Fireworks from the Heart – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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On September 9th, the day of the Katakai Fireworks Festival, high school student Hana comes home from the hospital after six months of treatment for leukemia. She then discovers that her older brother Taro has become a social recluse. Taro used to be tender, smart and proud of his younger sister, but now he even turns his back on her and stays in his room. Her parents act like there is nothing wrong with him. Later that evening, Hana attends the Katakai Fireworks Festival and observes the town’s youth group happily planning for next year’s event. She decides to get Taro involved with the group in an effort to bring him out of his shell. Hana is determined to get Taro back into society and helps him find a part-time job as a paperboy & into the adult meetings for the Katakai Fireworks Festival.

Directed by Masahiro Kunimoto, a man known mainly for his work within Japanese television dramas, Fireworks from the Heart offers a tender and genuine look into the social context of hikikomori—an affliction that is usually associated with reclusive individuals who have withdrawn from socialization and in many respects choose to be isolated from the outside world. While certainly a difficult subject to realistically address within the realm of cinema, Fireworks from the Heart doesn’t shy away from showcasing the obtrusive behavior that surrounds being a hikikomori, especially its harmful nature on not only the individual, but also their surrounding family. In the film’s case, the affliction of being a hikikomori befalls on the character of Taro, a mild-mannered and timid young adult who has slowly locked himself away from the world as well as his family—with only his sister Hana willing to break through to him. As the film’s premise could have easily gone towards elaborating on this social condition in the most exaggerated fashion, Fireworks from the Heart is a reserved film whose focal point remains on the strong bond that forms between a brother and sister, which eventually extends to the remainder of the family and thus community.

In many respects, the relationship between Taro and Hana is of the utmost importance within the film. While many films dealing with strong issues such as death and social ailments often center upon a tragic relationship that develops between two lovers, Fireworks from the Heart offers these same issues through the centerfold of family, especially that of the damaged but forgiven relationship between two siblings. With the character of Taro, played exceptionally well here by Kengo Kora, we see his slow transformation from hikikomori to that of a dependable working individual as an authentic realization on part of his character. The film doesn’t completely resolve his status as hikikomori by the film’s conclusion, but this adds to the realism of the issue at hand. It would appear too unrealistic and unnatural to have him completely free of the remnants of being a hikikomori, with his transformation not being the difficult journey it had initially been made out to be. We see the catalyst of his transformation stemming from his younger sister Hana, played by the talented Mitsuki Tanimura. Dealing with her own problem—a devastating case of leukemia—Hana is viewed as the antithesis to Taro. With his disregard for social interaction, the film deftly handles Hana’s motivational techniques to get him out and about, which provides the film with an amusing charm made all the more spirited by them being siblings.

Both Kengo Kora and Mitsuki Tanimura do a fantastic job of conveying such diverging characters, each giving their respective parts the necessary emotional backing to make it all seem plausible in the long run. Whether this is viewed in the scenes of Hana helping Taro out with his first job as a paperboy by riding on the back of his bicycle to give him encouragement, to her numerous antics to get him to socialize with people of his own age, the film isn’t overly sentimental in regards to simply allowing the emotional relationship between them to appear natural and thoughtful. The focus also expands to that of their mother Tomoko (played by Yoshiko Miyazaki) and father Kuniakira (played by veteran Ren Osugi), in particular the strenuous relationship between Taro and his father. With Kuniakira viewed as a father initially disappointed in his son’s decision in becoming a hikikomori, we see his transition from complete avoidance of Taro to acceptance of Taro’s struggle for change as a subtle shift towards balancing out the father-son dynamic seen throughout the film. As I stated earlier, the premise of the film could’ve easily fit within the context of showing encouragement stemming from two lovers, but the film is seemingly reinforced by the development of family remaining the focus here—for the most part.

Where Fireworks from the Heart works extremely well is when it explores this familial bond. Where the film runs into trouble is when the narrative decides to focus intently on Taro’s relationship towards his community members and away from his family. This happens primarily within the last act of the film, where we see Taro begin to interact with his peers in a manner that remedies his affliction of being a hikikomori. While not totally deviant from the emotionally riveting first half of the film, it becomes increasingly centered on rather trite circumstances that don’t necessarily develop Taro as a character in a realistic fashion. For someone such as Taro to have faced such dire circumstances with his family, it just seems somewhat too easy for writer Masafumi Nishida and director Masahiro Kunimoto to end the film on an overly sentimental note that doesn’t necessarily reflect the strength of family offered throughout the film. With an overextended focus on the Katakai Fireworks Festival towards the end, it simply appeals as a way to nicely wrap up Taro’s development as a character, a move that removes the originality of his character seen in the beginning. A more subtle realization on part of Taro would’ve worked out much better during this portion of the film, allowing the audience to sympathize more with his difficult journey rather than his newfound status as a social individual.

Besides the rather excessively melodramatic conclusion, Fireworks from the Heart is still a relatively strong film for its focus on a family dealing with the trials and tribulations of an uncertain future. Actor Kengo Kora and actress Mitsuki Tanimura give wonderful performances throughout the film, each to bringing to life the struggle their characters face in a plausible light. Dealing with the issue of hikikomori, the film doesn’t downplay the significance of the problem, but rather tackles in a way that is authentic in regards to it being a family issue and not simply a personal dilemma. With a rather simple narrative structure, the film doesn’t indulge too much on the sentimentality easily brought about by its premise—except perhaps for the ending—but it relies more on the strength of the familial bonds shared by the characters, which provides the film some novelty. This is what makes Fireworks from the Heart stand above many similar films that deal with such issues, in turn making it a thoughtful and emotional experience.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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