Fireworks (Uchiage hanabi, shita kara miru ka? Yoko kara miru ka?)

Japan (2017) Dirs. Akiyuki Shinbo & Nobuyuki Takeuchi

How many chances do we need to get something right? Or should we just let fate be and take whatever hand it deals us regardless of how painful or problematic the outcome may be? Amazingly, I am not talking about Theresa May trying to get people to agree to her toxic Brexit plan but the plight of two teens in this fantasy anime tale.

Norimichi Shimada and Yusuke Azumi are best friends both smitten with aloof classmate Nazuna Oikawa. When Yusuke wins a swimming race against Norimichi, Nazuna invites him to join her at the local fireworks display that night, but at the last minute, Yusuke decides to join his other mates instead. Nazuna bumps into Norimichi and they head to the fireworks only for Nazuna’s mother to arrive and drag her home.

Among the possessions Nazuna drops in the struggle is a peculiar glass ball of intricate design which Norimichi throws in anger; it suddenly lights up and reverses time, taking Norimichi back to the swimming race. Realising this is a chance to save Nazuna, Norimichi wins the race this time, and in taking Nazuna to the fireworks learns she is running away from home. Will this second chance help Nazuna get away?

The complete translated title of this film is Fireworks, Should We See It From The Side Or The Bottom? originating from a 1993 live action TV play by Shunji Iwai. What this refers to is a debate between Norimichi, Yusuke, and their other friends about whether fireworks are flat or round when they explode. Since a consensus cannot be reached, agreeing that the main issue is the perspective one views fireworks, they decide on the best viewpoint to see this year’s display to get an answer.

Go on, admit it, you are curious now too, aren’t you? Perhaps that is why Iwai wrote this story – to pose this question no-one has ever asked before. After all, the explosion look circular as they burst outward a flower in bloom yet we don’t actually see this in a 3D perspective so maybe it is an optical illusion.

It is this scientific exploration that Yusuke decides is a better option than spending the evening with the girl he has a huge crush on, one that isn’t explained other than perhaps his own shyness in confessing his love to her, but is crucial to the story in Norimichi’s quest for helping Nazuna escape.

Early in the story, Nazuna reluctantly hands a note to her teacher, the busty favourite of the male students Miss Miura, from her mother announcing they are moving away from the sleepy town of Moshimo. Nazuna’s relationship with her thrice married mother is fraught and she clearly doesn’t like her step-father either, using the fireworks display as a cover to flee the town alone.

Nazuna also reveals to Norimichi that she wanted him to win the swimming race and would have asked him to the fireworks anyway, suggesting Yusuke didn’t stand a chance in the first place. The strange glass ball was something Nazuna found on the beach on her way to school that day, maybe a symbol that the ensuing events were pre-destined for her in some way.

Unfortunately the mystery behind the ball remains as such, which is rather infuriating in leaving a huge hole in the story and in our emotional investment in the two teens since we don’t know if the ball is working with them or against them. That neither question its appearance, where it comes from or how it works is also omitted from the script, but it’s not as if this couldn’t have been included, as the first time leap doesn’t occur until 35 minutes in!

Prior to this, we have a slice of life teenage love triangle that shows no hints of the sci-fi direction it will follow hereafter, and whilst pleasingly evocative of our own days of youth with some nicely observed touches that will be universally on point, it could have done more in setting these things up. So, be prepared just to accept that these things happen and that Norimichi is able to suss out the ball’s power so quickly without sitting down to think it through.

But that’s anime for you. Much like the titular fireworks, the MO of this film appears to be about the spectacle of the visuals and superficial aspect and less about the substance of the story. Norimichi and Nazuna go on a journey that allows them to explore their emotions as well as their trust in others, in this case Yusuke’s anger at Norimichi for “pinching his girl”.

The trouble is, being great to look at only takes you so far and there is no denying the final act is an eye popping spectacle of epic scale, a sumptuous kaleidoscopic blend of 2D and CGI animation, but it doesn’t do anything to make it clear Norimichi and Nazuna have reached their destination or what that destination is. The symbolism is nice in reflecting the various paths the journey could have taken but as a satisfying resolution, it is all bang and little buck.

As a production from Shaft, the studio behind the bewilderingly obtuse and obnoxious Monogatari series, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as this is pretty much their calling card (and yes, their famous head tilt is there too). The animation and art can’t be criticised though being the strongest facet of the film, making the absorption of the story much easier until the messy final act.

Shunji Iwai gave us the classic All About Lily Chou-Chou so he is well versed in writing compelling teen dramas so maybe we need to look to directors Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi for answers as to why Fireworks peters out after a promising start. It has all the ingredients to be a great film but sadly can’t bring them to complete fruition. Maybe we should give that ball one more throw…

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