Review: Fireworks

by Andrew Parker

The animated Japanese teen drama Fireworks isn’t a particularly riveting or engaging romance, revolving around a time travelling gimmick that seems more designed to distract from narrative flimsiness than to enhance a well told story. A remake of a 1993 television mini-series (that was re-cut to theatrical exhibition length in 1995), Fireworks – which has the torturous full title of Uchiage hanabi, shita kara miru ka? Yoko kara miru ka?, or Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? – is producer Genki Kawamura’s attempt to follow-up the worldwide success of his last film, the dazzlingly charming Your Name, with a similarly themed coming of age story. The results are far diminished here thanks to a resolutely male point of view that borders on sexist and a tiresome storyline about life’s greatest “what if” questions.

It’s the last day before summer break, and in a suburban seaside town, teenage best friends Norimichi (voiced by Masaki Suda) and Yûsuke (Mamoru Miyano) are all set to spend their first night of vacation by going to a remote island with some buddies to answer a silly bet: do fireworks exploding in the sky look flat or three dimensional when viewed from a side angle? Before the end of the school day, they’re challenged to a swimming race by Nazuna (Suzu Hirose), their mutual crush. Frustrated by her mother’s decision to remarry and move out of town, Nazuna concocts a plan to ask whoever wins the impromptu swim-off to be her date to the fireworks ceremony that night, with the intention to secretly run away with the winner.

The viewer knows very well that the shy, skittish, and thoughtful Norimichi and the boorish, immature, and confident Yûsuke both harbour strong feelings for Nazuna (something that’s not helped by the early moments of the film coming packed with intentional and unintentionally phallic imagery), but there’s never a sense that Nazuna is particularly into either of them; simply using them both as the means to an end. In this regard, Fireworks gets off to a poor start, and once Nazuna finally gives an answer to Norimichi about her impetuous ways (almost at the end of the film), one wishes she hadn’t bothered.

Fireworks is an intensely one-sided affair from the outset, with director Akiyuki Shinbô (a frequent helmer of similarly themed anime offerings) and co-director Nobuyuki Takeuchi (a veteran Studio Ghibli animator) leaning heavily into the male driven fantasy. Although I’m unfamiliar with the original miniseries, it’s not hard to imagine that the main male characters were more interesting than the archetypes sketched out here by screenwriter Hitoshi Ône. For all her faults and dodgy characteristics, Nazuna remains the most fascinating and well rounded character in Fireworks. A film told from her perspective would be vastly preferable to the one told largely by Norimichi, who’s almost a complete blank slate with little internal or external life outside of wanting to hook up with a girl he likes.

The first time we see the male characters together, they’re trying to guess the bra cup sizes of all the girls in class, watching longingly and leeringly as boobs bounce and bop around in the summer sun. Minutes later, they’re ogling and borderline menacing their big breasted high school teacher. Nazuna is relatively flat chested, something that’s remarked upon several times (while also acknowledging that she’s under sixteen), but she does have flowing locks and a swooshy, high riding schoolgirl dress. These are all things that are brought to light in the first 15 minutes of Fireworks, and it takes a full thirty minutes of this kind of teenage frat-boy behaviour to die down and for anything remotely interesting or original to happen. This is strictly adolescent male fantasy fodder built around a bland “nice guy” character, and one expects everything that follows to be in the same vein as Screwballs or Meatballs, not a romantic sci-fi drama that’s straining to take itself way too seriously.

After Norimichi is defeated in the swim race by his friend, and Yûsuke stands Nazuna up on their date (basically saying “bros before hoes,” in so many words), Fireworks introduces it’s time travelling plot device. Nazuna has discovered a mysterious, marble shaped orb in the ocean, carrying it with her everywhere. Norimichi discovers the orb’s power to transport him back and forth to different fixed periods in time, simply by throwing the thing and shouting when and where he wants to travel. Every new scenario offers new wrinkles, as is typical with most time shifting narratives, and none of them are particularly ideal for Norimichi or Nazuna.

Fireworks starts to build up some warmth and compassion once Norimichi ditches his pals (although they’re cut back to frequently, as per the titular gambit), but nothing ever sparks to life. The viewer learns plenty about Nazuna along the way, but next to nothing about Norimichi. She becomes so sympathetic (aside from an ill advised musical fantasy number that feels childish even by Fireworks’ low standards) that one wants Norimichi to just leave her alone. It’s a story about a young man learning lessons about love, but not one that takes hold thanks to the script’s lack of development.

The style employed throughout Fireworks is also jarring, and that might be a side effect of the directors’ different animation backgrounds. There are some striking, photo realistic insert shots of everyday moments, but the characters rarely interact with these items in meaningful ways. The character design and animation is rudimentary, and well within the large eyed, Lolita-esque standards of any number of other anime offerings. One minute, Fireworks is breathtaking, but seconds later it’s back to looking run-of-the-mill.

It’s easy to see why Kawamura would be drawn to Fireworks’ time shifting plot device. Your Name was a massive success built around a similar concept, and on some level this must have seemed like a safe bet to yield similar results. Unfortunately, Your Name was based on better source material (or at least a story that was less compromised), made by a better filmmaker, and had enough character development to go hand and hand with its more fantastical elements. Any comparisons between the choppy Fireworks and the masterful Your Name begin and end with the fact that they both have time travel in them.

Fireworks opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and in select cities on Friday, July 6, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Fireworks:

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