Do fireworks look round or flat from the side?
That question (among other things) gets repeated a lot in the Japanese animated feature “Fireworks,” a cloying, wannabe-lovely romantic fantasy set in the seaside town of Moshimo, where a much-anticipated display of controlled explosives is about to take place. Those attending Fourth of July celebrations this week may get the chance to answer the question for themselves, but the gorgeous sparklers we see on screen do look variably round and flat — an otherworldly trick that forces the characters to question the slippery nature of their own reality.
The filmmakers seem to have other questions about roundness, flatness and perspective in mind, to judge by the chief visual preoccupations of this indiscreetly leering anime. As directed by Akiyuki Shinbo (with a co-directing assist by Nobuyuki Takeuchi), “Fireworks” tells the fanciful story of a mild-mannered teenage boy, Norimichi (voiced by Masaki Suda), and the beautiful object of desire who slinks into his life. Her name is Nazuna (Suzu Hirose), and the movie continually scrutinizes her body with the sort of prurience that feeds the skeeziest, most stereotypical assumptions about the filmmakers’ chosen medium.
I realize that condemning the objectification of the female body in anime may seem a bit like condemning the egg whites in a chocolate soufflé, to name another product that rivals this movie for sugar content. But some eggs are more offensive than others, and at some point you have to wonder who’s doing the beating. When Nazuna pauses to sing an old pop song beloved by her mother, it’s unclear why the filmmakers decided it was the right moment to cut to a glimpse of her posterior, complete with suggestively billowing skirt. Was this really the most expressive angle available? Has she suddenly started singing through her lower back?
The answer, if hardly the justification, may be that the film is simply adopting the honest, horny perspective of Norimichi, who is hardly alone in being besotted with his classmate Nazuna. His rowdier friend Yûsuke (Mamoru Miyano) similarly desires the girl’s affections, setting in motion a chain of misunderstanding and jealousy. Exactly what Nazuna wants will be revealed in due course, though the movie would have done well to show more of an interest early on, rather than treating her as a moodily inscrutable, unattainable dream girl, to be coveted and manipulated at every turn.
The confusion builds to an early poolside scene in which Nazuna takes a break from her idle sunbathing — because of course — to challenge the two boys to a fateful swimming race. The outcome of that race, and the philosophical conundrum it sets in motion, is dictated by an object that Nazuna has in her possession: a marble-like orb whose magical properties include the ability to turn back time, forge alternate realities and unleash tediously abstracted freeze-frame montages.
Written by Hitoshi Ône, who adapted the material from Shunji Iwai’s 1995 live-action TV movie, “Fireworks” is a fantasy of happenstance. It squeezes the Sisyphean structure of “Groundhog Day” into the “what if?” mold of “Sliding Doors” (a train figures heavily into the plot), then adds a sexist dollop of Richard Curtis’ “About Time” for good measure. Some viewers, too, may detect a whiff of Makoto Shinkai’s masterful 2016 anime, “Your Name,” another romance in which the fates of two young souls become supernaturally entwined.
The two films do share a producer, Genki Kawamura, but the comparison otherwise feels like sacrilege. For all its temporal twists and lyrical, sometimes remarkably photorealistic backdrops, Shinbo’s movie has none of “Your Name’s” narrative intricacy or stunning visual richness, much less its radical cross-gender empathy. These “Fireworks” look depressingly flat from any angle.
Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Fathom Events showings Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; opens Wednesday at Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica, and Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills