The Summer 2019 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Fire Force ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
It takes a lot for an anime to get me to bust out a terrible pun for a review, but the only thing I could say after watching this premiere was “Hot damn!” If nothing else, Fire Force is here to prove that an anime can take a pretty standard fantasy action story and send it rocketing straight into the stratosphere by focusing on the “animation” part of the equation. Don't get me wrong: I think the mythology author Atsushi Ōkubo has cooked up here is fantastic, and the members of Fire Force Company 8 all feel like they could come together as a great supporting cast. Ōkubo clearly hasn't lost his touch for creating fang-toothed heroes with hearts of gold either – Shinra Kusakabe might essentially have the same backstory as the brothers from Supernatural, but that doesn't make him any less endearing a hero.
But seriously, can we talk about this show's visuals? There's one particular cut where the show is dishing out what could have easily been very rote backstory: In this alternate universe, humans are prone to a kind of spontaneous combustion that also turns them into beasts called Infernals, and thus society turned to the protection of the Fire Forces, who are essentially combination fire-fighters/clergy that are also superpowered X-Men. The idea is so brazenly cool that a lesser show would be forgiven for just accompanying the narration with some B-roll of Fire Force members using their pyrokinesis on some Infernals, but the anime understands that if you're going to build your universe that literally worships at the altar of flame, you've got to sell both the awe and the danger of it. A shot of stained-glass saints staving off demonic flames is juxtaposed by the surreal depiction of an Infernal that uses haunting, kaleidoscopic imagery to drive home how hellaciously dangerous these things are. Later, when Shinra is recalling the scorn he endured after his mother's death, the onlookers are presented as dehumanized, disembodied mouths, which really hammers home the emotion of the scene. It's one of the most artful uses of the medium I've seen in a while, and it somehow popped up in the middle of a slick action series about fire-fighters that use superpowers and machineguns to kill monsters (and occasionally put out fires).
I haven't even covered the action of the episode yet, which is also terrifically animated and paced, especially in the episode's climactic fight. The rest of the members of Force 8 are efficiently written too; scenes that show Maki flirting with Shinra or Akitaru bolstering his team's spirit work to make sure the action is supported by meaningful human drama. In short, Fire Force's premiere is one of those openers that gives me everything I could want from a first episode: It entertains, inspires, and drives my curiosity in equal measure. I can't recommend this one enough.
If you were to record my train of thought while I'm watching something for a review, you'd normally end up with a jumbled mess of mental notes, comparisons, predictions, and the occasional wisecrack. For one moment, though, the first episode of Fire Force managed to concentrate my inner monologue into a single, enthusiastic observation: “Holy crap, that dude is on FIRE.” If Dr. Stone seems a little too low-key or cerebral for your liking, Fire Force has you covered. Judging by its premiere, this is the kind of show where the pace and intensity are cranked up high enough that you can switch off the noisier parts of your brain and just enjoy it as a sensory experience.
At its core, this is a by-the-book action story. The main characters all feel pretty familiar, from our amped-up protagonist Shinra to the eccentric but reliable veterans who make up the rest of the crew. They all give a reasonably positive first impression, but there's not a lot new here; you've probably seen the rock-solid team captain and the sharp-tongued guy with glasses at least a dozen times before. The setting stands out more than the characters here, with a colorful yet industrial vibe that makes me want to see more of the city when it's not engulfed in flames. As for the story, it hits a lot of standard-issue plot points on its way to an emotionally satisfying final scene, and that's really all it needs to do for now.
Frankly, all of that narrative substance is a secondary concern when compared to Fire Force's sense of style. This episode looks absolutely fantastic, with some striking visual direction during its slower moments and top-tier animation when the pace picks up. Shinra's powers help set up some wonderfully kinetic sequences as he jets through the air, and this episode is my new gold standard for what fire can look like in an anime series. Flames and smoke move in an almost organic way, and they're presented with a warm, hand-drawn look. If Fire Force can maintain these production values throughout the season, it'll be worth watching for the visuals alone.
As much as I typically gravitate towards slower and more thoughtful fare, Fire Force has definitely grabbed my attention. The story moves fast, the action hits hard, and something about it just feels fun. Sometimes we all need a pure action series to wake us up after sitting through something more nuanced, and this show seems more than capable of filling that role. There are plenty of A-list titles to come over the next week or so, but Fire Force is a strong early contender.
Fire Force was one of my most highly anticipated properties coming into this season, by virtue of its stunning previews and incredibly impressive production team. Fire Force's director Yuki Yase has been doing phenomenal work on shows like Monogatari, and his lengthy tenure at SHAFT has demonstrated he's a director with a passion for incorporating diverse visual styles into his productions. Those early Fire Force previews demonstrated a welcome flourishing of that passion, with intricate, SHAFT-reminiscent layouts sharing space with stained glass windows, impressionistic flames, and dynamic color contrasts. Pair all that with the show's stunning animation team, and you end up with a show that, in visual terms, was nearly guaranteed to have both the highest floor and highest ceiling of any show this summer. So does the premiere actually make good on that talent?
Absolutely. This episode is an embarrassment of visual riches from start to finish, with its very first moments offering some evocative and fluidly animated fire effects, leading to the introduction of the show's beautiful, quasi-steampunk city. Mangaka Atsushi Okubo's earlier Soul Eater demonstrated he's an artist with a clear talent for background design, and Yase's stunning layouts elevate his world into a beautiful and mysterious concrete jungle. The illustration of protagonist Shinra Kusakabe's first use of his fire powers is a breathtaking marvel, with the fluidity of the flames, clear sense of weight and momentum, and impactful sound design all working in jaw-dropping harmony. And all that's before we even get to the show's opening, which is itself one of the most beautifully animated sequences of quick action cuts that I've seen in quite some time.
The rest of the episode maintains Fire Force's stunning aesthetic vision and gloriously fluid action animation, as Shinra's introduction into his unit of Fire Soldiers is elevated through Yase's SHAFT-influenced eye for drama and emphasis on stark color contrast. Flashbacks to Shinra's childhood traumas are conveyed through brutally minimalist color work, reducing his world to black, white, and the devilish red of his eyes, along with those inescapable orange flames. Present-day scenes of firefighting action maintain visual coherency in spite of their frantic animation through the clean contrast of glowing blue bands against red flames, an effect which lends not just clarity, but beauty and even a clear thematic throughline to the action. Shinra's formative memories are neatly paralleled against his current actions, and the episode's efficient, sympathetic characterization ends on a wonderfully understated payoff, as his desire to be a hero is at last fulfilled through the tearful thanks of the first person he “saves.”
Fire Force's first episode stands as a stunning statement of purpose, and a visual marvel you should probably check out even if the premise doesn't particularly thrill you. If the rest of the show can follow through on this premiere will likely come down to whether Okubo's story is the equal of this absurd production team; but as far as first episodes go, it doesn't get much better than this.
Can you do a successful shonen action series about firefighters? This new manga adaptation certainly seems determined to prove that you can. The idea actually is not that crazy, as firefighters have been cast as heroic figures in any number of live-action movies and TV series over the years. However, since this is both anime and shonen action, just normal firefighting would be too simple and dull. Naturally both supernatural threats and supernatural firefighters to combat them have to be involved.
The need to play the supernatural angle is where this debut episode almost lost me, as it turns what could have been a hot idea into just another variation on the standard shonen action set-up. Downtrodden young man who aspires to greatness? Check. Rare powers that aren't appreciated? Check. Haunted by dreams of a mother who may have turned into an Infernal herself? Check. Supernatural foes to fight? Check. Weird visual gimmick (his disconcerting smile)? Chck. The only real difference here is that the protagonist has the requisite eclectic group of companions almost from the start.
Fortunately the first episode has some other intriguing aspects going for it. The idea of flame being tied through religion, and thus a nun being present in the brigade to absolve the souls of the Infernals (rather than because she actually has any necessary holy power), is an interesting one; the closer focusing on the nun Iris, which suggests that she suffered a catastrophic loss herself, also raises eyebrows. Female firefighter Maki looking like she's got some muscle is also a nice little visual touch, though her facial design makes her look almost incongruously cute. The first episode isn't averse to some fan service opportunities either.
The real star of the episode, however, is the visual design. For a series where fire is a central theme, the depiction and animation of the flames is absolutely essential. In that regard the first episode is a big success. These flames are not cheap CG constructions but rather vivid, roiling entities which create lush contrasts of red, orange, and yellow against the darkness. The luminescent blue bands of the fire suits are also used well. All of this is supported by wonderful use of sound effects for the bursts of flame. If there's a visual negative, it's the unsettling look of Shinra's mother's teeth in the flashbacks. The faintly savage look they give her is strongly at odds with the rest of her look. Or perhaps that was the point?
Overall, I am more ambivalent about this one than I was about Dr. Stone. It has enough interesting elements, but it needs to establish itself as something at least a bit more than just a cookie-cutter shonen action construction.
Fire Force comes from the same creator as Soul Eater, so it makes sense that it's basically a riff on a standard theme. In this case, that theme is “firefighters,” and the catch here is that there are two groups that now fall under that heading: the traditional firefighters who put out fires, and the fire force, who fight the causes of them. Smokey the Bear never saw this source coming, either – in the story's world, people have begun spontaneously combusting, which then leads to them becoming demonic beings known as Infernals who can only be laid to rest by the Fire Force, at which point the firefighters can step in and extinguish the flames. It feels mildly torturous, mostly because this set up requires each Fire Force team to have a “sister” (nun) as part of the unit in order to more or less exorcise whatever unknown being or quality made the person become an Infernal in the first place.
This episode does a pretty good job of showing us how all of it works without really explaining a whole lot. Primarily this latter part is dealt with by dropping a lot of hints about what may or may not be happening behind the scenes. Certainly the existence of pyrokinetics, people who can control fire, seems to date back to when the Infernals started appearing, so there could be an experiment-gone-wrong element to what's happening, although the name “Infernal” and the presence of the sisters certainly implies a more demonic aspect to the situation. Shinra's past also seems to indicate that pyrokinetics are not well viewed outside of the Fire Force; Shinra himself clearly was labeled dangerous and possibly evil after a mysterious fire destroyed his home and killed his mother and possibly his baby brother.
I say “possibly” because we are very clearly told that they never found little Sho's body, and if we've learned anything from years of fiction consumption, it's that if there's no body, there's a good chance there was no death. Given how powerful Shinra appears to be, that could mean that Sho was not just a harmless little baby. Likewise if the ending theme is anything to go by, Iris (the sister) is unlikely to be just an everyday anime nun; like Shinra, she seems to be the sole survivor of a conflagration that is more than it appears. All of this adds up to a series with potential. There are some neat visuals to go along with it – the Infernal the main fight is against this week wavers between looking human and animal – so this is worth checking out.
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