When most audiences think about Japanese animation in America, their mind goes straight to Studio Ghibli outings. That studio has been a powerhouse for decades and is home to arguably the greatest animation director ever. However, strides have been made by directors and animators across the country. In the process, animation remains one of Japan’s greatest exports to cinema culture around the world. This year, “Fireworks” represents one of those films. Distributed by Toho in Japan and by GKIDS in America, the film tells the story of a boy who is given the ability to change past events. The pseudo-“Groundhog Day” storyline features some gorgeous animation and endearing moments. However, some issues in the storytelling make the outing fall short of being a good entry into the Oscar race.
“Fireworks” follows the story of a young boy named Norimichi Shimada. He hangs out with his friends and lives in a small town. He is extremely shy and pines after a girl, Nazuna Oikawa. Nazuna will move away from town after her Mother found a new boyfriend, and she wants to watch the fireworks with someone before she runs away. When her mother finds her, Nazuna drops her bag and a weird sphere item. Frustrated by his own indecision, Norimichi throws the sphere. He soon discovers the sphere resets time, giving him a chance to make things right. He continues to grab the item and resets each moment he can when their escape plans go awry, creating a repetitive story in the process.
The “Groundhog Day” storytelling device is not the problem, as it offers some interesting ground for the characters to cover. Simply put, the storytelling falls apart in many other areas. Unfortunately “Fireworks” falls into the boring “boy needs to save girl” trope that leaves Nazuna without much agency. In several instances, she says she would never do something, despite having just done that action in the alternate timeline. It robs her of her agency and the resolve to stick by her choices. This becomes more problematic when examined in conjunction with the way “Fireworks” depicts sexuality.
Early in the story, we’re boys objectify the women at every turn. Most women featured in the story are high school girls. One teacher receives sexual comments from her students, who receive no punishment for their actions. The way the characters are drawn borders on offensive. The animators focused on bringing out the girl’s sexuality. These visuals are accompanied by leud comments from the boys. While this fits the age of the characters, it further commodifies the women. This further strips agency from the characters, leaving them without purpose until they are contextualized by men.
Furthermore, the storytelling gets messy. With each reset, characters begin to hold different opinions and engage in different actions. Alternate timelines add up, and characters question what could have been. Yet consistency in character attitudes would have gone a long way. Instead, the core beliefs of many characters change constantly. Sometimes they say they have feelings for characters, in other timelines they do not. Sometimes they believe fireworks are round when viewed from the side, other times they do not. That is a real question this movie tries to answer about a half dozen times, and characters seemingly shift their belief every time. This makes for a messy narrative at times, as we do not actually know how the other characters will react or feel about a situation.
One of the things that work in the film is the gorgeous animation. There is no doubt that the work is some of the best of the year. The actual firework effects stand out, as do the sequences featuring water. Still, there are times that “Fireworks” over-relies on CGI. This mostly occurs when the film wishes to create a moving camera effect. One scene, featuring a staircase, really sticks outs. Yet others fit into the story beautifully and create some of the best animation from Japan since “Your Name.” released in 2016. Sadly, no shots quite rise to that level or deliver storytelling on that level, which amplifies the shortcomings of this film.
Overall, “Fireworks” features brilliant animation, but suffers from weak storytelling. It also features out of touch attitudes towards women, which it continually brings back into the story. The visuals can be stunning at times. Yet the lack of agency given to the female lead really makes the film feel out of touch. In a year where Mrs. Incredible becomes the star of her franchise, and other GKIDS films feature standout women, this one lacks. It is still a fun film at times, but will certainly turn some audiences away.