From Feb. 1 to Feb. 28, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) presents the Boston Festival of Films from Japan. The featured films represent various genres, including animation, fiction and documentary films. The films also touch on a variety of themes and subjects. Two films, specifically “Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms” (2018) and “Shoplifters” (2018), explore the value of companionship.
“Maquia” is a Japanese fantasy film written and directed by Mari Okada. The film tells a poignant tale of companionship and the human capability to love. The story starts in the removed, ethereal kingdom of the lorphs — a clan of demigods who stop aging once they reach their teenage years. The lorphs are preoccupied with weaving hibiols, which are long, silky tapestries that tell the many narratives of human lives. The calm life of the lorphs soon vanishes as the community gets sacked by their neighboring human kingdom of Mezarte. The titular protagonist (voiced by Manaka Iwami) becomes separated from the rest of the clan during the chaos and starts her long journey of seeking companionship in the human world.
The emotional void at the core of the seemingly perfect lorph life reflects the story’s adoration for the bittersweet sentimentality associated with mortality. The beautiful tranquility and harmony among the lorphs exists at the expense of their right to love. The lorphs’ world is one of repetition and stability, hence permanence. The film shows multiple scenes of lorphs weaving hibiols: one weft at a time, over and over again. The monotony of the movements literally weaves the lorphs’ fates into one unchanging and unvaried piece of cloth, on which the past, present and future appear as indistinguishable from one another.
The kingdom of the lorphs is also rather monochromatic. The demigods hang their treasured hibiols in a soaring white castle; the mountain rocks in their land are also white, much resembling delicately shaped icebergs. The lorphs, all blonde-haired, jiggle around in their natural gardens in white gowns. The overall light-colored palette used to portray the lorph world indulges the audience comfortably in an undisturbed sensual experience, a state that conveys a lack of change.
Young lorphs like Maquia are taught to not love humans, because as immortal as they are, they will eventually outlive any human, and live in solitude thereafter. However, while in exile, Maquia breaks such doctrine as she adopts an orphaned human baby as her son, naming him Ariel. Maquia’s motherhood is met with numerous challenges. The most significant one comes towards the end of the the film, when the old Ariel arrives at the end of his short human life, and Maquia, still teenage-looking, confronts the emotional consequence of her choice to love a mortal.
The film eventually resolves Maquia’s struggle of letting go of Ariel through the theory that life persists through memories. Sitting beside Ariel’s deathbed, Maquia bids him goodbye with a bittersweet “see you later,” indicating that she will continue to meet him in her memories. After leaving Ariel, Maquia more explicitly articulates this concept that “as long as [she is] alive, Ariel’s hibiol’s going to continue.”
Another film featured in The Boston Festival of Films from Japan is “Shoplifters,” a sensational international success among Japanese films released last year. Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Shoplifters” has received numerous prestigious accolades. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.
Just like “Maquia,” “Shoplifters” pulls at people’s heartstrings with its optimism towards humans’ potential to love. The film title refers to a complicated poor family of five unrelated people. Hatsue, an elderly woman, is the grandmotherly authority of the family. She supports her “daughters,” Aki and Nubuyo, Nobuyo’s husband Osamu and Nobuyo and Osamu’s “son” Shota with a pension that she receives from the death of her late former husband.
As closely knit as they seem in the film, the five people are not actually related by blood. Aki is actually the granddaughter of Hatsue’s late former husband; she chooses to live with Hatsue due to the hardship of once living with her parents, who develop a strong, toxic favoritism towards Aki’s younger sister. The story never explicitly explain how Nobuyo and Osamu become part of Hatsue’s household, but it is implied that Hatsue takes this poor couple not only out of kindness, but also out of the fear for a lonely death. And Shota is found by Nobuyo — unable to bear her own children — and Osamu in a car when the couple goes shoplifting. Later, Nobuyo and Osamu also choose to adopt Yuri, a neighboring girl with an abusive mother. With almost all its characters having major flaws in their lives, “Shoplifters” suggests companionships — and not necessarily those that one is born with —as a way for people to complete one another and lead better lives.
“Shoplifters” also exposes the lack of voice for the poor in highly bureaucratic modern society. When Nobuyo and Osamu get arrested for “illegally kidnapping” Yuri, which then reveals their by definition illegitimate familial relationship with Shota, the police repeatedly stress the legal impropriety of the couple raising the children. Without further investigating into what Nobuyo and Osamu actually do to care for the kids or finding out about the abusive relationship between Yuri and her biological mother, the police return Yuri to her birth family and send Nobuyo to prison. The police’s disregard of Nobuyo and Osamu’s attempts at self-advocacy during interrogations reveals the vulnerability of the socio-economically disadvantaged when confronting institutions.
Although Tufts students can access the MFA for free with valid Tufts IDs, they must purchase tickets to attend the films featured in the film festival. Tickets can be purchased on the MFA website.