by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 39 of
Fire Force ?
This is going to be a serious oversimplification of the hard work and planning that goes into writing and producing an episode like “A Three-Way Melee”, but I think you can generally boil a really effective action sequence into a few key ingredients:
1. Events that follow a well-defined sense time-scale and geography, which the audience can easily follow.
2. Clearly established stakes, conflicts, and goals for all of the characters participating in the action.
3. Spectacle that informs the story and character development, in addition to being exciting to behold.
David Production usually has no problem managing that first step, and Fire Force's storytelling has historically been straightforward enough to avoid stumbling with step two (though that simplicity can sometime work against it). That third step is hit-or-miss for even the best anime, since sometimes it becomes easy to treat the spectacle as the whole point of the action-heavy episodes, and leaving the character development by the wayside. “A Three Way Melee” isn't a masterpiece by any means — I don't even think I would consider it a top-tier Fire Force Season 2 chapter overall — but I do think it nails those three basic steps well enough to further prove my theory that even the B-grade Fire Force episodes this year are a step above where the show was at in the first season.
With Nataku's Adolla Burst having activated during Shinra and Kuroko's fight from the end of “The Ashen Reaper”, Licht takes it upon himself to call in the Company 8 calvary. Right off the bat, it's hilarious and endearing how Vulcan and the rest of the company barrel straight into the Haijima lion's den without even a second thought, and I love that Licht is already dropping most of his “chaotic third party” pretenses. This team of loveable idiots will gladly put themselves in harm's way to save the guy they pinned as a traitor from jump, so it's hard to blame Licht for coming around to the idea of being another member of the crew. Besides, Kuroko is one crazy bastard, and he's got spooky smoke powers for days, so it's looking like we'll need the whole gang to work together to get out of Haijima's clutches.
Hell, Kuroko's not even the only threat they'll have to deal with before they bust poor Nataku out of the World's Worst Daycare. Aside from the Kuroko clash, the other significant focus of the episode is Vulcan and Maki's encounter with a woman who is known only as the Puppeteer (at least, that's what the wikis tell me). She's the much-too-jolly caretaker of Haijima's captured children, and she uses her flame-powered marionettes, the Dominions, to entertain the kiddos when they get that rare break from being systematically tortured and experimented upon. In true Fire Force fashion, she takes way too much joy out of weaponizing her toys; her dolls' signature move is the “Poot-Poot Blaster”, so named because it involves the puppets shooting scalding fart flames straight out of their little robot buttholes.
In other words, it is gloriously dumb, which is my favorite mode for Fire Force to be working in, nine times out of ten. The fight is also a long overdue showcase for Maki and Vulcan's talents, because when they aren't bickering with each other and the Puppeteer over whether or not its okay to give Vulcan's mecha cutesy names like “Caterpillies”, the pair are showing off just how well they've come to work together since Vulcan first offered to amplify Sputter and Flare's power with his nifty rocket gauntlets. Maki and Vulcan both have gotten the short shrift when it comes to screen time and development, so I was super happy just to get the chance to watch them kick a little bit of ass on their own, and Maki didn't even have to suffer the indignity of being called a gorilla for her troubles!
Plus, the fight is really damned fun to watch, which is just as important as working well for the story and characters. The continued fight with Kuroko is pretty fun too, though Kuroko's obsession with stepping on the weak — which is already getting kind of old — rubbed me the wrong way once Tamaki and Iris got framed as the “weak” trembling maidens that all of the Fire Force boys have to protect with their man bodies and tough boy powers. I don't think Fire Force sees all women as incompetent, or as charges to be protected under some chivalrous code, but I sure do wish that un-objectified and competent women like Maki were the rule, and not the exception, for Fire Force.
The plot picks up, though, when the White-Clad arrive. Not only because it's nice to have a solid reminder of their presence in the show, but also because they show up specifically to screw with Kuroko and the rest of Haijima. This is where the “Three Way” in the “Melee” comes in, and it confirms that Haijima and the Evangelist are as much against each other as they are our heroes, which adds a nice layer of complication to the proceedings. Easy to follow and exciting action; heroes and villains that possess clear goals and conflicts with one another; and small but effective slices of character and plot development amidst all of the explosions and flaming robo-ass-cannons. This may not be Fire Force at its absolute best, but “Three Way Melee” easily clears the bar of adding another fun and frenetic chapter to the series' ongoing story.
Odds and Ends
• Licht gets the line of the knight when he takes out a Haijima scientist, proclaiming “I won't be outdone in a nerd fight.” Hell no, you won't, Licht.
• I neglected to mention the new OP and ED that we've got for this second cour of Season 2, and they're pretty good! I definitely prefer the set that we got for the first cour, but this new intro montage (set to KANA-BOON's “Torch of Liberty”) is a huge step-up from the super disappointing “Mayday” OP that came with the second-half of Season 1. PELICAN FANCLUB's “Desire” is a solid track for the ending credits, but I'm more excited about the whole bobble-head motif that the ED has going for it. Cute stuff.
• You know what isn't cute? That creepy-as-hell cut where Kuroko's eyes shift into those exaggerated crescent shapes, and then back again. Does this mean that everyone's bonkers eyes and iris-shapes are supposed to be literal in-universe physical traits? If so, Kuroko's a goddamned Cronenbergian abomination. It is all the proof I need to know that he should immediately be killed, and then buried deep underground.
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