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.

A Silent Voice (聲の形, Naoko Yamada, 2016)

silent-voiceChildren – not always the most tolerant bunch. For every kind and innocent film in which youngsters band together to overcome their differences and head off on a grand world saving mission, there are a fair few in which all of the other kids gang up on the one who doesn’t quite fit in. Given Japan’s generally conformist outlook, this phenomenon is all the more pronounced and you only have to look back to the filmography of famously child friendly director Hiroshi Shimizu to discover a dozen tales of broken hearted children suddenly finding that their friends just won’t play with them anymore. Where A Silent Voice (聲の形, Koe no Katachi) differs is in its gentle acceptance that the bully is also a victim, capable of redemption but requiring both external and internal forgiveness.

Classmates Shoko (Saori Hayami) and Shoya (Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka) are almost mirror images of each other, sharing the first syllable of their names (at least phonetically) but representing two entirely opposite poles. Before Shoko transferred into his school, Shoya was the class clown, behaving disruptively and acting as the leader of a group of mean kids who, if not exactly bullies, certainly exert a degree of superiority over their meeker classmates. Shoko, hard of hearing, remains necessarily quiet, communicating through messages written on a notepad. Though some of the other pupils are fascinated by the novelty of someone like Shoko suddenly appearing, delighting in writing messages back and for and eagerly embracing the opportunity to learn sign language in order to communicate with her more easily, the mean kids, with Shoya as the ringleader, delight in making her life a misery just because they can.

Though some of the other children object to the way Shoya and the others are behaving, they do little to defend their new friend. Some of the more impressionable kids even halfheartedly join in, perhaps feeling bad about it but also enjoying being part of the angsty pre-teen group of nasty kids, but when it all gets too much and Shoko decides to move on everyone is suddenly struck with remorse and a need to blame someone else for the harm they’ve caused. Hence, Shoya gets a taste of his own medicine, ostracised by his peers as the lowlife who hounded a deaf girl out of school. Who’d want to hang around with someone like that?

Humbled, the stigma follows Shoya on into his next school as feelings of guilt and self loathing intensify until he reaches a point at which he can’t go on. Intending to finally end it all, Shoya unexpectedly runs into Shoko again and eventually manages to make a kind of motion towards an apology, attempting to make friends after all this time and making use of the sign language he’s taught himself to show his sincerity.

Isolated both by the continuing rumours of his primary school days and an intense personal feeling of unworthiness, Shoya finds it impossible to interact with his fellow students whose faces are each covered by a large blue cross. Bonding first with another lonely outcast, Shoya’s world begins to open up again but the spectre of his past continues to haunt him. Reconnecting with some of the other kids from primary school he finds that not everyone remembers things the same way they’ve become engraved in his mind. Though a few are anxious to atone, one of his former friends, Naoka (Yuki Kaneko), takes a different approach to the problem in continuing to blame Shoko – for the “attention” her condition attracts, the “requirement” for others to modify their behaviour to suit her, for simply existing in the first place enabling the behaviour which took place (about which Naoka remains unrepentant), and being the root cause that her merry band of friends fell apart.

If it seems like the tale disproportionately focuses on Shoya’s guilt and and redemption rather than Shoko’s suffering the balance shifts back towards the end as the pair truly mirror each other with another suicide attempt forming the climax of the second act. Shoko responds to her often cruel treatment with nothing other than friendliness, smiling with hands outstretched even whilst continuing to receive nothing but rejection. Though she may seem all smiles and sweetness, her overly genial persona is itself an act as she tries to overcompensate for the “burden” she feels herself to be causing through her need for “special treatment”. Eventually, Shoko snaps – firstly in primary school as her well meaning attempts to bring Shoya over to her side fail once again, and then later in a much more final way as she decides that there is nothing left for her in a world which fails to accommodate for difference.

The story of a girl who struggles to be heard, and a boy who refuses to listen, A Silent Voice is a quiet plea for the power of mutual understanding and reconciliation. Director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida bring the same kind of quirky slice of life humour which made K-On and Tamako Market so enjoyable along with the raw visual beauty which has come to define Kyoto Animation to this often dark tale, perfectly integrating the more dramatic elements into the otherwise warm and forgiving world in a believable and natural way. Nuanced, complicated and defiantly refusing total resolution, A Silent Voice is one of the more interesting animated projects to come out of Japan in recent times and further marks out Yamada as one of its most important animation auteurs.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)