If there is one thing I love about my small town more than anywhere else I have traveled in the world (besides my family), it is that there is a library located downtown. More specifically, there is a library with a massive audiovisual section. Ever since I was a kid, I often experienced video games, music, and films in plentiful amounts thanks to the free (!!!) rentals the library so generously allowed. Their anime section does not disappoint in delivering on its end of this amazing selection. While I never noticed it because, until four or so years ago, I was not interested in anime, my library has enough anime on the shelves to make an early 2000's Best Buy swoon.
Interested in expanding my horizons some more after completing my most recent project (chronicling a decade of anime), I decided to get in the habit of renting more anime to watch blind and give my organic thoughts/reviews on some “new” (new to me) titles I had never heard of before. How do I go about grabbing them? Rather arbitrarily, really. We have a “recently returned” kiosk as well as a “new arrivals” shelf that I will skim first, then work my way to the actual anime section. Grabbing the first few I see that aren’t the 500 copies of various Yu-Gi-Oh! episodes, I can decide if I want to watch it off of the box alone. Yep, no MAL or soliciting help from my online friends. Just the old-school way of looking at a box and deciding if it is worth the time. I’m hoping to have some fun with this challenge.
The very first film I saw under this challenge format was Fireworks. I had two thoughts looking at the box. I recognized that this was a Shaft production, which could go many different directions as far as quality is concerned there. I also saw a pet peeve of mine “From the producer of Your Name.” and audibly sighed. With films, I always wince at trailers that say “From the producer/writer/director/person/place/thing/janitor that brought you (insert overnight success and/or Oscar winning film)“ because it is usually indicative that the film does not have enough legs to stand on its own without that relation. As I would soon find out, this was a warning sign.
This will be a spoiler free review
Getting into the film, Fireworks can be best described as “colorful albeit dull.” There is virtually nothing that stands out that makes this film remotely worth talking about aside from the fascinating decisions made in animation by Shaft. Now, some might argue that is plenty to have someone like an anime, but there is truly nothing else here. The characters are bland, the story is almost non-existent, the direction feels all over the place, and the pacing felt dreadfully slow. So where do you begin with an anime that is so unremarkable? I suppose giving kuddos to Shaft for pulling something out of this boring story is the best spot. People may take their bets as to which Shaft show the art style follows closely. Perhaps it is most like Monogatari? March Comes in Like a Lion? Madoka Magica? The fascinating answer is: all of these.
Indeed, at several points through the film, the art style pivots into the head turning and mischievous faces that are capitalized so well in Monogatari. Then, for one scene (and I mean one scene only) we get the pastel/oil colors that March Comes in Like a Lion is so well known for. This comes at a very odd point in the film, and never returns to this style afterwards. Almost immediately afterward, the film retains the bizarre, fantasy aesthetic of the Madoka franchise until the finale. I do wonder if the art style was used to drive a narrative that the writing could not match here. At points, however, the wild style of Shaft feels uncomfortable because it does not have much material to manipulate within a world.
The story, while keeping spoiler free, revolves around young Norimichi the night of a summer festival. A young girl of considerable interest to the youngster is one Nazuna, a girl with a troubled home life. The events that unfold are sold as a gripping drama that is supposed to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Your Name., but it fails to hit any meaningful notes outside of its fascinating art style. We are given no real reasons to like characters, the moments meant to come off as endearing simply feel bizarre.
There is even a musical number towards the end that feels so out of place. Shaft is going over the top with scenes, but it ultimately feels like marvelous art styles are being uncomfortably utilized in places there should have been more meaning or messages to accompany it. Imagine Monogatari without any of the gripping character drama and morality questions, or Madoka without any sense of direction for what the characters are doing in the spinning fantasy worlds. In other words, it is all flashes without any real warranting for them.
Digging around for something more positive to say, I was very impressed with the ambition the dub casting had with this project. Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh team up again (Co-Voice Directors for Your Name.) to try to bring something to the table here. I applaud the ambition to use characters of age to the characters in the film, and while I think the actors themselves were fine, the script did not lend much for a memorable dub. Maybe less of a poor fit than the high-end animation team here, the dubbing felt out of place for a film that fails to take off at any point. It makes me wonder what genius voice directors like the Sinterniklaas and Sheh duo could do for some of the Shaft anime that have not seen the light of dubs yet. Maybe one day I can tackle a blueprint for adapting something as challenging as Monogatari, but this sort of article stirs that pot a bit.
Overall, Fireworks is a film that does not have a whole lot between the pages of its script and the impressive efforts its animation and voice acting provide are wasted. This is one of those anime you are better off seeing screen-caps from than actually watching.
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