Fireworks, an animated remake of Shunji Iwai’s 1993 TV drama/1995 live action film, made a big impact for SHAFT in 2017 as their highest-grossing theatrical feature to date. With a seemingly classic premise of repeating a single day over and over in the frame of a romantic drama, it will be interesting to see how the film’s director Akiyuki Shinbo adds his distinctively quirky style to the narrative.
Fireworks is set in the regional town of Moshimo on the eve of their annual summer fireworks festival. The main protagonist, Norimichi, joins his friends as they ride their bikes to school on a seemingly average day. Norimichi is fixated on his classmate Nazuna but lacks the gumption to advance his romantic feelings, and in an unusual twist of fate, misses out on being invited to join her in the evening’s fireworks display after losing a swimming race with his close friend Yusuke. Later that day, Norimichi and his friends get into an argument if fireworks are round or flat, leading into the premise of an adventure to climb the town’s lighthouse to determine the outcome.
At this stage there’s a number of boxes ticked in the story as it plods its way along, with a mix of unrequited love, jealousy, mixed feelings with Yusuke clearly working out if he will actually go out with Nazuna and risk his friendship with Norimichi, a mini adventure to a seemingly abandoned building and a mysterious female classmate who seems to be working through her own challenges. Typical summer romance stuff.
But then things get a bit weird – Yusuke pivots to find excuses not to go out with Nazuna, Norimichi and Nazuna invariably meet up before she’s dragged home by her mother after confessing she wanted Norimichi to win the race so she could have asked him out without Yusuke knowing. When Norimichi loses his cool at Yusuke’s nonchalance at how things have turned out, he throws a glass fireworks orb at a nearby sign only to find himself back at the pool and ready to race.
So begins Norimichi slowly learning how to use the mysterious glass orb to revisit pivotal points of the day to explore the many different paths and possibilities the day brings. As he continues the journey, fractures in the physical world play tricks on the perception of reality and culminate in a maelstrom of possibilities before settling on a conclusion of sorts for the main cast.
Akiyuki Shinbo is no stranger to playing with convention with titles like Madoka Magica and Monogatari under his belt, nor is he afraid of tackling seemingly trope-ridden series’ like Nisekoi and bringing some genuine soul which others may have struggled to achieve. We can see a lot of this with Fireworks depending on how you want to interpret it. Like Nisekoi, Fireworks is taking a tried and true premise – in this case unrequited teen romance and drama set in a regional town – and elevates it in different ways. There’s a definite sweetness and sense of nostalgia with how he frames the main stars, with just enough awkward and honest exploration of dealing with crushes and friendships as a teen to make it a little more grounded. Where he applies a gentle twist is on the balance of Norimichi’s awkwardness and lack of EQ – he’s not swaggering into the scene like a bishounen (in fact, his short stature compared to Nazuna is a perfect reversal of how gender and relationships are typically represented in anime and manga), but you also don’t quite want to slap him like Shinji (though admittedly Shinji’s raw and broken psyche is understandable in the context of Evangelion…). Nazuna’s emotional roller coaster is also handled really well, with gentle layers of story gradually creating a broader picture as the movie progresses. The other cast members as a result fade gently away into roles that support parts of the narrative rather than becoming more fleshed out.
The other pivotal element of the story is the use of the orb to explore the fractured possibilities with the story’s reality. This allows for a degree of abstract exploration into what constitutes the reality of the proceeding story and arguably drives the core of what makes Fireworks unique. The gradual realisation of the power Norimichi has by strategically using the orb empowers him and allows him to grow throughout the narrative before arriving at its end point. To be honest, it does feel like this could have been driven a bit harder to mess around and explore different realities to become a bit more convoluted or even surreal as part of the journey, but all things considered they’ve done well with the narrative and making it a bit more obtuse probably would have raised the barrier for entry a little too high.
Beyond the story though, the production’s quite interesting. Shinbo has used live action actors rather than seiyuu for the leads which has resulted in a more grounded performance, and this is really nicely complemented through the use of audio to emphasise the feeling of the small town. The animation work fluctuates between absolutely sumptuous hand-drawn animation, hyper-realistic backgrounds, as well as CG elements, the latter of which can contrast really poorly when applied unnecessarily (such as scenes where Norimichi and co are riding their bikes near the start of the movie). It’s in the quieter, more grounded sequences where this really take off – the scene where Nazuna catches a bike ride with Norimichi, some of the incidental sequences in the town, the pivotal race in the pool and the quiet, intimate discussion in the train between Norimichi and Nazuna (though the latter’s escalation into a great cover of Matsuda Seiko’s awesome Ruriiro no Chikyuu is pretty rad in all its technicolor hyperbole despite its contrast to the scenes leading up to it). This is very much theatrical quality animation, and where SHAFT has put in the right resourcing, it is amazing.
For the Blu-Ray release, Madman’s packed in a stellar transfer that looks fantastic. Audio is covered in both Japanese and English depending on your preference (both DTS-MA 5.1 tracks), otherwise we have a featurette on the dub production and some trailers. What was interesting is that the featurette on the English language adaptation highlighted the team’s approach to cast Norimichi and Nazuna with teenage actors who do a really great job of recreating the same grounded performance in the original Japanese language track. In this sense kudos to the team directing the English adaptation for their solid work there, and well done for packing the details into the featurette – I probably wouldn’t have worried about spot-checking it otherwise.
All up Fireworks is a solid movie that can be enjoyed on a number of levels. As a coming of age/teen romance flick it’s sweet enough to be enjoyed at the surface, but there’s a bit more in there if you want to start thinking a bit harder about things. While Shinbo could have made it a bit more surreal or left more to the imagination, it’s executed well and very much worth a look.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.