We’ve all done things we regret, right? Wanted things to go our way? Well, what if by chance you could go back in time and do things over? Would you do it? How would things turn out?
Produced by Shaft and adapted from Shunji Iwai’s 1993 television drama of the same name, Fireworks, or to give it its full title Fireworks: Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?, is an enjoyable but flawed film that tries to pair a slice of science fiction with a teenage romantic drama, but ends up getting bogged down with its time-altering plot device: a discarded Japanese-style firework shell that, when thrown, can present the thrower with a what-if scenario where they can change events to suit their own desires. The film attempts to tell its story and develop its characters through several of these scenarios, but ends up falling into a trap of using the MacGuffin to move the plot along, rather than having the characters do it for themselves.
As you can tell, my main criticism is with the plot progression, and while there are other weaknesses, the story as a whole isn’t that bad and tries to do interesting things by intertwining two different plot threads. On one hand you have Norimichi Shimada and his group of friends, who decide to investigate whether fireworks, when viewed from the side, are round or flat. On the other you have Nazuna Oikawa, who is unhappy that she has to move away from her friends due to her mother’s upcoming marriage, and decides to rebel and run away from home. With Nazuna and Norimichi both secretly liking each other, events transpire that see the lad roped into ‘eloping’ with her. They’re quickly found out however, and Nazuna’s mother marches her back home, leaving her suitcase and belongings scattered on the ground after the scuffle. Frustrated by his lack of ability to help her, Norimichi picks up the firework shell that Nazuna found at the beach that morning and throws it, wishing that he could change things somehow; suddenly, he finds himself back in the past, facing the beginning of the events where he lost in a swimming race to his best friend Yusuke in order to win the right to go to the fireworks with Nazuna. Determined to help Nazuna out, Norimichi goes forward and manipulates events to try to help her run away.
While it tries to keep these two plot threads going, Nazuna’s storyline is the main focus as Fireworks shows itself to be a drama that looks at family relationships and how teenagers can be particularly sensitive to events in their home lives. It’s really her coming of age tale as she transitions from a quiet, lonely teenage girl who feels put out by her mother giving her fiancé more attention than her daughter, to a more mature person who realises her decision to run away was completely unrealistic and fuelled by loneliness and jealousy.
The boys’ adventure is comparatively more throwaway, and while there are numerous references to the “are fireworks round or flat?” question throughout the film it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. This is a story mainly about two people spending time together before one of them has to move away, so when that time comes neither of them have any regrets.
As such, character development is focussed on Nazuna and Norimichi, and partly Yusuke; so the other boys feel rather underused. I like to think of them more as one unit, as when they are together they do bounce off each other well and they give us a few good gags; but we just know too little about them for them to make an impact.
Yusuke does have that impact due to the way he’s tied up in a love triangle between Norimichi and Nazuna and their fight over her becomes an insight into how nerve-wracking young love can be, as both of them shy away from their true feelings in some way: Norimichi wears his heart on his sleeve and often acts all embarrassed about it, but Yusuke just straight up bottles it when he actually gets a look in. Despite Norimichi seeming to be the more cowardly one, it’s actually the other way around as he’s the one that actually takes action, not Yusuke. Yusuke does get a few nice details though, like thinking he knows things about medicine and disease because his father is a doctor but ending up being completely wrong about it, and being close enough friends with Norimichi to know that their back door is always unlocked.
There are a lot of pieces here that could fit together nicely to create a satisfying romantic character drama, with a convincing female lead, a strong plot line and a decent love triangle. However, when we return to look at that MacGuffin it starts to fall apart as it becomes a bit too much the longer the film goes on, giving the characters convenient ways of getting out of sticky situations rather than dealing with the problem at hand.
There are certain points in the film where Norimichi is faced with a decision, but is gripped by crippling indecision which sees him no better off than back before he threw the firework shell in the first place. Rather than showing Norimichi becoming stronger and taking the lead in these situations, it has him rely on chucking the firework shell to have another go and use his knowledge of the future to turn things to his favour. There’s a point in this that they are trying to make as Norimichi and Nazuna come to accept the original situation they were in, but until you realise that, it feels a cheap and easy way out. There are two points at which it needs to be thrown, but apart from those they could have strung all of the middle part of the film together which would have flowed a lot better.
Two of these “what if” scenarios also have some strange switches in art style, showing weaknesses in the overall production. While I suspect that the changes in art style were to highlight differences in each scenario, they aren’t used as such and are just randomly inserted in then dropped again shortly afterwards. These would be fine if they were consistently applied and the idea was reinforced throughout the film, but with them coming out of nowhere, it really pulls you out of the film for a moment and destroys your immersion.
For a theatrical work it’s definitely not Shaft’s best, and in some cases their signature style shows a lack of creativity. Character designs could have been plucked straight out of the Monogatari series, with a shot of Norimichi yawning at the beginning of the film looking like Araragi, and Nazuna in particular looking extremely close to Senjougahara. There are several scenes that do look pretty, but it’s not breathlessly stunning. It does however have a very pleasing soundtrack, with music by Satoru Kosaki, who is actually a favourite of mine, having composed work for The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, The Idolmaster, Wake, Up Girls, and even Tekken. I must add that the film’s main theme, Uchiage Hanabi by DAOKO and Kenshi Yonezu, and the insert song Forever Friends by DAOKO are fantastic tracks and it’s no surprise that Uchiage Hanabi is still in the Japanese music charts over a year after its original release. DAOKO is a great singer but Kenshi Yonezu in particular is really popular at the moment, so having him on board was a real asset to the film.
Where things get interesting in the sound department is in the voices, as this is one of the rare instances where I think the English dub is stronger than the Japanese. The Japanese is fine, don’t get me wrong, but Masaki Suda’s performance as Norimichi doesn’t really convey the character as well as Ryan Shanahan in the English version. The decision to use teenage voice actors in the English version comes off as surprisingly good and gives a more realistic view into the characters, so it’s hats off to GKIDS and dubbing studio NYAV Post for that.
Other aspects of this Anime Limited release using the GKIDS master disappoint though, with it feeling very bare-bones and unpolished. The subtitles in particular I had major issues with, as there are quite a few lines that are badly timed, so that they either appear or disappear halfway through when a character is speaking, or in one case remain on screen for too long. They could have also done with being a bit bigger and having a thicker border to improve readability. It’s odd as I can’t remember this being an issue in the theatrical release last year, so this is definitely disappointing.
One thing to note is that it has been spotted that this release uses the theatrical version explicitly – the Japanese home video release is slightly different, featuring the odd touch-up here and there. The only extras on the disc are an interview video showing aspects of the production of the English dub and trailers for the movie. Extras that are included in the Japanese release of the film are sadly missing. This is all on GKIDS and not Anime Limited though, as the physical product is exactly what you’d expect: Blu-ray, DVD, art cards and a poster, packaged in a nice digipak box and accompanying sleeve.
Overall, Fireworks is an enjoyable but flawed film where its MacGuffin cheapens the story that it is trying to tell. It’s not Shaft’s best work and there are definitely some questionable decisions in storytelling and art direction, but it still makes for some decent viewing. Sadly, the overall quality of the release makes it more difficult to recommend, and I really don’t know what happened here. I’m used to getting slightly inferior discs compared to Japan, but the subtitle timing being off and using a different cut of the film than the Japanese release is just disappointing.
A review for AUKN of the theatrical screening in 2017 by Darkstorm can be read here.