Fireworks (2017)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/07/18 19:34:27

"Another pretty good animated middle-school fantasy from Japan."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Go figure - a couple years ago, we were talking about whether Matoko Shinkai could be the new Miyazaki, and now "Fireworks" is being promoted in large part by how it's like a Shinkai movie and from a "Your Name" producer, though it's also noteworthy for being based upon a TV-movie made by Shunji Iwai. Time sometimes marches on fast! It may not be quite at the same level as those filmmakers' best, but it's an enjoyable youth fantasy that should certainly appeal to fans of those filmmakers.

It takes place in the small town of Moshino, starting just before summer vacation. There will be fireworks, and middle-schoolers Norimichi (voice of Masaki Suda), Yusuke (voice of Mamoru Miyano), and Jun'ichi (voice of Shintaro Asanuma) have been having an argument over whether they explode in the shape of a disc or a sphere, plotting to climb to the top of the town's lighthouse to see what they look like from that perspective. There's also Oikawa Nazuna (voice of Suzu Hirose), a girl not long for their class, as her divorced mother is about to remarry and move away; spotting Norimichi and Yusuke at the school's swimming pool, she challenges them to race, saying she'll meet the winner that night during the fireworks. She finds a strange bauble at the bottom of the pool, but it's Norimichi who will eventually discover its strange power.

It's a plenty charming story, though it's not quite Your Name. It's a cute, likable tale of young love and potential separation, but its fantasy isn't quite so sharp - compared to Your Name or Penguin Highway, the fantastical parts of the story seem a bit more grafted on as opposed to being part of the natural part of the world these kids inhabit. It fits with the story the filmmakers are trying to tell; the alternate timelines and attempts for the kids to change their destiny are able to show both how small changes can send young persons' lives in different directions and how those young people can be powerless. The relaxed pacing often feels like repetition and padding that doesn't reveal quite so much on second glance as one might necessarily hope.

On the other hand, it gets a huge leg up for being the rare anime (or manga) about middle-schoolers that actually feels like the kids are 14 or 15 rather than older teens, at least to this guy who is well past those years. Some is likely due to Iwai's original script - he has always had an uncanny ability to capture teenagers' voices and concerns - but writer Hitoshi One, director Akiyuki Shinbo, co-director Nobuyuki Takeuchi and the Japanese voice cast between them all have a great handle on these kids eager to use their newfound independence even as they stumble with trying to act as adults. Even the pretty, smart girl in a movie mostly filled with boys gets to be very much messed up and uncertain in a way that feels real rather than cutesy or like a dark secret. It's a bit of a change of pace and gives the movie a bit more of an impact so that it doesn't feel like it's shortchanging Nazun's story despite mostly being told from Norimichi's perspective..

The animation is often beautiful, although there's a bit of tension between the digital techniques and the more traditional style, with characters sleek and smooth in motion but contrasting with the detailed backgrounds. The contrast between one timeline and another is presented in a neat visual fashion, and the finale is suitably dazzling. Shinbo and Takenchi pace things so that the film plays out at an unhurried pace but also isn't overburdened with unnecessary subplots, a nice combination of frantic activity and thoughtful stillness, though not so much that it undercuts the kids authenticity.

(Which, admittedly, includes the guys obsessing over their busty teacher, complete with close-ups, which is true to life but also makes it a bit awkward for me to recommend the movie for my nieces - they'll probably just roll their eyes and say "boys", but their parents…)

After what seemed like a relatively quiet period, there's a lot of smart, good-looking animation coming out of Japan right now. "Fireworks" might not quite be the top tier, but it's solidly above average, and reflects its young cast of characters better than most.

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