Tucked away in a remote village, the Iorph tend to their cloth. Known as the “Clan of Partings,” they are creatures of an older world, and live long, long lives compared to the humans that surround them. But the cloth lives longer still – referred to as the “Hibiol,” it is woven with the stories of its people, the trials and triumphs of our lives recorded in shimmering fabric. It can be a lonely existence, hidden away from the world, and the young Maquia feels isolated by her duties. But as her teacher tells her, even if we feel alone, our precious memories exist within the cloth, along with all the people we’ve loved. “They cry with us,” her teacher says, wiping away her student’s tears. This is why the Iorph must protect the Hibiol – through doing so, they protect the past, and ensure their stories endure.
Unfortunately, the past is as fragile as memory itself. Just a few short minutes into this film, the Iorph settlement is burned to the ground, the cloth torn to ribbons by an enraged dragon. The Iorph are scattered, and what few survive can do little to maintain their legacy. Leilia, Maquia’s closest friend, is captured and caged by their attackers. Krim, her lover, flies off in hopeless pursuit. And Maquia, already isolated within her home, is carried far from her village, and left utterly alone. Stumbling through the forest, she comes upon a baby, helpless and crying in its lifeless mother’s arms. With no purpose and no home, that child becomes both – her reason for living, and her last fragment of family.
As you might have guessed, Maquia is not the happiest film. Though Maquia’s mentors speak fondly of an age of high fantasy, where dragons flew freely and the Iorph were treated kindly, Maquia herself can only wonder at the glory of such an era. Her own life is filled with hardship and loss; the daily struggles of parenting, and the specific challenges of concealing her Iorphian identity. To avoid suspicion, she must move frequently, consistently uprooting the life of her son Ariel. Ariel comes to blame her for this, and Maquia comes to fear for her son in turn, as he forges his own path in a dangerous world. Though dragons once were, Maquia’s world is not a world of dragons; it is a world of jobs that underpay, and children that resent, and friends that inevitably say goodbye for a last and final time.
Rather than dazzling with imaginative fantasy, Maquia’s fading world serves as a sober metaphor for our own. Maquia takes place at the end of an age of wonder, but in truth, everyone lives on the tail end of such an age. It is called childhood. A time when our world made sense, when our daily pleasures needed no explanation, and when our guardians seemed eternal and invincible. The age of dragons and eternals that Maquia reflects on is an age we all remember – the time before our cloth was torn asunder, and unhappy discord was woven into the fabric. There are times when all of us, like Leilia, would wish to simply abandon a section of the cloth, or return back to the point of its sundering. Surely something so fragile can be somehow repaired?
It is Maquia who is forced to endure, and keep living, and undergo the suffering of parting again and again. While her remaining compatriots are kept in glass cages of their own or others’ design, Maquia commits to each new day, with all the joy and all the hardship that entails. She learns about motherhood and childhood, about the difficulty of supporting yourself, about the cruelty of age and the delight of growth. Her cloth is stitched with spiderwebs of expanding hardship, and yet she endures, and manages to find joy even in the struggle. There are difficult times, but looking back, she never finds shame or regret in her struggles, or the fractured beauty of her cloth. Without that frayed hem of suffering, would she ever have learned the joy of motherhood? Without enduring failure, could she ever have truly lived?
The ghastly truth is that we cannot choose the design of our own cloth. What happens to us will happen, and much of it will not be good. We cannot pick and choose, cannot sequester ourselves within the one segment of the fabric where we were most happy. Even Maquia struggles with this instinct. When Ariel is young, she wishes he could stay young forever, in a shape she can cherish and protect. When he grows, and becomes distant from her, she still clings to the segment of cloth from that earlier era – so much so that Ariel begins to hate her for it, for loving him so earnestly, yet so innocently, that she cannot recognize his changing identity.
But to live in the past is not to live at all. Krim essentially attempts to return back to the point where his “correct life” was severed, and he was thrust into a life that didn’t make him happy. Rather than attempting to grow forward in spite of the suffering he’s endured, he wishes to wipe the slate clean, and return with Leilia to a past that no longer exists. Appropriately, our final shot of Krim is his lifeblood seeping out of him in the form of a cloth, dispersing into the water. Like the dragons, he lived in a cage – but it was a cage of his own design. In the end, he can only desperately ask why his own life stopped turning, while his friends continued to grow.
Krim’s choice is understandable, given how much suffering the alternative entails. In earlier years, I’ve repeatedly defended Okada’s melodramatic style as a legitimate aesthetic choice, a valid affectation. In the years since, and with broader media experience behind me, I’ve lost any desire to defend the beauty of melodrama from the rigidity of fandom. Meanwhile, I’ve incurred plenty of my own suffering, and learned just how deeply this world can hurt us. At this point, Okada’s tragedy just seems bracingly honest, an unvarnished tablature of the pain we will necessarily endure.
Melodrama asks us to care, and to cry, and to suffer, because there is something beautiful and human and true in the pain, and something cathartic beyond all reason in our emergence from it. It tears at the skins we build up, the shells we create to dampen our immediate reactions – and at this point in time, my own shell has been worn paper-thin. I cried when Maquia’s village was destroyed, because it was a beautiful thing that can never be replaced. I cried when she decided to end her own life, and I cried when she decided to live again, afforded purpose by the needs of her new child. I cried again and again throughout this movie, because its choices never seemed dishonest or unfair to me; just the natural friction of a life, perhaps a bit more difficult than most, but marked by the same kind of uncertainty and difficult partings that all of us must endure. I have seen too much suffering in my own fabric to deny the substance of Maquia’s life; I have been her, and I have felt her pain.
“The Clan of Partings,” they are called. And yes, ultimately, that is what composes a life – a series of tearful goodbyes, as you let go of people and places and versions of yourself that you once loved, that you still love, but which you cannot hold onto without standing in place. But to love deeply, to love freely, is one of our greatest gifts. And to abandon the joy of love due to the pain of parting would be to give up all that makes the struggle worth pursuing, all the experience that lends vibrancy to our cloth.
We cannot avoid sorrow in our lives, without also avoiding everything that makes life worth the sorrow. Maquia loves Ariel fiercely, with every muscle in her body, and yet she knows that love will shift – he will never be the boy he once was, and he will one day leave her behind. And though she breaks her promise and cries when they finally part, she wouldn’t give up his role in her life for anything. As she says, it is ultimately he who wove her cloth. We will love and we will part and we will love again, incurring suffering all the while, weaving cloth that tells of all our joy and sorrow. To love is to lose, but loving is all that is worth doing. After all, ragged as they are, aren’t our tapestries beautiful as they dance in the breeze?