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.

Empire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Ryoutarou Makihara, 2015)

empire of corpses posterEmpire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Shisha no Teikoku) is what would happen if someone’s vast library of Victorian literature was destroyed in a fire and then someone tried to put all the not too singed pages back together based on their knowledge of international pop culture. Inspired by Project Itoh’s novel of the same name and the first of three planned adaptations of his works, Empire of Corpses is a very specific kind of absurd, boys own action adventure based around the idea of empire supported by a zombified proletariat.

Beginning in London in 1878, this is steampunk paradise only steam power is quickly becoming old hat as the greatest discovery of the age turns out to be the city’s largest untapped resource – its dead. Reanimated corpses can be trained to fight wars, wait tables, or work as servants but they’re tools now – not people, they may be able to follow an order but they have no mind to act with. Corpse Engineer John Watson has unwisely reanimated his friend Friday, but is distressed not to be able to restore his friend’s soul along with his body.

Watson ends up being dispatched on a secret mission by Her Majesty’s government to reclaim the notes made by the famous Dr. Frankenstein who has succeeded in creating a sentient creature known as The One. The notes are apparently in the possession of Russian scientist Karamazov. Watson travels to India with Burnaby, a mercenary bodyguard, and Friday where he also teams up with a mysterious flame thrower wielding busty blonde, Hadaly.

Empire of Corpses touches on some interesting philosophical questions such as the nature of the soul, the border lines between death and life, and the repurposing of a body as a fleshy tool. Though it stops short of delving into what the British Empire was really based on, the idea is very much that using reanimated corpses to fight your wars remotely is an absurd solution to an unnecessary problem.

That said, these “zombies” are a well trained and docile bunch. Until of course, they aren’t. Certain forces have planned to harness the zombie hordes for their own ends to create mass panic and wholesale destruction across the world. This might be the first mission the later famous John Watson will tackle, but he’s about to realise that there’s a lot more going on here than a set of secret documents no one wants to fall into the “wrong” hands.

Empire of Corpses remained unfinished when Project Itoh unfortunately died at a relatively young age. The concept is filled with extremely interesting ideas which are only ever dealt with in a superficial sense, though one wonders if the novel he might eventually have completed would have progressed so far down the ridiculous fantasy historical epic route. Very clearly channelling ‘30s style, post-penny dreadful tales of derring do starring familiar names, Empire of Corpses steals a host of famous literary characters from across the international canon as well as a number of historical personages, though only really borrows their names or perhaps a few other minor details. After raising such interesting ideas, the film quickly reverts to riduclous B-movie genre tropes as the gang get caught up in a zombie apocalypse with flashing mystical lights and the transmigration of souls thrown in for good measure.

No, it doesn’t make any sense though it isn’t really supposed to. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a post credits sequence shining a little more light but just as much bafflement onto the characters and their possible futures, though the intention is clearly just to raise a knowing wink from the well read members of the audience. By the time it all turns into The Wizard of Oz, some will undoubtedly have followed the yellow brick road out of the cinema but it is worth sticking around to see the final coda.

What Empire of Corpses has going for it is the extremely impressive visuals. Backgrounds in particular are gorgeously drawn making for an always interesting spectacle even if other aspects of direction can seem a little uninspired. Clumsily plotted and often incoherent, Empire of Corpses has its fair share of problems even aside from the inherent absurdity of its original premise, yet it isn’t completely unsalvageable and those who come expecting a B-movie style slice of incomprehensible hokum might well find much to enjoy.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Empire of Corpses has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US).

Unsubtitled trailer: