Lighting the sky in dazzling displays of color, fireworks (called hanabi in Japanese) have been a summer staple in Japan since the Edo period (1603–1867). So integral are they to the summer experience, that fireworks aficionados crisscross the country to see famed displays dance across the night sky.
There’s no need to travel far, though: Even small communities launch fireworks at summer festivals. Indeed, fireworks shows run the gamut, from tiny community efforts to massive displays where tens of thousands of hanabi burst across the heavens. Though all provide dazzling entertainment, there are a few that stand out.
For sheer number of fireworks launched, the Suwa Lake Fireworks Festival in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture, takes the top spot, with 40,000 fireworks exploding in the air to the delight of over 500,000 onlookers. Over in Osaka, the Tenjin Matsuri Hono Hanabi wows 1.3 million spectators with a dazzling display of approximately 5,000 hanabi. The Tokyo area is home to an abundance of fireworks festivals, with one of the most famous being the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival. It launches 20,000 fireworks, including new and innovative ones from Japan’s top pyrotechnic engineers.
Considering their importance in Japanese culture, it follows that fireworks find their way into countless films, including the following three.
1. Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (打ち上げ花火、下から見るか？横から見るか？), 2017
Are fireworks round or flat when seen from the side? Norimichi and his school friends want to know. They plan to watch their town’s fireworks display from up high to find out. While the boys are focused on fireworks, Nazuna, a classmate, is dealing with a personal tragedy: Her mother is remarrying, and an unhappy Nazuna is set to move away from her hometown.
The two plots collide when Norimichi meets Nazuna as she attempts to run away from home. Nazuna hopes Norimichi will join her, but is instead discovered by her mother, who drags Nazuna home. This failure to escape sets off a series of time-slips to alternate universes as Norimichi, using a magical orb, tries to create a perfect ending for them both.
The real-life inspiration for the movie’s small town is Asahi City, in Chiba Prefecture, which launches 10,000 fireworks at its Asahi Iioka You-Yu Festival. The story was based on the TV series (1993) and live-action film (1995) directed by Shunji Iwai.
Cast：Suzu Hirose, Masaki Suda, Mamoru Miyano
Director：Akiyuki Shimbo, Nobuyuki Takeuchi
Original Story：Shunji Iwai
2. Bridge Over Troubled Water (明日にかける橋 1989年の想い出), 2018
Miyuki’s family life has been in shambles since the summer of 1989, when her younger brother was killed in an accident on the day of Shizuoka Prefecture’s Fukuroi Enshu Fireworks, a festival the family always enjoyed together. Since then, her father has struggled with alcoholism and her mother has suffered from mental illness, leaving Miyuki to support the family. As she deals with yet more heartbreak, Miyuki can’t help but wonder — if she could have prevented Kenta’s death, would her family have had a chance at happiness?
Miyuki has the opportunity to find out thanks to the mysterious powers of a local bridge, Ashitabashi, which is rumored to make wishes come true. Traveling back to 1989, Miyuki attempts to prevent her brother’s death, but fate proves more difficult to change than expected.
Cast：Anne Suzuki, Itsuji Itao, Misato Tanaka
3. Casting Blossoms to the Sky (この空の花 -長岡花火物語), 2012
Reiko, a reporter, is headed to Nagaoka in Niigata Prefecture. She’s there for two reasons: To discover why the city was so quick to take in refugees from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and because Kenichi, an old boyfriend, requests her to visit. Kenichi, now a teacher in Nagaoka, wants Reiko to watch a play about the city’s wartime bombing that his students are preparing. He also wants her to attend Nagaoka’s famous fireworks display.
As Reiko explores the city, she meets many of its citizens, sometimes under mysterious circumstances. Against the backdrop of Nagaoka’s festival and fireworks, she discovers a community brimming with tenacity and determination to overcome any hardship, be it firebombs or natural disasters.
Cast：Yasuko Matsuyuki, Masahiro Takashima, Natsuki Harada
An essential element of Japanese summer culture, fireworks inspire travel and discovery. And as illustrated in the aforementioned movies, they are a backdrop to the summer season, present through good and bad, joy and sadness; always ready to exhilarate or console.
Text by Helen Langford