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Nick Andy, this summer has been scorching, and through it all a single burning topic has been simmering and sputtering within me. After weeks of putting it off, I think we finally have to let this mother burn. It's time for: FIRE!
Andy It's cruel to make my brain associate such a better song with what we're about to discuss. We've had our fun with Demon Slayer and Dr. Stone, but it's finally time to talk about the other shonen show of the season, Fire Force.
Yep, straight from the mind that brought us the offbeat Soul Eater, Atsushi Ōkubo has returned to take the phrase "fight fire with fire" entirely too literally.
While I'd never checked out the manga, Fire Force entered the season with tons of positive buzz, and with David Pro handling the animation, it probably wasn't hard to call this one a sure-fire hit! Unfortunately, I'd say the pretty animation is currently the only thing it has going for me, which is shocking considering how strongly the show opens! That first shot of an Infernal sets up anticipation for the kind of monster we haven't seen much elsewhere. It's distinctly frail, creepy, and menacing in such a cool way.
The whole premise is pretty rad. On top of establishing a solid basis for flashy battles, it creates an instantly fascinating setting behind them. Rather than being a new occurrence, Infernals are a well-known part of human life, so entire social structures (military, religion, government) have been built around them. And yeah, the animation is no slouch either. By all appearances, David Pro put their A-game into this production, and combined with Yuki Yase's striking direction, the first few episodes of Fire Force were some of the strongest in an already packed season.
There's just one slight problem. It seems another phrase Okubo decided to take too seriously was "the light that burns twice as bright burns twice as fast", because watching Fire Force is like watching somebody take a blowtorch to half a candle. It's astounding how quickly Fire Force moves in terms of pacing. The two things that struck me hardest in the intro were the Infernal and the Captain's Pile Bunker, and nine episodes into the series, the pile bunker has never been seen again, and the Infernals stopped being the real threat after episode TWO.
It's a bizarre problem to have for a shonen action series. 90% of the time, these kinds of anime suffer from being way too slow, dragging out plot details until they burst for the sake of preserving material for as long as possible. But Fire Force burns through its own story so quickly that there's never time to sink your teeth into it. Like hey, remember that solemn bit in episode two about how Fire Soldiers shouldn't show their weapons outside of battle, because they're both soldiers and executioners? Because I don't think the show remembers anymore.
If we went into things Fire Force seems to have forgotten, we'll be here all night. Okubo's new series has adopted the structure of Bleach, where Hollows were dropped as the central antagonist in favor of Soul Reaper in-fighting, but Bleach had a full season of episodes before that happened, while Fire Force has already breezed through multiple arcs of buildup and payoff in less than one season.
Okay, are we ready to discuss the Designated Steve Character?
I was trying to avoid invoking her just yet, but if the show is going to move that fast, why don't we? The creepy infernal in episode two who just sits there and burns while trying its best to not hurt anyone is creepy as hell, but then the following villain that you might think could be a major threat is cast aside to get to her traitor subplot as quickly as possible.
Oh right, this Hot Topic dumpster diving guy. I genuinely forgot he existed.
I was actually talking about Not-Barry the Butcher, but I can see how that might be confusing, because Fire Force constantly introduces and then forgets about its antagonists.
The idea of a Firefighter who uses his position to do occasional murders would be an interesting plot to follow, especially when he then turns into a sentient Infernal.
But even though the Infernals so far have been threatening enough, and we've been told repeatedly how dangerous it is to engage them, his entire episode is about the two main idiot newbies clowning on him in broad daylight?
Yeah, it's bizarre how quickly Infernals go from this mysterious specter of imminent mortality to random footsoldiers that are barely a threat to anyone in the cast. Episode one features this thrilling brawl that requires all of Company 8's members to finish, but by episode seven, they're taking them out with all the same reverence I hold when I clean a litter box. Initial threats getting power-crept out is nothing new, so while this happens way faster than usual, I'd be more okay with the shift if it felt like the characters had grown along with the stakes.
In terms of stakes, every conflict in the show so far has been resolved so quickly that stakes are mostly exposited on afterwards instead of built up beforehand. As for the fights themselves, while they may be pretty in brief moments, their conclusions are as swift as they are empty. I'm still in awe of the absolute WTF that was Arthur's solo fight. He gets bodied for a while at first, and then this happens:
He then switches his sword back to his dominant hand and one-shots the enemy. I literally went back and rewatched the episode to figure out why he had it in the wrong hand. Was it some sort of confusion fire magic? Head trauma? Mirror universe? Nope. It just was a random thing that happened.
Do not talk bad about my boy Arthur. He is a dim bulb of light in the darkness as far as I'm concerned. He's Fire Force's Black Star, but instead of being obnoxiously dumb, he's quietly and stoically dumb.
But he's not "forget which hand I've always used to hold a sword" dumb! That's never established and it never comes up again! It's just faking stakes so that he looks stronger when he wins, but it makes absolutely no sense.
Eh, I'd be bothered by it more if Arthur was a character with any pathos. But as pure comic relief, I think he works by being a totally confident dipshit. Like when he gets lost on the way to a fight and just confidently strides through a desert.
Is that his thing, though? I got that his gimmick was being stupidly chivalrous and getting dunked on for it! That was fine!
His random excursion to the desert felt more like they just forgot to put him in the worst fight scene of the show so far. He was literally running alongside everyone else, but then he disappeared for no adequately explored reason. Maybe he'll wander into a better show...
All I can say is that it made me laugh, which is sadly not the norm for Fire Force's comedy. Boy would it be cool if this anime could give us a muscular woman who didn't have a complex about not being girly enough.
Boy would I love if Fire Force treated any of its women with dignity.
The female characterization problems are numerous, but I have to reserve my loudest possible sigh for:
God, I'll get to Tamaki in due time, but first I just want to lament Maki's wasted character. Her backstory is that she's a former (non-fire) soldier who can control and manipulate flames, and episode two establishes her as perfectly capable of standing toe-to-toe with Shinra or Arthur. And then she never actually gets to do anything for nine episodes. Come on!
Well Nick, clearly that's because:
I get that Gap Moe's a thing, but just let her suplex one fire zombie. God damn.
After her sparring session with the boys, her existence can be boiled down to more lame jokes about her being strong and everyone killing her cute familiars on sight. Please let her fire spirit bomb these fools.
Granted, that's still more characterization than the rest of Company 8 gets. It sure would be nice if Hinawa possessed a personality outside of Gun.
Everyone only gets one trait. Fire Force doesn't have time for more than that. Even our main character gets the shortcut of "Remember Deku from MHA? You like him, right? Cool, think about him then."
There's also a lot of "Are you a Hero or a Devil?" stuff ripped straight from various Go Nagai properties, but it's never actually explored. The boy just has a shark tooth smile that puts people off, but he never gives any indication of wavering or being corrupted in any way.
On paper, I like Shinra. When he's acting like a lame dork trying to be Superman, he's pretty charming. Even if he's terrible at coming up with a nom de guerre.
All the catchphrases or vocal quirks in this show suck. Even step-on-you lady has a bad one. Why gravel? "ASH" IS RIGHT THERE! IT ALIGNS THEMATICALLY WITH TRASH! AND THE SHOW IS ABOUT FIRE!
Look, I gotta take what I can get with Hibana, especially when her whole story is a crapshoot of wasted potential and poor execution.
I appreciate her boy throne, but making her crazy because she went super-atheist after her friends died in a fire sure sucked.
In theory, this is a solid arc. While Shinra losing his family spurred him to follow his childhood desires of heroism, Hibana's tragedy taught her that piety was ultimately empty, so she threw herself into becoming a "devil" to survive. But in practice, she's just a big psychopath for two episodes before Shinra punches the evil out of her.
You say two episodes, but let's be clear that all of this happens in one of those. She's introduced as a possible antagonist in Section 8's way, hinted to be an obstacle in the future, and then the next episode opens with them going to raid her section. Over the next twenty minutes, she:
A) Does her full villain monologue
B) Does her Super Attack
C) Gets defeated by one Naruto-Patented Friendship Punch
D) Has a flashback to her tragic past to explain why she was crazy and why she won't be crazy anymore
E) Now loves Shinra
That super attack looked cool though.
That is the one saving grace of the show. It pretty much always looks cool. You want wild effects animation and rad fire break-dancing? You got it! It's just a shame about any of the story in between.
Welp, on the subject of rad fire kicks, should we address the big reveals of episode nine? There's totally supposed to be some kind of setup for Shinra's fiery feet vs Dude Whose Name I Cannot Remember and Refuse to Look Up Because Wow Does He Suck's fiery hands.
Honestly, I'm cool with this dude, if only because the show makes no pretense about him being a deep or tragic character like it did with Hibana. Whereas her arc took shortcuts to "redeem" her in record time, this guy's just an asshole from start to finish as he does his best Nekki Basara impression.
I do love how we're told this guy is a paragon of the Fire Force and everyone, especially Tamaki, loves and trusts him. And yet the only times we see him on screen, he's the most aggressive street preacher you've ever seen. Dude is literally at all times screaming I'M A TRAITOR BECAUSE FIRE IS GLORIOUS, and Fire Force is like "Hmm, who could possibly be the traitor in this mystery plot we just introduced that surely won't be resolved in less than ten minutes?"
(cut to him loudly murdering children)
Yeah, the cast don't exactly get passing grades on their inspection. Tamaki especially comes off as a dingus when she goes around luring children to an abandoned warehouse for uh, some special prayer session? We'll go with that. My first reaction was that Tamaki had to be a double agent, pretending to work with Rekka to figure out how he's making Infernals and stop him. But nope, she's just that clueless.
Hey, someone has to get brutally beaten for being blinded by love, so of course we need lovingly animated shots of her being kicked over and over. Gotta squeeze the emotional impact out of this long, uncomfortable closeup of her crying too.
This is the same character who existed solely for gags like this beforehand:
That whole Lucky Lecher thing is a nightmare. I'm used to some dumb cheesecake and fanservice in my shonen action series, but Tamaki's character takes it a step further by having the universe itself conspire to humiliate and violate her for the sake of comedy in her every scene. Forget the Great Flame of Fire, the real God of this world is apparently Mineta. And that's existentially terrifying.
It was uncomfortable before this scene, but it's next-level bad to have her clothes get burned off by the collateral damage of the fight, and then make jokes about her being traumatized from getting physically assaulted, emotionally betrayed, and leading children to their deaths.
In terms of that closeup on Tamaki's brutalized face, I sort of get what they're going for; they're trying to communicate the turmoil of confusion and pain going through her mind without saying it out loud. But it goes on way too long and it's rendered way too tenderly to not feel uncomfortable in all the wrong ways. And it only gets worse when she becomes the second girl in as many arcs to have her clothes conveniently burnt off.
Hey, Okubo, we get it. You've got a fetish. Please stop bringing it up at work.
Fire Force publishes in the same magazine as Hiro Mashima's work, so I'm sure this doesn't even raise an eyebrow in editorial anymore.
Just another day at the office~
Anyway, this whole latest arc is just a misery parade for Tamaki. Despite being established as a 3rd-generation fighter like Shinra, her entire role is to get abused, cry for help, get molested, and then fall in love with Shinra because that's apparently another curse cast on every woman in this show.
The horrible sexual politics are what really push the show out of the fun zone for me. The slapdash pacing and shoddy characterization could still be fun to watch thanks to David Pro's pretty presentation, and the fact that the latest arc ends with a binding friendship handshake in front of the frozen and impaled corpse of your former best friend is hilarious in some way.
But then you remember this extremely dumb goofy shot was built on tormenting Tamaki, and that makes it so much worse.
It's a shame too, because for all my quibbles, the show would be pretty watchable without all the misogyny. It's fast-paced enough to never be boring, and god damn does it look good.
Just stick with what you're good at, Fire Force. More of this:
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