Fireworks (打ち上げ花火、下から見るか? 横から見るか?, Akiyuki Shinbo & Nobuyuki Takeuchi, 2017) [Fantasia 2018]

Fireworks posterBack in 1993, Fireworks, Should We See it From the Side or From the Bottom? (打ち上げ花火、下から見るか? 横から見るか?, Uchiage Hanabi, Shita kara Miru ka? Yoko kara Miru ka?), became something of a sliding doors moment for the young Shunji Iwai who received an award from the Directors Guild of Japan for what was in essence a single episode in an anthology TV series dedicated to the idea of “what if”. “What if” is, it has to be said, a constant theme in nostalgic Japanese cinema as slightly older protagonists look back on the hazy days of youth and wonder what might have been if they’d only known then what they know now. Scripted by Hitoshi One (Scoop!) and produced by Shaft, the anime adaption attempts to do something similar, floating in with a gentle summer breeze that could easily be from 30 years ago or yesterday while its conflicted hero ponders where it is he ought to stand to get the most beautiful view of life passing him by.

The central dilemma that seems to obsess the boys this particular summer is whether fireworks are flat or three dimensional and whether your perception of them changes depending on where you stand. Norimichi (Masaki Suda) risks falling out with his best friend Yusuke (Mamoru Miyano) and so has avoided revealing the fact that they both have a crush on the same girl – Nazuna (Suzu Hirose), who (neither of them have noticed) has a dilemma of her own. A chance meeting at the swimming pool seems primed to dictate the romantic fate of all concerned. Norimichi and Yusuke race for the affections of Nazuna who, in the original timeline, ends up asking Yusuke to see the summer fireworks with her even though it’s Norimichi she went there to meet.

Unfortunately Yusuke is a flake and nothing goes to plan. He stands Nazuna up to hang with his buddies and figure out the answer to their inane riddle leaving her to run into Norimichi who gets an unexpected glimpse at her inner turmoil. A mysterious orb salvaged by Nazuna from the nearby sea gives Norimichi a chance to start over, be braver, do things differently thanks to the benefit of hindsight, and so he begins a path to idealised romance by manipulating the events around him to finally “save” Nazuna from making a rash decision (or at least from making it alone).

In 1993, Nazuna’s dilemma was perhaps a little more unusual than it might seem now. Her twice married single-mother (Takako Matsu) is planning to marry again which requires the teenage Nazuna to leave her home behind to live with a strange man in a strange town. Though her new step-dad seems nice and is obviously trying his best, Nazuna is not of a mind to give in. She consents to accepting one of the ice-creams he’s bought to curry favour (after all, there’s no need to be “rude”), but is not about to go so far as to say thank you or to enjoy eating it together with the rest of the family when she could guzzle it sulkily in the comfort of her bedroom. Nazuna wants to escape, but her ideas of doing so are childishly naive even if she puts on a sophisticated front by joking about going to Tokyo to work on the fringes of the sex trade by lying about her age. Hence, she asks a boy she likes but barely knows to take her away from this place, but the boy is just a boy and not quite equipped for rescuing damsels in distress from suffering he doesn’t understand.

Like many Japanese teen dramas, Norimichi’s interior monologue takes on a rueful quality, as if he’s eulogising his youth while still inside it. He doesn’t know whether there’s a difference if you look at things from one angle or another because he’s not particularly used to thinking about things and his first few experiments with the orb are pure reactions to events rather than thought through decisions about effects and consequences. Nevertheless, use of the orb shifts him into a philosophical contemplation of what it is to live a life. Finally realising he should probably ask Nazuna what it is she really wants, the process the pair undergo is one of learning to live in the now rather than obsessing about the end of something that might never begin if you never find the courage to start.

In the end their beautiful dream world is ruptured by a drunken old man, shattering into a thousand shards of memory of things that never were. Fireworks wants to ask if you can have a more fulfilling life by simply changing your perspective, but its central messages never quite coalesce. There is something about Iwai’s original concept which inescapably of its time, sliding neatly into the melancholy world of early ‘90s teen drama drenched in nostalgia for an era not yet past. Reaching for poignant philosophising, Fireworks falls short through, ironically enough, focussing too heavily on a single point of view. An oddly “flat” exercise, Shinbo’s adaptation misses the mark in its climactic moments but perhaps manages to offer something to the lovelorn teens of today if only by yanking them back to a more innocent time.


Fireworks was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The original 1986 Seiko Matsuda song reprised by Nazuna at a climactic moment.

BLAME! (ブラム!, Hiroyuki Seshita, 2017)

blame posterCities. The pinnacle of human achievement and an almost living monument to civilisation. Does the same principle of human collective settlement also relate to the digital realm or will increasing interconnectedness eventually destroy everything we’ve built? Following their landmark CGI adaptation of Tsutomu Nihei’s Knights of Sidonia, Polygon Pictures return to source by adapting the author’s debut work BLAME! into a feature length animated movie. Like Sidonia, BLAME! (ブラム!) takes place many years after a climactic event has led to the fall of human civilisation – an event so long in the past as to have become mere myth to the small number of humans still clinging on to life in a now inhospitable terrain, but BLAME!’s dystopia is very much one created by man, losing control of its technology in its ever advancing hubris.

As the young girl who offers the opening monologue tells us, no one knows how all of this happened. Once, a long time ago, humans lived in a city but a virus came and they lost the ability to communicate with the environment in which they lived. The city began to grow, and the “Safeguard” system decided that humans were “illegal immigrants” in their own land. The exterminators swooped in to wipe them out but a small band of humans has managed to survive a few hundred years in a kind of safe zone protected by a perimeter wall the city’s systems are prevented from monitoring.

The rapid expansion of the city has also meant a reduction in vegetation and the surviving humans are running low on food. An intrepid team of children ventures out into the wasteland in search of sustenance, but they’re spotted and targeted for elimination. A mysterious figure appears on the horizon and saves them. The man calls himself a “human” and is disappointed to realise none of the children are carriers of the “Net Terminal Gene” which he is seeking. Killy (Takahiro Sakurai) claims that the Net Terminal Gene will enable the humans to take back control of the city’s systems, halt the excessive building program and call off the Safeguard attack dogs.

Killy’s appearance brings new hope to the villagers, trapped within their perimeter stronghold but facing the prospect of staying and starving or taking their chances with Safeguard. Concentrating on action rather than philosophising little time is given over to considering how humanity lives though it’s certainly puzzling that there is so little reaction when the band of children returns home much depleted in numbers. Indeed, aside from Pops (Kazuhiro Yamaji), the de facto leader of the community, no other “adults” appear.

Using Killy as a kind of deflective shield, the gang press on until they find an abandoned robot, Cibo (Kana Hanazawa), who tells them about an “Automated Factory” in which she can generate both an abundant food source and a synthetic tablet which will allow them to get back into the city’s systems. What ensues is a deadly firefight as the system fights back. Cibo pleads with The Authority in the digital realm while Killy and the villagers hold back the forces of order with firepower from the outside.

Killy remains a man of few words, his language dulled through inactivity and his expression inscrutable, but the villagers, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security thanks to long years of isolation, never question his motives or reliability. Likewise, Cibo clearly knows more than she lets on but offers the only lead so far on a way back to a less precarious way of life. Killy’s sudden appearance becomes a mythic event, a point of transition in the history of the post-apocalyptic world, but also seems to be without resolution as the closing coda implies.

Like Sidonia, the animation quality is at times variable but often excels in its highly detailed backgrounds, allowing production design to smooth over any narrative gaps. What BLAME! lacks in terms of plot and character complexity it makes up for in world building though it is difficult to ignore the feeling of the loss born of condensing something far larger into an easily digestible whole. Nevertheless, BLAME! does what it sets out to do with quiet brilliance in detailing what might be the first of many adventures of the wanderer known as Killy as he explores a world ruined beyond repair looking for the key to unlock a brighter future.


Netflix trailer (Japanese with English subtitles/captions)