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.

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Mari Okada, 2018)

maquia poster 1Perhaps because of its often adolescent target audience, the “hahamono” or mother movie is a relatively rare genre in the world of anime despite its importance in other Japanese media. Wolf Children aside, most anime prefer to focus on the problems of young people dealing with an absentee or unreasonable parent who unwittingly enables the teen to undergo the adventures shortly to ensue. Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Sayonara no Asa ni Yakusoku no Hana wo Kazaro), is an exception to the rule in examining the complex nature of motherhood with a sideline in the legacy of familial disconnection, alienation, and the cyclical natures of life and memory. Flawed if ambitious, the first directorial feature from scriptwriter Mari Okada is a sprawling fantasy epic but one with its heart firmly on its sleeve.

Maquia (Manaka Iwami) is a member of the Separated Clan – an Iolf who weaves time and life into being. The life in Iolf is idyllic, if dull, and consists of little other than weaving. Maquia’s tomboyish friend, Leilia (Ai Kayano) rejoices in daring stunts and precocious flirtations that the shy and introverted Maquia can only dream of, while Maquia, an orphan, feels herself alone and remains somehow incapable of bonding with the other children. When Iolf is raided by Mesarte soldiers, Maquia is carried off by one of their great stone dragons. Now forced to explore the world outside of Iolf, Maquia chances on the remains of a ruined camp, stumbling over bodies only to discover a howling baby boy still held in the icy grip of his mother who tried her best to protect him even as she died. Perhaps identifying with another soul so completely alone, Maquia picks the boy up and decides to raise him though she is barely more than a child herself.

As the Iolf age much slower than the average human, Maquia’s quest to find true connection through maternity is destined to end in tragedy. Maquia christens her son Arial (Miyu Irino) and finds a home with a kindly ranch woman raising two sons of her own alone after her husband was killed by a rabid dragon, and begins to bond with her little boy. Meanwhile Leilia has been kidnapped and forced married to the Mesarte prince in the hope that his heir will inherit some Iolf lengevity. While Maquia is beginning to find connection, Leilia now tastes isolation as an imprisoned minority in the imperial court where she is also separated from the daughter born from a non-consensual union but loved all the same.

Though she already feels so alone, Maquia is warned by her Elder that if she wants to experience true loneliness she need only fall in love with a mortal. Maquia falls in love, or rather tries to, but as a mother rather than a lover. Pouring everything into her child Maquia knows the day will come when she must lose him, but for her it is in a more concrete sense than the normal breaking of a mother/son bond. The notion of mortality and differing lifespans is somewhat uncomfortably dramatised by the passing of the aged family dog who reaches the end of his journey long before his master. Though the message is sound is enough it does rather negate Maquia’s insistence that Arial is not a toy, implying that humans are almost like pets to the long-lived Iolf, something to be loved and fussed over in knowledge of its impermanence but something to which a lesser attachment is formed. 

Maquia, however, hurtles in the opposite direction, vowing to sacrifice all of herself in service of her son. Turning down a suitor in order to remain true and pure as an idealised mother figure, Maquia perhaps takes a retrograde step in agreeing to negate her own personality to become “a mother”, but like the classic hahamono, her overwhelming love proves too much for her growing son who grows tired of the burden of a mother’s expectation, longing to be free of her somewhat suffocating need to protect him while belittled by the knowledge that he, a mortal yet still a man, is incapable of protecting her. Maquia must find the strength to let her son go if she is to see him grow, but to do so will require a shift in self-knowledge born of truly learning what it means put another’s interest above one’s own.

Maquia’s struggles play out in parallel with the ongoing political drama surrounding the corrupt and oppressive Mesarte regime which seeks to rule by fear and violence, stealing the gifts of the Iolf only to abuse them. No matter the genesis, Prince Hazel seems to have formed a genuine attachment to his stolen bride (even if it is not returned) and does what he can to “protect” her, while her former love from the Iolf, Krim, has gone half mad through love denied, kidnapping Maquia to rope her into a half-baked rescue plot before threatening to burn the world if he cannot have his love for the price he is willing to pay.

The question is one of whether it is better to connect fully in the knowledge of a coming heartbreak, or hold back in self protection. In this Maquia learns the true meaning of her Elder’s instruction and begins to realise that the fabric that she weaves is spun from love and memory. Nothing is ever truly lost, merely laid down for someone else to pick up, and while parting is inevitable meeting is not and is something to be treasured no matter how painful it may be.


Distributed in the UK by Anime Limited

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Note: there seems to be some variation in the translation of the names of various characters, this review uses Anime Limited‘s list.

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)

Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官, Shuko Murase, 2017)

genocidal organHistory books make for the grimmest reading, subjective as they often are. Science fiction can rarely improve upon the already existing evidence of humanity’s dark side, but Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官, Gyakusatsu Kikan) has good go anyway, extrapolating a long line of political manipulations into the near future which neatly straddles a utopian/dystopian divide. Plagued by production delays and studio bankruptcy, Genocidal Organ is the third of three films adapted from the novels of late sci-fi author Project Itoh, arriving nearly two years after previous instalments Harmony and Empire of Corpses. Sadly, its message has only become more timely as the world finds itself on the brink of a geo-political recalibration where fear and division rule the roost.

Set in 2022, the world of Genocidal Organ is one of intense “security”. Following the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Sarajevo in 2017, developed nations have once again become jumpy. As the world weary narrative voice over informs us, Americans have sacrificed their freedoms for an illusion of safety which decreases the burden of living under the threat of terrorism. This brave new world is a surveillance state where citizens are chipped and monitored, even the simple act of buying pizza requires an identity check.

Less developed nations, however, have descended into a hellish cycle of internecine wars and large scale atrocities. American special forces have identified a pattern which puts one of their own, mysterious linguistics professor John Paul (Takahiro Sakurai), at the centre of a vast conspiracy. Army Intelligence officer Clavis Shepherd (Yuichi Nakamura) is despatched to track the master criminal down through his sometime girlfriend Lucia (Sanae Kobayashi), a Czech national and former MIT linguistics researcher now teaching Czech to foreigners in Prague.

Clavis, like the best film noir heroes, finds himself falling down a rabbit hole into an increasingly uncertain world. A top soldier, he has been “engineered” to decrease emotionality and limit pain response to make him a “better” soldier. His world is first shaken when one of his comrades goes rogue, kills a valuable mark, and then turns a gun on him. The top brass blame PTSD but not only that, PTSD that was in fact induced by the very processes the soldiers undergo to ensure than PTSD is impossible. He has always believed that his actions, and those of his superiors have been for the greater good, but he has rarely stopped to think what that greater good may be.

Clavis’ missions see him jumping into a coffin-like landing pod and parachuting into street battles in which many of the combatants are children who have been drugged “to make them better soldiers”. Just as you’re starting to wonder who exactly is perpetrating the genocide, Clavis is asked the relevant question by a captive John. He replies that it’s just his job. John reminds Clavis that that particular justification has a long and terrifying history and so perhaps he ought to ask himself why he chooses to do this particular job and do it so blindly.

John’s big theory is that violence has its own grammar, a secret code buried in language which can be engineered to provoke political instability but then conveniently contained within its own language group. Essentially, he posits the idea of sicking the “terrorists” onto each other and letting them fight it out amongst themselves in those far off places which no one really cares about. The citizens of the developed world might frown at their morning papers, but they’ll soon file it under “terrible things happening far away” and go back to enjoying their lives of peace and security. John’s plan, he claims, is the opposite of vengeance, a means of keeping his side safe by ensuring that the terrible things stay far away, contained.

The “genocidal organ” is the heart hardened towards the suffering of others. John has some grand theories about this, about the survival instinct, fear, suspicion and desperation, but he also has a few on the trade offs between freedom and security. Itoh’s vision is bleak, and the prognosis bleaker but its logic cannot be denied, even if its execution is occasionally imperfect.


Currently on limited theatrical release throughout the UK courtesy of All the Anime.

Original trailer (English subtitles)