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‘Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?’: Will Japan fall in love with another pair of animated teens?

by

Special To The Japan Times

Last summer, “Your Name.,” Makoto Shinkai’s anime about gender-swapping high school lovers, began its triumphant march into the box-office record books. Not surprisingly, this summer has seen the arrival of more teen romances, but “Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?” stands out due to the names attached, including mega-producer Genki Kawamura.

Based on Shunji Iwai’s 1993 TV series, “Fireworks” resembles “Your Name.” in its imaginative take on the familiar theme of starred-crossed young lovers.

In place of Shinkai’s lush natural imagery and broad narrative sweep, however, director Akiyuki Shinbo and his Shaft studio animators focus intently and obsessively on their teenage pair, especially the enormous eyes of their heroine, Nazuna. And their 3-D CGI fantasy worlds, with pulsing surreal imagery reminiscent of Salvador Dali, are like nothing created by Shinkai or his illustrious senpai (senior), Hayao Miyazaki.

Can Shinbo replicate Shinkai and Miyazaki’s box-office magic? It won’t be for lack of trying: Director Hitoshi One (“Moteki”) has written a script that follows Iwai’s in its outlines, while altering and expanding it in ways that are structurally tight and emotionally right. Kawamura has also cast in-demand actors Suzu Hirose and Masaki Suda (a pair who can actually act) as his leads.

The film begins with two junior high school pals — the shy-but-spirited Norimichi (Suda) and the voluble Yusuke (Mamoru Miyano). They’re both goo-goo-eyed over the same elusive classmate, Nazuna (Hirose). But Nazuna, unhappy over her mother’s decision to remarry and leave their countryside town, plans to run away, and has silently chosen Norimichi to accompany her.

Meanwhile, Norimichi, Yusuke and their buddies are arguing over an odd question: Do fireworks look round or flat when seen from the side?

Before they find the answer at a local summer fireworks display, Nazuna induces the flummoxed Norimichi to join her in her flight. Her mother and new stepfather discover the runaway pair at the train station, but a glowing multicolored ball Nazuna found in the ocean provides an escape into another world in an earlier time — which means another possible ending to their tale.

For all its heady romanticizing, “Fireworks” revels in low-brow gags, as well as views of Nazuna’s fluttery short skirt that distract, if that is the word, from its pure-hearted love story.

But the film also stays close to its roots in Iwai’s original, which was unusually realistic in a genre rife with stereotypes. Instead of depicting Norimichi as the typical towering ikemen (“handsome guy”), he’s a head shorter than Nazuna, the fate of many a seventh-grade male. More importantly, the film captures the fluid nature of its two principals, who move back and forth between childhood and adulthood in quick succession while shifting, hesitantly and evocatively, toward change and growth.

The stylistics, from fleeting expressions captured in extreme close-up to shots that insert characters into photo-real 3-D environments, may be off-putting to fans who like their anime allusive and traditionally 2-D.

But this approach struck me as bold, even risky. When your heroine’s eyes fill half the screen, you have to either nail her expression or lose your audience. “Fireworks” nails it again and again — or maybe that was just me, slipping back into long-ago dreams of the perfect girl gazing into my soul, forever out of reach.