Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Firefighter
by Jason Thompson, Sep 30th 2010
Episode XXI: Firefighter: Daigo of Fire Company M
Nonviolent action heroes are great when you can pull them off. I'm not counting sports, because sports contests don't involve any element of life-or-death risk, unless you're willingly putting yourself in danger playing some insane extreme sport, in which case who cares. I'm talking about stories about doctors, like the great manga Black Jack, and stories about hikers and explorers and mountain climbers, and stories about blue-collar badasses struggling to make a living, like on TV shows like Dirty Jobs, Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch. It's easy to make drama out of people fighting one another, but not so easy to make drama about people fighting against bad luck, their surroundings and their own limitations.
Firefighter is one of those stories. 18-year-old Daigo Asahina has always dreamed of being a firefighter, ever since he was saved by one when he was a kid. After high school, he gets his wish when he becomes a fireman assigned to Medaka-Ga-Hama Fire Station in his hometown, Sengoku City. Unfortunately, Daigo is too impatient and immature for the long hours of waiting and fire prevention training that are part of being a firefighter, and he quickly gets on the nerves of his bosses. ("He's like a kid looking for a fight!" they say.) After all, Medaka-Ga-Hama is a boring local fire station where nothing ever happens. The only bright spot in Daigo's life, the one thing that tames his wild soul, is a woman: Ms. Ochiai, his former high school teacher who he still has a crush on. Thus, Daigo begins his new life of flirting with Ms. Ochiai while simultaneously trying to become a halfway decent fireman.
Now take this plot outline and cross it with the most hyperactive big-budget action movie you can think of. The idea that Medaka-Ga-Hama is a sleepy small town is discarded as useless in the first chapter, as suddenly, Firefighter turns into a manga with INTENSE FIREFIGHTING ACTION IN EVERY CHAPTER! And not just fires, either. Daigo just deal with escaped tigers, landslides, chemical spills, flood and more. Grimacing and gritting his teeth, intense and sweating, he commits incredible acts of heroism. He crashes a fire truck through a wall to save people trapped in a burning building! He jumps out of the window on the 20th story to save a window cleaner hanging from a fraying cable! He gets inside a crashed car full of injured passengers which hangs perilously off the edge of a freeway, about to fall into the abyss! And of course, he nearly flunks the rescue training exam because he was up all night the night before saving a little girl with a puppy from a forest fire.
In brief, this is a manga about a guy who saves people from life-threatening emergencies every other minute. If it were a nonfiction book, it would be Robert Brockway's Everything is Going to Kill Everybody, because 'everything' is the bad guy in Firefighter. If it were a video game, it would have to be a platformer, because of all the falling and jumping. It's always hard to maintain plausibility in stories in which trouble comes to the heroes instead of the heroes seeking out trouble, and frankly, if the rest of the world had the same frequency of fires and disasters as Sengoku City, the planet would look like Cormac McCarthy's The Road by the end of the third volume. Every time Daigo tries to go on a date with Ms. Ochiai, some horrible disaster occurs and ruins the evening. Whenever a new character is introduced, they are sure to be menaced by a flaming death. Most of all, whenever Daigo is inside a burning building, he miraculously senses that there's one or two more people trapped (or intentionally hiding—I have my suspicions) inside the building waiting to be saved. His ability to find people and rescue them reaches David Blaine-like levels, and I have no doubt that if Daigo frisked me right now, he would find a couple of kindergarten-age children passed out from smoke inhalation in my pants. Gradually, the threat level escalates as Daigo joins an elite rescue team which goes overseas on dangerous missions, conveniently ending the plot conceit in which Daigo just happens to be there when sh*t goes down. By the end, it's an epic-scale heroic manga indeed.
With its vaguely realistic subject matter and realistic artwork, at first glance Firefighter! looks like a seinen (adult men's) manga. But it's a shonen manga, and the more you read it, the more it shows. It's got all the marks: the goony hero who wants to be the best firefighter ever. The lack of deep subplots or plot complications (more or less) except for the hero's altruistic drive to be awesome and save people. The uptight rival from another fire department, Amakasu, who fights with Daigo like they were little kids. ("Hey jerk! Amakasu! I'm not losing to you!") The very 1990s Japanese 'macho woman' character, Lt. Miki Oshitori, who acts as one of Daigo's many mentors. ("If I'd been born a little later, I might've gotten to work in the field like a man.") (She even has burn scars, possibly signifying her de-womanization, like Princess Kushana in Nausicaä and Balalaika in Black Lagoon.). And the general disinterest in sex; Daigo's crush on Ms. Ochiai is as pure-hearted as any manga crush I can think of. In 2004 it was adapted into a live-action drama series called "Fire Boys" (http://wiki.d-addicts.com/Fire_Boys), whose title pretty much captures the manga's spirit.
Firefighter is not a deep manga, although there's (slightly) more of an ongoing plot than I've talked about here. Basically, it's like a prime-time TV series; a series of standalone cliffhanger scenarios with a bit of romance and bildungsröman strung around them. Daigo is one of those classic (aka typical) manga heroes who doesn't have "book smarts" but has courage and natural talent. In his own words: "Theory means nothing in the field! My gut dictates my moves. That's how I work!" Or: "There's no experience like being inside a burning building. That's where I feel most alive!" One after another, all the side characters are freaked out by Daigo's unbelievable near-psychic intution and his total lack of survival instinct. One after another, authority figures and bureaucrats with no sense of AWESOMENESS decide that Daigo is a loose cannon who must be stopped ("Someday that recklessness of his is going to get him into some real trouble! We've got to train that wild pony before he causes a disaster!"). Of course, Daigo does have his moments of doubt and depression, but he's always back fighting fires before too long. It's like one of those cop shows when the main character is a rebel who always disobeys orders from their un-fun annoying superiors and yet somehow, miraculously, never gets fired. Ms. Ochiai disapproves of his recklessness, thinking he is being a fool by risking his life…or does she? Does she truly love him? Did I mention it's nice to see a shonen manga with an older-woman romance? Not that they get more than three or four pages together per volume, on average.
Masahito Soda's artwork is a good match for the series. It gives off that deceptive grownup vibe: Daigo looks like a real young man, not some spiky-haired chump. Everyone has little heads and big bodies, further giving off the impression of adultness. The linework has a vigorous, brushy feeling, great for both those wacky-expression moments (although Soda isn't the greatest facial expressions artist) and, most importantly, the action scenes. After all, it's all action: people running and climbing and grabbing things and smashing walls with axes! Sweat and speedlines drip from every panel, and smoke and fire pour from every page. On the other hand, sometimes it's difficult to tell what is actual fire and what is the fiery burning spirit of the characters.
Firefighter! was a bestseller in Japan, where it was titled Megumi no Daigo (short for "Daigo of Me___ Station," saying what fire station he works for, but also a pun on the letter "me" which has connotations of being dopy, insignificant, small-potatoes, etc. -- basically saying that Daigo is just an ordinary small-town guy from this ordinary small town, which is ironic, 'cause he's actually a TOTAL ASS-KICKER, get it? ). Viz decided to translate it shortly after September 11, 2001, when the media was suddenly abuzz with the idea that firefighters and rescue personnel were the new heroes. I was at the company at the time, and suggested renaming it "Firefighter!", which seemed like the easiest way to get the point across. (I made a mistake -- I should have suggested " Fireman!", which rolls off the tongue better, even though it sounds sexist.) Unfortunately, in America the series bombed miserably. How badly did it bomb? To quote Ed Chavez, head of marketing at Vertical (http://www.vertical-inc.com) and a general manga expert:
"Since Viz and others have mentioned how poorly the title did, I'll chime in and say that the Nielsen BookScan total sales for all 20 volumes added up to less than 2000 units…TOTAL!! FOR THE WHOLE SERIES!!"
And to think CMX dared to translate Fire Investigator Nanase. Firefighter is legendary for being one of the worst-selling (although possibly not the worst-selling) manga in English. Some of the later volumes sold fewer than 100 copies. Amazingly, in those better economic days, Viz fulfilled their obligation to Shogakukan, the Japanese publisher and Viz's co-owner, and published all 20 volumes, right up to the ending. If people freaking out and fighting fires is your idea of a good time, track them down!
This is always the depressing part of this column, having to speculate about why various manga failed in the U.S. Could Firefighter have been more successful in English? It's arguable that Viz botched the promotion of the series -- I don't remember any comp copies or promotional material being sent to actual firefighters, or indeed to anybody -- but the sad truth is that the post-9/11 "firefighter craze" lasted a grand total of about one month, not enough time to get a manga licensed, translated and published. Also, manga about "realistic" subject matter -- even to the limited degree that Firefighter is realistic -- has never sold well in America. In America, comics are forever associated with superheroes and ninjas (and, recently, hot vampires), and even in Japan, manga of Firefighter's type -- blue-collar manga about tough dudes struggling to master their craft -- is not nearly as popular as it once was. It's a shame. May the flame burn on.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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