When is the last time you saw an anime film in theaters in the United States? Not all anime films make the trip across the Pacific to earn theatrical releases outside of Japan. But, when an anime film does reach the US, it suggests a certain level of quality. It implies that the film is a cut above the rest. FIREWORKS, SHOULD WE SEE IT FROM THE SIDE OR BOTTOM? is an anime film that released in Japan August 2017. Nearly a year later, in July of 2018, this film began showing at select theaters in the US.

The marketing campaign for FIREWORKS advertised that the same producer who worked on YOUR NAME, Genki Kawamura, was behind this new project. The success of YOUR NAME, which remains the highest grossing anime film of all time, was undoubtedly a major factor in the excitement around this film.

FIREWORKS was written by Hitoshi Ohne, directed by Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi, and produced by Shaft, a production company that works exclusively with Shinbo. The film was adapted from the 1993 live-action film of the same name, which was written/directed by Shuniji Iwai. As a film that mixes elements of drama, romance, comedy, and sci-fi, there was a lot of potential for it to be great. Not surprisingly, a lot of people were excited in the run-up to this film.

Unfortunately, FIREWORKS fails to live up to this potential in every way. The characters are undeveloped, the comedy isn’t funny, the romance is bland, and the sci-fi is confusing. This is truly one of the most disappointing anime films I have ever seen. Both visually and emotionally, FIREWORKS lacks substance.

Minor spoilers for the plot of FIREWORKS follow.

A Guy, a Girl, and Some FIREWORKS

Protagonists Norimichi Shimada and Nazuna Oikawa. | Image Courtesy of UK Anime News

FIREWORKS is a love story about two middle school kids, Norimichi Shimada and Nazuna Oikawa. Norimichi and his friend Yusuke both have crushes on Nazuna. The film begins with Norimichi and his friends attending school in the summer. His friends spend some time discussing this while their other friends harass their teacher. We are then told about a fireworks display that will occur at the summer festival that evening.

Meanwhile, we discover that Nazuna is sad because her mother and new stepfather have decided to move the family away from town. However, Nazuna has a plan. After discovering a glass marble earlier that day on the beach, she is inspired to run away from home. How she jumps to that conclusion from finding a marble is unclear.

She challenges Yusuke and Norimichi to a swimming race and asks the winner to meet her later. Yusuke, who happens to be the winner, decides to stand her up, however, and Norimichi discovers her alone. She reveals her plan to him just as her mother comes and rips her away. In the chaos, she drops the marble, which he then finds. In frustration, Norimichi throws the ball, wishing he could go back in time and win the race so that Nazuna will choose him instead. Luckily for him, that’s exactly what happens.

The film repeats this way several times. Nazuna chooses Norimichi, but this time she is caught by her mother at the train station. Norimichi goes back to this moment to change it so they can escape on the train, but then he is spotted by his friends and her mom and followed to their destination. He continues to go back and fix moments in order to create some alone time with Nazuna. Their main goal eventually evolves from running away forever to simply spending the night alone together, free from Norimichi’s friends and Nazuna’s parents, who chase the couple throughout the film.

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Gotta go Back in Time

This film can be very confusing at times, especially when it comes to its sci-fi elements. The film begins with Nazuna finding a mystical glass ball in the ocean. Then we keep getting small glimpses of it for about 30 minutes until the film finally reveals that it does something. But what does it do exactly? How does it work?

These fireworks look different. | Image courtesy of Anime UK News

Norimichi shouts what he wants to change in the past each time he uses the ball, so it’s unclear if the ball is granting his wish or allowing him to travel back in time. It also doesn’t seem like anyone realizes that they’ve been moved in time. Eventually, Norimichi eludes to retaining a memory of past versions of reality, but Nazuna seemingly remembers nothing. Neither of them seems to care enough to talk about it for any real length of time though. As a result, the audience is left with no answers.

The ball gives us different timelines, or something along those lines. But in some of those timelines, the ball also seems to alter reality. For some reason the fireworks are different shapes in each timeline — why that is is a mystery. Norimichi seems able to discern that they’re in the wrong place from the shape of the fireworks at several points, but, again, why is a mystery. We also get a flash of the ball in the water next to Nazuna’s dead biological father. What was that about? I thought in that instant that we might get something deeper about the origin of the ball. Maybe a backstory of its ties to Nazuna’s family. The ball is magic of some kind, but the movie is uninterested in giving us much more than that about it.

FIREWORKS Gives us Nothing to Root for

Not only does the film fail at giving us an interesting explanation for its magic, it fails to give us an interesting character as well. It takes FIREWORKS about 30 minutes before anything substantial happens. The most engaging thing that takes place in that span of time is a conversation we get about the shape of fireworks. Norimichi’s friends have an argument about whether fireworks are round or flat. Some claim that if you look at them from the side, they are flat, while others maintain that this is ridiculous because of course, they are round. After this, they develop a plan to ditch the festival and go see the fireworks from a higher vantage point, so they can see if, from the side, fireworks are flat or round.

That’s it. That’s the first act of this movie.

Look, more fireworks! | Image courtesy of Attack On Geek

Presumably, this whole conversation, which is a through-line in this story, is an analogy for perspective. The film provides us with several perspectives on how the events of the story could have turned out differently. I myself couldn’t help but note the irony that in a film about perspective, our two main characters seemingly have no perspective on anything.

In a film about their romance, we get remarkably little information about either of these characters in the first act of the film. Nor, for that matter, is there an inciting incident for nearly 30 minutes. Because of this, once things actually do start to happen, it can be uninteresting. Or, even confusing at times. The motivation for these characters is lost because the film failed to really establish what drives them. Thus some of their decisions make no sense.

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A Sexist Anime? What?!

This is one of my biggest complaints with this movie. It is horribly sexist. The “comedy,” if you can call it that, is completely reliant on the line-up of vapid side characters who spend their time harassing their teacher about her big boobs and private life. That isn’t even the worst of it though. It was really dumb, but this story’s sexism goes deeper.

Nazuna is little more than an object of the male gaze in this film. We spend much of the film just looking at her. She’s set up to be this manic-pixie-dream-girl cliche, but she might actually be even more devoid of character. At least a manic-pixie-dream-girl might be into The Smiths or something.

Most of this film is just shots of Nazuna looking over her shoulder. | Image courtesy of Fathom Events

FIREWORKS sets Nazuna up as an object for Norimichi to obtain. In each scenario, she is stolen from him and he must alter the course of events to rescue her from trouble. It’s clear that she’s everything he desires, but what is never made clear is why he feels this way. She spends so little time telling us about herself that it’s hard to justify anything she does, or anything Norimichi does to be with her. In a 90 minute film about their love, we never once learn what it is they love about each other.

Just when she actually does begin to reveal the smallest glimpse of her backstory, she abruptly launches into a bizarre song sequence instead. Because a weird music number is just what this film was missing! The dream/song makes her a princess floating in some strange hall of mirrors and horses? It’s trippy, but it’s a bad trip. The kind where you come to hugging the dryer and chanting about skittles. It’s supposed to be magical I guess. Really it just robs us of the one emotionally resonant scene the movie had up to that point.

Once FIREWORKS gets Going, it Goes Nowhere

YOUR NAME is an unfair comparison for this film. The plot of FIREWORKS is actually closer to an anime film called THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME. That film is about a girl who, after finding she can go back in time and change things that happen, becomes somewhat addicted to making everything in her life perfect. Of course, she learns a lesson about consequences and gains a new perspective on the nature of life. Over the course of that film, we see a young girl come of age through the realizations this strange new power has allowed her to have.

Nazuna of FIREWORKS by the pool
This was how I looked watching this film in the theater. | Image courtesy of The New York Times

As the plot of FIREWORKS unfolds, I was expecting our main characters to come to some similar realization. To gain some perspective. But they never do. They never grow as individuals. Not only are the rules of their time travel confusing, but they selfishly use this power to create the perfect night for themselves, avoiding their problems. Instead of coming of age, their power enables them to act even more childish.

You might argue that Norimichi becomes more decisive, but how much of that is really him and how much of it is the power of the marble? Would he be as bold if he couldn’t just go back and change the consequences of every decision he makes? There is so little character development here that our characters barely even reflect on the time travel they’ve been experiencing, let alone anything else. Without any reflection, this film is merely a series of pointless events. If the film doesn’t care to show us how the events are affecting our characters, then how are we supposed to react to those events ourselves?

Animation is Expensive

The 2D animation here is really great, but that 3D background is a poor juxtaposition. | Image Courtesy of UK Anime News

The animation of this movie was also a letdown. YOUR NAME was a gorgeously animated film, and at times, FIREWORKS can be very beautiful as well. The fireworks themselves, the water, and the characters are all very stunning to look at. Yet every so often these moments are undercut by poorly done 3D elements, upon which FIREWORKS is completely over-reliant. It’s especially noticeable in a transitional frame of a staircase in the film, which looks like something out of a Windows 98 game.

This staircase looks like Bob and Enzo are going to come running down it in an episode of REBOOT. It’s a little jarring, and to make matters worse, they kept using that same exact shot over and over again. They use it at least three times to transition in this film and after that, I lost count.

I know that this isn’t the first film to ever utilize 3D with 2D animation cels. Studios in Japan do this all the time to save time and money, especially on backgrounds. How well this works depends, in large part, on the quality of the 3D. Here it is often atrocious. Every time I noticed the 3D it took me out of the story completely. That’s not what you want as a filmmaker. A filmmakers job is to hide the seams, and here they were glaringly obvious.

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And in the End, Something Happened?

Nope. Nothing happened in the end either.

This film is a scattered jumble of half-ideas and faux-profundity. Any potential the premise had was lost in the execution. In not a single character arc is there any sign of growth. The main characters run from responsibility and consequences, and the side characters are a line-up of buffoons whose comic relief falls flat. Even the adult characters in this story act like children. The teacher who gets sexually harassed by teenagers all day is more concerned that they suspect she is dating someone than that she is regarded as an object rather than a professional. Her boyfriend is equally only obsessed with her boobs. Nazuna’s mom essentially calls her a friendless weirdo behind her back.

The only redeemable character in the whole film is actually the stepdad. He buys everyone ice cream! Except, wait, then he punches Norimichi in the face — I mean, I wanted to punch Norimichi in the face, but you can’t just go around punching kids.

The movie takes a huge swing to try to get us invested in the love story, but its not enough to simply say Norimichi loves Nazuna. If the whole movie is about their love, then I should know who they are and what they love about each other. Who is Norimichi? Who is Nazuna? After watching this movie I can honestly say I don’t really know anything about them. Other than the fact that he’s a guy, and she’s a girl. And that her singing might trigger LSD hallucinations. That’s not good enough. If there’s anything redeeming about the film it might be that it can occasionally produce a beautiful looking sequence, but other than that there just isn’t much here to feel good about.

Featured image courtesy of Film Inquiry

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