The Kinoshita Project: Fireworks Over the Sea (1951)

The Kinoshita Project is a chronological look at all the Keisuke Kinoshita movies available on Hulu Plus from Criterion. 

The Kinoshita Project, when it’s all over, should cover about 30 films; that is, of course, unless Criterion adds more titles going forward. Up to now we’ve seen relative consistency in Kinoshita’s directorial abilities. He’s got the skills to make even the dullest of war propaganda films play compellingly for 90 minutes, which is no small feat. And even in his lesser post-war efforts, Kinoshita’s films have benefited from good performances and solid storytelling.

And so it is with some disappointment that I must report that Fireworks Over the Sea marks the first genuine, from beginning to end, dud for The Kinoshita Project. The problem, as I see it, is in the script. No amount of slick directing, grand cinematography, or fancy editing could save this horrendous tangle of inconsequential characters and convoluted situations. The film, clocking in at just past the two hour mark has all the narrative density of a soap opera and none of the sex. Kinoshita picks characters up and puts them back down like an ADHD child in a toy store. And by the time the movie is over, none of these characters have even begun to matter to us; we’ve seen them only in slight flashes, always accompanied by some ready cliché about romance, sacrifice, and blah blah blah. Great actors – Chishu Ryu, for instance – are just thrown to waste here and, quite honestly, it’s depressing.  

The movie is so bland, in fact, that I have found myself at an almost total loss when trying to write about it. My full assessment: avoid Fireworks Over the Sea unless, like myself, you are trying to see every Kinoshita movie available to you.

There was one small moment, though, that shocked me out of my stupor of boredom. Towards the end of the film, as a ship captain is defending the honor of his unrequited love, Kinoshita presents us with an incredibly jarring tableaux shot that looks as though it were imported sstraight out of a silent movie. The bottom 1/3rd of the frame shows the ship itself, right below the horizontal center of the frame we see a line of men brawling with each other, and above them is an expanse of sky latticed with the ship’s masts and dotted with a full moon (always the Kinoshita motif). The shot has no value whatsoever in communicating any important narrative information, but its stunning beauty does shake us out of the routine litany of one dimensional characters and undercooked situations. Though I would never recommend Fireworks Over the Sea to anyone but the Kinoshita completist, I found myself appreciating Kinoshita’s abilities more than ever before in this one small moment. The experience reminded me of a scene in Adaptation. in which the crazy John Laroche is guiding the urbanite Susan Orlean through an uninviting Florida swamp. They’ve traveled a long way in search of a Ghost Orchid and are obviously lost. When they finally do stumble on the orchid, the trip somehow seems worth it, if only to the viewer. This beautiful thing just sitting there in the midst of so much garbage; the context illuminates the orchid, making it more impressive than perhaps it really is.

Kinoshita might have done himself the favor of tossing the script for Fireworks, and not making it at all, but I’m glad he did make it just so I could see that one shot – that orchid – a vision I will remember for a very long time.


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