Anime Review: Fireworks, Should We See It From the Side or the Bottom? (Shaft)

I think the Katy Perry song had more bang than this movie.

Oh boy, Fireworks (and yes that’s what I’m going to be calling it from now on because the official name is way too long). Yeah, I’m really late in regards to reviewing this one, aren’t I? The film only got announced for a theatrical screening in the West incredibly recently, and before 2017 even ended, the film got picked apart by Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, MyAnimeList, and too many Japanese critics to bother linking. If you’re not familiar with this project, it’s a remake of a live-action drama and film that was written by cult Japanese film director, Shunji Iwai, who you may remember as the guy who wrote and directed Hana & Alice as well as its rotoscoped anime prequel. And who can forget his first critical and commercial success, Swallowtail?

Well I say that, but I’m actually not very well-versed in his filmography, having only seen Hana & Alice. So from that limited experience, as well as the premise for Fireworks, the most I can say about the guy is that he has a bit of a romantic side to him, as well as a penchant for portraying the whimsical yet dramatic side of a Japanese teenage girl. I’m sure there’s more, but I doubt that really matters with this movie since I can’t seem to find any indication that he had much involvement with it.

Instead, the majority of the credit goes to Studio Shaft. You guys remember Shaft right? That studio who used to be on top of the world with their stylistic cost-cutting and memetic head tilts, but has since been delegated to a cult favorite that most people only notice occasionally? And it’s not like they’ve stopped making anime people enjoyed over the years. March Comes Like a Lion got a large amount of acclaim despite only barely qualifying as a hit anime. But recently, they’ve just become background noise that people only turn their heads up to when they’re producing the umpteenth Monogatari sequel. Did you know they produced the latest Fate adaptation? No of course you don’t, because nobody watched that series, and it wasn’t just because it’s not streaming legally anywhere.

In fact, for a long while, nobody even heard of this movie back when it was initially announced. The only reason I ever heard of it was due to paying attention to the upcoming anime charts and noticing that Shaft was releasing something original for theaters, but otherwise nobody was talking about it. The studio is definitely still considered a favorite by a good amount of people, but the fame they got when Madoka became big is gone now. If you were to talk about the big anime studios that people will go “instant watch” nowadays, most people will go to KyoAni or PA Works or Trigger. Hell, I see people praise A-1 Pictures more these days even though they’re still a personality-less vacuum that nobody would actually go see just because their name is attached to it.

Whisk me away to a much better studio, please.

Why did their era come to an end? I dunno what you want me to say. People just got tired of them. They’re terrible when it comes to producing new IP and they have a bad habit of running their popular IP into the ground with Monogatari at this point resembling the anime version of Kingdom Hearts in terms of convoluted lore and useless fan arguments regarding which entry is the best. Additionally, those cost-cutting techniques they use are looking more and more stupid with each passing year given how obsessed the fandom is with actual animation these days combined with how all of their shows just look the same. And I don’t mean look the same in how KyoAni’s character designs are just the same girl with a different haircut. I mean how entire shots and scenes from one show are just reused in another show because they either couldn’t be assed to come up with some new set pieces or haven’t realized that wide empty spaces are not for every adaptation out there.

On top of that, their humor is awful. Their storytelling is dated. And they just can’t deliver to their core audience, let alone the general anime public, when it really counts. If you want proof of that, just look at the incredibly negative reception to Fireworks. Most animation studios have their flops regardless if they’re big or not, but this is Shaft’s first big original movie in a time when Your Name and A Silent Voice ushered in a new era of theatrical anime films after Ghibli went under, and it ended up becoming the anime version of Batman v Superman. Which probably wouldn’t be that bad if it was just facing those two movies, but there are several recent anime films that have achieved a good amount of success and attention after 2016 opened up the public’s eye.

In This Corner of the World.

Night is Short, Walk on Girl.

Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

It’s not Japanese, but Big Fish and Begonia has made its positive splash within the anime community as well. As such, Shaft is going to have to live with how it’s the first big animation studio to utterly fail at breaking it into the movie business for a long time now. Although I guess their career in the music video scene is still an enticing option.

You’re probably wondering at this point how exactly did Fireworks become Shaft’s highest-grossing film of all-time with a reported $26 million in box office sales if people hated it so much? Well first off, the negative critical reception didn’t really take off until it started making its way outside of Japan. But the real reason why this movie got a cult following was because of that music video I linked above, which has the most views of an any anime-related song I’ve seen to date apart from Porter Robinson’s “Shelter” (edit: okay not the most, but higher than average). It’s sung by this Japanese pop artist named Daoko, who I’m admittedly not familiar with because I have enough trouble paying attention to American pop music. You know I never even heard of that abhorrent “Freaky Friday” music video starring Little Dicky and Chris Brown until just a few days ago? But getting back on track, the song is admittedly pretty decent and Daoko can really sing, although how the video got so many more views than the Bump of Chicken song for March Comes Like a Lion is beyond me.

And given how many people liked this song, they were hoping the movie would be high-quality as well. It kind of reminds me of how everyone hated Beyond the Boundary and yet the ending theme song accumulated like a billion views on Youtube. It’s not the healthiest connection to make, but clearly Shaft’s regular marketing, let alone their name, wasn’t going to make this movie a hit itself. Unfortunately, I think the creators had the same opinion the non-music video audience had when they were making this thing, because Fireworks’ animation…

Those CG characters going down the hill.

Those horribly drawn faces. And boobs as well.

Horrible CG Effect #1

Horrible CG Effect #58 (yeah there’s a lot of them in this movie)

They had Kizumonogatari in production for almost a decade just so they could get the blood to look artistic, and yet they couldn’t spend more time on making Fireworks – a movie no one was exactly clamoring for – look good? There’s no improved blu-rays coming out for this because said blu-ray was the version that I watched for this review. As such, this is the best we’re going to get, and what we got is one of the cheapest big screen efforts I’ve seen in anime since Fairy Tail: Dragon Cry if the characters had been replaced with stick figures.

Okay, I’m fully aware that there’s generally behind-the-scenes production companies that control a lot of these animation studios with KyoAni being the only one out there that’s separate from that drama. I’m not fully aware of who controls Shaft persay, although given how the company is still using the same Shinbo style they’ve been using in every single thing they’ve made for the last decade and a half, they probably have looser restrictions than A-1 Pictures. Nevertheless, I’m aware that how this movie looks along with the time window they released it in isn’t entirely their fault. No, what is 100% their fault is that in addition to being one of the ugliest anime on the big screen, Fireworks is horribly directed as well.

What the hell is up with these frequent close-up shots?

Or fish-eyed lens shots like this?

These empty far-away shots are pointless.

And let’s re-use this image just to make it clear that Shaft still loves focusing on cleavage, underage or otherwise.

Seriously, the only reason I can think of for why this movie looks so cheap is that the producers didn’t think it was going to succeed so they just made it out of some sort of obligation. I’ve seen some people say that Fireworks is a ripoff of Your Name, but unless there was some secret dealing behind Comix Wave and Shaft that no one knows of, Fireworks was obviously already in production before Makoto Shinkai’s big hit changed people’s cognition of non-Ghibli anime movies forever. I’m pretty sure it takes more than one year to make an animated film, no matter how lackluster it is or how rushed Shaft productions tend to be. If anything, if they had known of Your Name prior to making Fireworks, I’m willing to bet the producers would have tried a lot harder to make this movie as big a visual spectacle as Kizumonogatari. Less we forget, this is the highest-grossing movie Shaft has ever made. So why on earth does it look so awful compared to their franchise films?

Oh, I haven’t even gotten to the plot of Fireworks have I? Most of my dislike for the movie is technical-related, but what happens on-screen isn’t any better either. Simply put, it’s another time-travel romance story about regrets and taking chances that we have way too much of these days with the only thing standing out about it being the severe lack of personality this movie has compared to when everybody else tried their hands at it. The story is theoretically centered on a love triangle between two boys and a young girl, but one of those boys is an unrepentant ass, the other boy has just as much personality as he does height (he’s very short too), and the girl wants to run away from home because of generic “my mom is marrying another man who is not abusive to me at all” bullshit. Last I checked, they don’t stock violins that small at my local music store.

This coming from the guy who openly sexually harassed his teacher.

The first big problem I have with the movie’s narrative is that when they’re not personality-less background characters who are completely irrelvant to the plot, the main stars of this movie are completely defined by the romance, especially the males since the girl at least has the half-assed parental problems to fall back on. And the romance amounts to nothing more than “I like you because the script says so” rather than say, similar interests or grounded personal philosophies. You replace the lead dude with Yuji Sakai from Shakugan no Shana, what changes? Well your lead will be taller than the girl for one thing, but other than that, there will be literally no difference. You know, aside from how the dude eventually becomes a badly-written evil demon lord by the finale.

Someone thought this was a good idea. I have no words.

And even by those generic standards, the narrative is incredibly disjointed and more complicated than it needs to be. I’ve been told that the original drama only had one time jump in order to keep the contrast between what happened prior and what happened now simple. Fireworks has this badly-CG’d green orb that allows the main dude, named Norimichi, to go back in time at very convenient points in his life whenever he throws it and he uses it constantly, mostly because the universe keeps contriving reasons to screw his plans at eloping with the hottest girl he’s ever known. First, he loses a swimming competition to his best friend Yusuke, so the girl, named Nazuna, asks Yusuke out on a date with the intention of running away with him. Yusuke decides to let Norimichi have her for some reason (because the film can’t decide whether he likes Nazuna or not), but fails to make that clear to Norimichi, resulting in Nazuna’s planned escape from her parents ending in failure.

Using the green orb that is never explained and comes out of nowhere, Norimichi goes back in time and ends up winning the swimming contest so Nazuna will run away with him. And incidentally, why on earth is she using that contest to decide which boy to go out with anyways? Is she really that shallow? They try to make it clear that she wanted to go with Norimichi all along, but then why use the contest in the first place? And what does she see in Norimichi as a potential romantic partner and elopement conspirator in the first place? Last I checked, even if a girl is “easy”, they’re attracted to dudes who can take control without embarrassing themselves and have enough common sense to end it if it’s not working out. Or does that just happen to me every time I go on a first date?

They sure are…wait, how?

Norimichi ends up having to use the green orb repeatedly when the story keeps contriving reasons for his elopement with Nazuna to end in failure. One particularly bad example is when Yusuke and the other nameless boys somehow spot the couple in a speeding train (and yes they’re the only ones in the train because Shaft just loves their Kingdom Hearts-style empty spaces) whilst walking around and then runs after the train on foot at the same speed the train is going AND after the train gets a ten second headstart! Okay Shaft, have none of your employees actually tried to run after a speeding train before? In addition to the fact that you shouldn’t run on tracks to begin with, no track star in the world, let alone one as young as Yusuke, can match a train’s speed even if it was going at 20 MPH (and it was clearly going faster than that). How the hell did he catch up to the train at the next stop in order to force Norimichi into using his time-travel powers again? There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s just breaking the laws of fucking reality.

As for how the story ends, basically the orb breaks in a scene that was intended to be comedic but came off as retarded and we see multiple futures for the main couple before they end up going swimming with each other. Afterwards, they end up disappearing from the world altogether with it being ambiguous whether they drowned or successfully ran away. Yes, if you’re one of those people who watched and remembered this series, this is the exact same finale as Yosuga no Sora’s. You couldn’t even rip off a good anime for your dramatic ending. You went to the lowest common obscure denominator you could possibly find, and you didn’t even include the underage sex. Just keep cockteasing Nazuna’s body to us, Shaft. Clearly this girl is the next Senjougahara.

Damn girl, that dragonfly is sexy.

I mean what exactly is the point of this story? That failure is the only option? Or that if you fail enough times, you’ll eventually succeed? Yeah that’s a story that was worth a ninety-minute film runtime. Actually, no there is one thing that Fireworks pushes on its audience to make it stand out from the rest of the time travel mush and that’s the issue of perception, which is mainly brought up in the show’s title. Should you see fireworks from the side or the bottom? Are they actually flat or round? Basically the shows wants the viewers to question whether what they’re saying is actually the truth…and boy will it not let that fact up.

Now since I’m using a (bad) fansub to review the anime, I don’t want to highlight the actual dialogue, especially when it’s obviously a rush job. But even if it had been translated by Asenshi, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise that Fireworks has horrendous writing. It has the boys sexually harassing their teacher, which I’m really uncomfortable with because in addition to sexual harassment never being funny, a friend of mine was recently the victim of it in an online group I’m a part of and trust me when I say that it was a shitstorm. But more importantly, the characters keep asking what angle you should see the fireworks at so many times I swear it makes up 50% of their dialogue, even during dramatic scenes where the subject should clearly be about something else. Why do they care so much about fireworks and whether they’re flat or round? Is this some group project they’re working on?

And it doesn’t even amount to anything. The movie doesn’t analyze perception or cognitive psience beyond that basic question and it doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer to any of the questions it brings up. Now I don’t usually bring up other people’s reviews in my own, but I did read a really positive one on Letterboxd, and this is what they praised about the film’s subject matter:

But isn’t that just… running away? Cowardly running away from life’s disappointments and problems? Nazuna addresses that. “We’re not running away, we’re escaping”. The film explores the mindset of a teenager who really just wanna find a way out of misery, to be with whom they wanna be, to not be forced away from their lives. Wouldn’t it have been great? Maybe if when we were kids, we had the knowledge and the mindset we have now, we could’ve found a way not to be forced away from our friends. If that world was possible, would it be a bad idea to escape from this one? Even if it wasn’t meant to be, even if it meant distorting the world to do so, even if it meant abandoning what we have on this world now – would that shift in reality be worth it, just to live in an ideal world where your loved one wasn’t taken away from you? That’s the ultimate question of Akiyuki Shinbo’s Fireworks, and as much as the film has its own ending, it’s up to us to decide our own personal answer, and if we perceive the movie’s ending as a bleak one, or a happy one. – Gabe☆Danvers

Now none of what Gabe praises is inherently bad, but on its own, all these questions amount to nothing more than shallow concept. Where are the details? Why should I care about these kids’ problems? How exactly is the world suffering from this half-assed elopement? What exactly is the substance to this elopement besides pretty swimming scenes, a cheesy fantasy scene, and sudden animation bumps that look silly rather than artful, especially when contrasted to the lifelessness of everything else? More importantly, where is the life? Why does nobody seem to exist in this world other than the characters who matter? And how on earth am I supposed to take this story seriously when a lot of it depends entirely on coincidence, screwing physics, and visuals that I’d expect to see in shovel ware games on the PS1? Those are the questions that were raised in my head rather than all of that regret stuff, and none of them have been answered to this day.

In a much better movie, maybe this scene would have worked.

You know why Shaft isn’t respected by the public these days? Because nothing that defines them is charming anymore. Not their visuals. Not their humor. Not their milking. And especially not this godawful butt-ugly movie. They released Fireworks way too late because nowadays audiences care about good production and high-quality writing in ther animated movies more than ever, so it couldn’t quite get swept under the rug the way those Project Itoh films did (or at least the first two). It’s like if Chris Brown and R. Kelly had done their crimes in today’s environment, blissfully unaware of the current #MeToo movement going around, rather than during the yesteryears of media where male stars had more power to silence mistreatment of women. Honestly I have no idea why we aren’t jailing them at this moment, but I’ve long since accepted that they’re here to stay.

Will Shaft ever be more than just a cult studio again? I don’t know, but frankly I wouldn’t get my hopes up. There are definitely worse animation studios out there and there are still positives you can assign to their anime even without the comparisons. But I honestly can’t think of an anime production company as trapped in the past as these guys. And what good has getting trapped in the past ever done anybody? Because if Fireworks is anything to go by, getting trapped in the past is a good way to make people hate you and your inconsequential life forever.

======================================================================

  • Fireworks is not legally available outside of Japan yet, but GKids will be distributing the film to the West shortly. I encourage doing that over watching the shitty fansubs I used (and yes, my friends will most likely be dragging me to see it on the big screen when it comes out here).
  • Personally, I’m pretty sure fireworks aren’t two-dimensional.
  • Now for someone to make an AMV of this film to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me”.

2 responses to “Anime Review: Fireworks, Should We See It From the Side or the Bottom? (Shaft)

  1. I had no idea there was a movie at first and only thought it was a Daoko music vid.
    Movie is meh, the song is great.
    I saw the movie in theathers, dialogue is nothing great.

    Nazuna totally looks similar to Senjougahara.

Speak Up

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.