be exorcised in order to move forward. This extended metaphor is played out in the somewhat contrived final fight which sees Kusanagi facing off against a villain using an identical cyberbody which means she is fighting “herself” in a way, but nevertheless, it is a victory of the reclaimed self (even if that same “self” is about to undergo yet more existential battles in adventures to come).

The new character design and animation style have begun to seem more familiar by this point, though despite the stellar work of Production I.G the New Movie never quite reaches the aesthetic heights of the iconic original. This is only further brought out by the frequent homages to 1995’s Ghost in the Shell including the final scene which is almost a carbon copy of the original film’s opening (thematically fitting as it is). The action scenes, however, are extremely impressive and display innovative animation techniques which make fantastic use of the latest animation technology. Another exciting, action packed outing for Major Kusanagi and her guys, the New Movie doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of its namesake but nevertheless proves a thrilling cyberpunk infused adventure and a fitting bridge between the Arise series and the landmark 1995 movie.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie is also available in the UK from Manga Entertainment (and Funimation in the US).

Unsubtitled trailer (why is it so hard to find a trailer for the Japanese language track with English subtitles for these?)

Harmony (ハーモニー, Michael Arias & Takashi Nakamura, 2015)

Harmony PosterHarmony – the word itself sounds peaceful. A coalescence of sympathetic sounds, the feeling of wholeness and happiness. However, if given the choice, would you like to live in a world of peace and plenty in which your body is almost government property and your personal freedom is limited in favour of ensuring the survival of the species, or would you rather take your chances with the world as it is complete with its violence, sadness and pain if it meant you could be free to live in which ever way you see fit? Michael Arias’ adaptation of the Project Itoh novel addresses just this question in all its complexity as utopia turns out to have a heavy entrance fee.

Fifty years after a devastating nuclear war humanity has recovered itself and the elite now live in spotlessly clean, futuristic cities. A healthcare monitoring system administered through nanotechnology ensures proper adherence to health guidelines including sending alerts about unhealthy food and heart rate fluctuations making it almost impossible to cheat the system even if you wanted to. Everyone also has “augmentations” including a heads up display in the eyes which flags all the aforementioned info as well as a break down on your fellow humans which also includes their “social aptitude quotient” based on how well they treat others and how good they are at following the rules.

For some, all of this nannying is nothing other than an infringement on their personal freedom. After all, shouldn’t you have the right to eat what you want, drink, smoke, take risks, if that is your personal choice? Camus said that the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence becomes an act of rebellion. Our heroine, Tuan, has opted for a similar solution as she finds herself working for enemy as a Helix Inspector allowed to life on the margins of society where the the rules are more easily breached. She flaunts the regulations and cares little for anything or anyone. Once, long ago, she cared deeply for a girl in high school who was so opposed to the constant invasions of the modern world that she chose the only way out that was available to her – suicide. The pair intended to die together but Tuan alone survived.

Tuan is then recalled to Tokyo following an incident of mass suicides only for another high school friend to kill herself in a violent and bloody way right in front of her. Tuan is about to discover that she herself is at the centre a complicated conspiracy which intends either to save or to destroy humanity depending on your point of view.

Harmony is an extremely complex dissection of the human need for self protection from threats real or imagined. Following a large scale humanitarian disaster, fear rules the day and humans must be protected from their bad decisions by gentle reinforcement but isn’t the right to slowly destroy yourself, should you choose to do so, exactly what wars are fought for? Is it worth surrendering such basic rights to live in a world without disease or hunger (for the wealthy nations, at least) or does this level of being looked after rob humanity of the thing that defines it? The “Harmony” of the title is a medical treatment designed to spread peace and love throughout the land, yet it eventually robs the patient of a self-aware soul leaving them without the individual desires and emotions which cause human conflict. What should the future look like – cold, sterile but long and peaceful or shorter but filled with all the richness of human passions?

Arias had been working on a live action adaptation of Harmony which apparently fell though and though asked to helm Genocidal Organ managed to get them to allow him to switch back to the anime version instead. Here he’s billed as a co-director along side Takashi Nakamura and it seems there was more than a little conflict involved in the process. In any case, the finished product is vastly different in approach from Arias’ original concept though sticks fairly close to Itoh’s novel.

Made on a very tight budget and in an extremely short time, Harmony makes the best of its difficult production circumstances with a complex mix of CG and hand drawn animation styles. The production design is prescient and interesting as it presents its utopic city as a serene place of muted colours and stress free round buildings. Even the monolith presented in the framing sequence looks exactly like what a traditional Japanese tombstone would look like if it was designed by Apple. However, the natural pops right out of the screen with its vibrant colours such as in an early scene where a field of sunflowers looks almost like stop motion in its highly textured 3D CGI. Though occasionally falling back on static conversations, the composition and directing style is also interesting with unsettling circular shots, frequent dissolves and montages, and even a light jazzy soundtrack which definitely lends to the Lynchian atmosphere.

Harmony is certainly a complex film and arguably succeeds much more because of its nuanced source material than the production itself, yet like the best sci-fi it does offer an in-depth philosophical discussion along side exciting acting scenes and moving character drama. Unfortunately, the film does fall into the trap of ponderous monologuing at times and is sometimes guilty of stilted, expository dialogue but largely manages to maintain goodwill even as it does so. In many ways imperfect, Harmony is an undoubtedly ambitious project and one of the better science fiction themed anime movies to emerge in recent years.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Harmony has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US). Project Itoh’s original Harmony novel is also available in English translation (by Alexander O. Smith) published by Haikasoru.

Unsubbed trailer: