Saturday, October 7, 2017

Anime On the Big Screen: “Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 7 October 2017
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 90 minutes
Production Date: 2017
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

Another month and another new anime film is being screened in cinemas. Admittedly it’s still not a regular occurrence; however there have been more new anime films and reissues (such as the recent Ghibli film festival) in cinemas this year than in the last two combined. And it seems the next six months should bring even more anime with several features being distributed by Madman and a couple on the film festival circuit later this month. Apparently screenings for “A Silent Voice” made over $600,000 for Madman, which seems a bit nuts. No wonder they’re continuing to release anime into cinemas. Having said that, I was little surprised Dendy was screening this film, which must have a limited audience, three times a day for a week commencing Thursday.

Though we are well into the second month of spring, it was a surprisingly cold morning. I got a ticket to the earliest screening I could, 10am. I got up a bit late, so I grabbed a quick bit to eat in the mall and went and got my ticket. However I was told by the staff member that as I ordered on line, they didn’t issue a physical ticket at the box office. Amusingly no one checked my printout as I went inside the cinema. I wasn’t expecting a huge turnout for this film, but the lack of cinemagoers truly shocked me; a grand total of five including me; two women in their twenties, one young Asian woman who sat right at the back and an older man down the front, who left 30 minutes into the film and never returned. Other than that, there was nothing else to report in regard to the screening. Might as well talk about the film itself;

In a small coastal town called Moshimo, it is the end of school term. On his way to school with his buddies, seventh grader Norimichi Shimada notices Nazuna Oikawa, whom he has an interest in, as she stands by the rocks on the shore and picks up a marble like ball the size of a golf ball out of the water. After a PE class, both Norimichi and his friend, Yusuke Azumi, are assigned pool cleaning duties. Yusuke tells Norimichi he has to go to the toilet before they start. Inside the pool Norimichi discovers Nazuna sunbathing on the side of the pool. Wanting to get closer to her, he sheepishly strikes up a conversation, which leads to a discussion about the marble like ball she found in the sea that morning. As Yusuke arrives back, Norimichi makes a hasty exit, as he doesn’t want him to find out Nazuna is there, as he also has a crush on her.

As they finish cleaning, they hatch a plan to race each other in the pool. They determine what they could use as a prize. Eventually Yusuke says that if he wins he will ask out Nazuna. Before Norimichi can answer, Nazuna rushes in and asks if she can join in on their races. She says if she wins they both have to do what she says, though is coy on what that might be. During the race, Norimichi stubs his heel badly on the side of pool (as he gawks at Nazuna as she passes him underwater) as he does a flip turn on the return lap. This causes Nazuna’s marble to fall into the water which Yusuke catches. Nazuna wins and as Yusuke came second, asks him to come to the festival and firework display at the local shrine that night. She retrieves her marble and leaves. Later in class, Norimichi and Yusuke’s friends, Kazuhiro, Minoru and Junichi are having a heated discussion about fireworks. Half the group think fireworks are flat if you see them from the side; the others think they’re round all over. To solve this for once and all, they decide to go to the lighthouse on the shore and view the fireworks from there. The losers will have to do the victor’s summer homework. As they are discussing this, Nazuna enters the classroom. Yusuke looks at her out the corner of his eye knowing he has already committed to going the lighthouse with his friends.

In the evening after school, Norimichi discovers Yusuke inside his bedroom playing video games. Apparently his parents don’t lock the back door to their house. Yusuke admits that he had planned to go to the festival with Nazuna, but is going to ditch her to go with his friends to the lighthouse. Naturally Norimichi is a little be narked over this, but doesn’t let on too much. Yusuke notices Norimichi’s heel is still bleeding and recommends going to see his father, the local doctor. This is in part a ruse into getting Norimichi to tell Nazuma he won’t be going to the festival with her. When he arrives at the surgery he notices Nazuna patiently waiting for Yusuke in her yukata and strangely has a suitcase with her. After seeing the doctor, Norimichi sheepishly tells her the bad news. Outside the two of them talk for a while. He asks why she has a suitcase with her. She initially says she is running away from home, but then deflects the subject.

Afterwards Nazuna bids Norimichi farewell and sets off, but soon returns panicked and running. She is fleeing from her mother who roughly grabs her and is hell bent on taking Nazuna back home. Her suitcase falls to the ground spilling its contents everywhere. Apparently Nazuna was meant to leave town with her mother and her new partner and naturally she doesn’t want a bar of it. In desperation Nazuna asks Norimichi if he would have taken her to the festival if he came second in the swimming race. As she is being hauled away, Yusuke, Kazuhiro, Minoru and Junichi arrive and see what’s happening. Realising what has happened and wanting to save Nazuna, Norimichi attempts to take after her and her mother, but is apparently blinded by the setting sun. Upon seeing Yusuke he becomes enraged and beats him up for not taking her to the festival. Initially shocked and confused, the others eventually intervene in the fight. Frustrated, Norimichi picks up the marble from the contents of Nazuna’s suitcase and hurls it towards a community noticeboard displaying a poster of the festival. Oddly it doesn’t make contact and Norimichi finds himself transported back in time to that morning before the swimming race. He now has a chance to set things right.

This film is based upon a short 1993 live action telemovie written and directed by Shunji Iwai as part of a series of short films called "If: Moshimo". Iwai is a bit of a darling of the Japanese cinema scene with critically acclaimed films such as “Swallowtail Butterfly”, a segment in the omnibus film “New York, I Love You” and probably his most famous work “All About Lily Chou-Chou”. Iwai also released “Hana and Alice” in 2004 and made an anime sequel called “The Case of Hana & Alice” in 2015 which I quite enjoyed. Oddly I don’t think any of his films have had a theatrical release over here. I attempted to watch the original 49 minute telemovie before watching this film, but at the time could not find an English language version anywhere. Long after the screening I discovered it did receive a Japanese DVD release which amazingly does include optional English subtitles.

From what I understand, this anime version of Iwai’s telemovie keeps all of the core elements of the original, makes the kids slightly older and nearly doubles the length of the story. The film was produced by Shaft, who are best known for “Puella Magi Madoka Magica”, “Hidamari Sketch” and of course the anime adaptions of Nisio Isin’s “Monogatari” light novel series. I have to admit I’m not an overly big fan of their work. Their titles tend to have distinct look to them which is uniquely “Shaft”, which by all means is not a bad thing. For a major theatrical film, oddly most of the key staff have little or no experience; screenwriter Hitoshi Ohne has done very little of note and director Nobuyuki Takeuchi has made he career in the anime industry as a key animator. Unsurprisingly Akiyuki Shinbo (director of the studio's most popular titles; “Puella Magi Madoka Magica”, “Hidamari Sketch” and “Bakemonogatari”) is listed as chief director and mostly likely supervised and guided the two novices.

The film overall is a bit strange, but I really liked it for a great deal of its run time. It isn’t overly original by any means; a romance set in a high school. However for a good deal of it's length it did win me over. It’s really hard to get swept up in the adolescent romance, Nazuma’s sense of isolation and wanting to be free of her mother and wanted to escape small town life for Osaka or Tokyo. There’s also Norimichi’s desire to want to live his life with her and set things right after his friend stood her up. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, but certainly doesn’t have that “Shaft look” as seen in their most popular titles. Instead it opts for as much more realistic look. Some of the backgrounds are very photorealistic, so much so that I initially thought I was looking as live action shots edited into the film.

Many mainstream reviewers have made the unavoidable comparison of this movie to Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name”. I think that’s a more than fair call. Both are high school romances, set in small towns, with supernatural elements and time travel plots. You could suggest that “Fireworks” is playing off the success of Shinkai’s film and is the only reason you’d resurrect a forgotten telemovie from 1993 and format it into a full length anime film. Another point that's more than fair I think. The film itself transforms from what is a very likable “Run Lola Run” like romance with a teen couple trying to elope, to a bizarre dimension hopping film with a very weird and misplaced musical/fantasy sequence which I suppose shows Nazuna hasn't really thought out her actions, but comes off as odd and cheesy. However I must admit the marble device that Nazuna found is quite interesting if a little unoriginal. I also quite liked the lighthouse motifs used the film, though maybe towards the end of the film they were a little bit too strange for my liking. There's also the "If" (or more correctly "what if?") motif which intertwines with the lighthouse motif and ties in with the original theme of the original live action series. While some reviewers have noted that some of the animation wasn’t all that great, I only had problems with a couple of scenes; a mid distance shot done with CG of the boys going to school which looked dreadful, and a couple of really off model animation shots. Other than that the animation was pretty darn good.

In the end I’m not too sure what to make of this film. The core plot of two teens trying over and over again to elope and escape their little town and their lives is really interesting and fun. I also liked how it showed how teen boys adore women and how awkward they are in expressing their feelings. However it is overlaid with a somewhat odd dimension jumping plot, with each dimension subtly different (mostly to do with how fireworks explode) from the next. Assuming it was a straight time travel film, I was sort of confused by it all, and I had a feeling others in the cinema were too. I think screenwriter Hitoshi Ohne tried to be too clever by half adding in the dimension concept to the original story and in the end has made of hash of things. The end scene could also not make a whole lot of sense, depending on how you interpret it. For the most part, it’s quite an intriguing film. The dimension hopping silliness which raises its head half way through the film really did let it down though. 6 out of 10.

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