Director: Masahiro Kunimoto
Fireworks From the Heart is a very sweet, and very sad little piece that carefully by-steps some of the pitfalls, not all it must be said, of similar films . It gains its gravitas from the superbly acted and very touching relationship of Kengo Kora and Mitsuki Tanimura, as brother and sister. It starts a little slow and the ending is over long, but in between is handled terrifically.
The story begins with Hana (Tanimura) being taken home after a 6 month stay in the hospital suffering from leukemia. While she has been away her older brother Taro (Kora) has become a social recluse. He hides away in his room, has cut off communication with his family, and is showing no signs of improvement. With their parents, played by Ren Osugi and Yoshihiko Miyazaki, essentially ignoring his problem Hana makes it her mission to bring her brother in from the cold. Set in rural Katakai the film is bookended by the small town's (pop. 5000) enormous fireworks festival, which Hana adores. Taro is approaching his 20th birthday, the start of adulthood in Japan, and is expected to participate in the rites of passage fireworks ceremony along with all the others his age. As his sister's health worsens the fireworks take on an even greater significance.
Tanimura gets your attention first, relentlessly upbeat in the face of adversity. She is a bundle of energy and drags Taro out of his malaise though sheer force of nature. In one nice interlude between the two she asks him to describe himself offering a positive alternative to every negative he throws up with a bit of alliterative wordplay. It is a true credit to her performance that she never begins to grate, as the perma-positive are prone to. She doesn't lose sight of the character even when Hana's health takes a turn for the worse. However, it is Kora in the slow-burning role who really excels. It is a quiet, shy, and reserved turn that is measured just right. He gives Taro subtle nervous mannerisms that are gradually shed as he overcomes his introverted ways. This change that Hana begins to foster in her older sibling is carried out in an impressively unhurried and non-rushed manner, and when the pair are on screen together the film is at its best. Their yin and yang relationship and its warmth makes the film.
The term for Taro's affliction, hikikomori is a surprisingly common occurrence in Japan. It has been attributed to various factors, the societal pressures and expectations of Japanese life, the mollycoddling of Japanese family, post-recession disenchantment, amongst others, and it is good to see a film being made on the subject. Without wishing to sound like a emotionless cynic it is Taro troubles far more than Hana, which although very sad are in familiar territory, that gives the film its intrigue. Their family's initial dysfunction, lack of communication goes some way to providing answers to the origins of Taro's problems, and while Fireworks from the Heart does explore this issue, it could perhaps have gone a bit deeper. What it is though, is a very plausible and real depiction of a problem that is far too often swept under the rug in Japanese life.
When things extends beyond the family itself the film falters slightly, but the focal point never strays too much that it becomes a real problem. The bit-part players are not quite up to the same standard as the family, and as such suffer in comparison. Some seem to have had their roles significantly downsized in the editing process, leaving some of the peripheral characters feeling a bit half-baked.There are several flashbacks in here that are unnecessary even when you take into account their brevity. They are only meant as a gentle reminder but it feels a bit lazy and undermines the acting that conveys things perfectly well without requiring this crutch. It is not unreasonable to expect an audience to remember something that was said a mere thirty or forty minutes ago. Musically too the film could have been less obvious, with violins popping up every once in awhile like someone tapping you on the shoulder and saying, "This is a sad bit. Okay?". A more low-key approach would have been fine and again, allowed the atmosphere to resonate in the performances rather than distract from them.
There is a loss of momentum in the final third and Fireworks from the Heart lags slightly, but this is a strong film with a good deal of maturity. Its simple direction lets the excellent performances take centre stage. Tanimura and Koga are definitely ones to look out for in the future. You hope they avoid some of the blander mainstream movies being made. In doing so perhaps they can retain the individuality and creativity shown here rather than sliding into the cookie cutter oblivion that seems a common career trajectory. They make this film into an endearing story about family and the bond between a brother and sister that is easy to recommend.