Some people go to the movies to escape their troubles, and for the most part, movies let them. It’s rare for a movie to seriously question whether or not escapism itself is healthy. Perhaps filmmakers aren’t exactly eager to bite the hand that feeds them.
The new anime romance “Fireworks” doesn’t chomp down hard on the audience’s digits either, but it does give our collective fantasies a pointed little nip.
Based on a live-action TV movie from 1993, “Fireworks” (a.k.a. “Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?”) is a light foray into the wondrous. Masaki Suda voices Norimichi, a typical high schooler with a crush on his classmate, Nazuna (Suzu Hirose). Then again, Norimichi’s best friend Yusuke (Mamoru Miyano) has a crush on her too. It’s a romantically charged environment at their summer school, where the boys are so girl-crazy that even their teachers are uncomfortable.
In a fit of youthful exuberance, Norimichi, Yusuke and Nazuna have a late afternoon swimming race, which Nazuna wins easily. For her prize, she invites the second-place winner, Yusuke, to watch a fireworks display with her that night. Yusuke is flighty and more dedicated to his male friends and callously stands her up, sending Norimichi to give her the bad news.
It’s a tragedy of tiny, missed opportunities, and it’s made all the worse when Nazuna reveals that she wanted Norimichi to win the race, and only decided to take the winner on a date as her prize when she thought he was going to win. But just as the revelation sinks in, Nazuna’s mother arrives and drags her away. Nazuna is moving, right away, and her mother is getting married to a man Nazuna doesn’t like. Norimichi has failed, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Or is there? Earlier that day, Nazuna showed Norimichi a mysterious marble she discovered in the surf, and in his frustration, Norimichi throws it and wishes he’d won that swimming race after all. And then time reverses itself, and guess what? This time he does.
In a shorter, less interesting motion picture, Norimichi would set everything right, and they’d live happily ever after. But “Fireworks” takes place in an almost frustratingly plausible world, where even Norimichi — when given an opportunity to spend the evening with the girl of his dreams — is torn by insecurity and macho loyalties. Even he’s debating whether or not to stand Nazuna up now that the opportunity has arisen.
And when Yusuke discovers that Norimichi and Nazuna are together, he gets outrageously jealous even though we know for a fact that he would have screwed everything up given the opportunity.
If wishes were fishes, these kids would order the cheeseburger. It’s a treat to see a film about young love where the young lovers aren’t wise beyond their years; instead, they’re prone to making stupid mistakes out of inexperience and perfectly understandable fear. Norimichi keeps letting his cowardice get in the way of his evening with Nazuna, and he keeps having to retreat into more wishes to set things right.
But “Fireworks” isn’t “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” nor does it catalog a series of breathless decisions. It’s a sleepy summer day of a movie, where idle fantasy becomes idle reality, and escaping real decisions — whether it’s Norimichi’s wishes or Nazuna’s determination to elope with him — becomes a crutch that they must either learn to live with or escape entirely. Both our protagonists are in over their head, and we know with absolute certainty that they don’t always make good choices.
The mundane everyday life of “Fireworks” makes the teensiest bit of the fantastic seem all the more romantic, but the film never completely pops. It’s as though filmmaker Akiyuki Shinbo (and co-director Nobuyuki Takeuchi) are waiting patiently for their characters to grow up and deal with the real world, and are only passingly intrigued by their immature tendency to run from their problems and to imagine a world where they’re prouder of themselves.
It’s an intriguing perspective from which to tell what would, in other hands, feel like a traditional YA fantasy story. The kids themselves would probably be overwhelmed by their emotions (and sure enough, Norimichi and Nazuna behave that way), but for the most part, the direction is peaceful and assured, more interested in capturing the crisp breeze during a bicycle ride than the unthinkable whirligig thrills of time travel. The escapism isn’t the point of the story; it’s a phase the characters need to grow out of.
“Fireworks” takes you on that little journey. It may affect you deeply, or it may just come and go, a fizzling sentimental aside in an otherwise hectic day. But it’s hard to deny that it approaches its fantastical story with maturity and grace, and a thoughtfulness about what it would truly mean to leap into a “what if” and seriously consider never coming out again.