First Impressions: Fire Force

The first episode of Fire Force (炎炎ノ消防隊, En’en no Shōbōtai, literally “Blazing Firefighting Corps”) premiered on July 5, 2019, in the middle of Anime Expo 2019. Its premier was mostly eclipsed by the premier of Dr. Stone, which was advertised all over downtown Los Angeles that weekend.

In the year 198 of the Age of the Sun, Tokyo is a crowded cosmopolis. But the world’s most populous city is threatened by devils that cause people to burst into flame at random. The only ones who can stop it are the Pyrofighters, a team of specialized firefighters. The young Shinra, blessed with the ability to ignite his feet and travel at the speed of a rocket, wants nothing more than to be a hero, and knows that this is the place for him. But he’s not the best at following orders.

Plot Summary from the Fire Force manga.

As of July 19th 2019, episodes 01 and 02 are available on Crunchyroll. This review will contain spoilers for the first two episodes. Episode 03 has been delayed after the Kyoto Animation fire. [Source]

Rating: 3/5

You’re on thin ****ing ice.

“Hey, this reminds me of Soul Eater”
Fire Force is in fact, written and illustrated by Atsushi Ōkubo, the creator of Soul Eater.

The similarities are evident in character design — particularly Shinra’s sharp-toothed smile — as well as in the overall world style and aesthetic. Fire Force is full of Christian iconography, a kind of Church-Goth aesthetic, and an obvious focus on religion and the salvation of souls that harks back to Soul Eater.

Story-wise, I do think this story will be quite different from it’s predecessor, if only because it’s more typical of the Shounen genre than Soul Eater ever was.

Episode 01 – Shinra Kusakabe Enlists

Opening Scene

The opening scene does a fantastic job of introducing us to the conflict, main character, and supporting cast.

  • conflict: people randomly bursting in to flame and turning into some kind of fire demon called an “infernal”;
  • main character: a young man named Shinra Kusakabe who has the power to shoot fire from his feet and uses it to propel himself forward;
  • supporting cast: Special Fire Force Company 8, a team of specialized firefighters that have the power and skills to combat these “infernals”, with a nun for good measure.

Unfortunately, that’s where my praise ends, as the episode itself fails to set up the show as a whole.

Please keep in mind that this is being written after watching both episode 01 and episode 02, therefore the problems and criticisms I present may include some aspects from either episode although I’ve done my best to divide them up.

Episode 01 Strengths Episode 01 Weaknesses
– Opening Scene– Main Character Introduction
– Introduction to World

Fire Force has a unique weakness in that it gives us far too much information about the main character and not nearly enough about the world. The goal seems to be to make the audience sympathetic to Shinra and his goals as quickly as possible. However, it’s simply not very well done.

Main Character Introduction

The first conversation between our main character, Shinra, and the Captain and Lieutenant pulls forth three pieces of information.

  1. Shinra’s Nervous Smiling
  2. Shinra’s Desire to “become a hero”
  3. The nickname “Devil” used for Shinra during his academy days

The conversation is short and strangely specific. Instead of asking about his training or abilities, the Captain starts by asking why Shinra is smiling in his resume photo — hardly the most relevant question.

Shinra’s Smile

Shinra smiles when he feels nervous or under pressure.

The Captain finds this hilarious and adorable, but wisely comments that this quirk of his must get him into a lot of trouble. Shinra confirms this.

Perhaps this is a good example of showing vs. telling. We’re being told that Shinra’s smile gets him into trouble, where it would have been more effective to show it. Not to mention the conversation itself feels staged.

It’s a piece of information that helps us better interpret Shinra as we move through the story. While I do think that introducing this bit of information early on is important, I disagree with the way it was presented.

Bonus: We’re told by Shinra’s inner monologue that he’s been unable to smile sincerely since the incident that killed his mother and brother, but by the end of the episode he has what looks like a smile of triumph. It quickly becomes difficult to apply the previous logic of ‘nervous smiling’ to all his smiles which makes it feel inconsistent and confusing. What exactly would it mean for that triumphant smile to be an insincere smile? And if it is supposed to be taken as sincere, what would that mean about the lack of depth to that trait?

Becoming a Hero

Shinra is then asked what his motivation is for joining the Fire Force. Actually a great question to ask a new recruit. Probably should have been the first question.

His answer? He wants to become a hero. Full stop.

A hero? What does that mean, exactly? We’re given no context for what that means to Shinra, to the Fire Force, or in this world.

Where we might expect his series of flashbacks to indicate a heroic figure in his life (a la BNHA) we get nothing. He doesn’t even seem particularly driven by the idea of rescuing people from Infernals or making sure survivors are well taken care of (another current issue I see in this show).

Of course, we can try to extrapolate: in this world where people spontaneously combust, a hero would be someone who finds the cause and puts a stop to this permanently. However we’re given no indication that this is what Shinra actually desires.

Codename: Devil

‘A formerly malicious nickname being turned into something empowering’ seems like a great bit to introduce this early in the series. This too could have been better executed.

The Lieutenant brings this up during their initial conversation. He knows that “Shinra was nicknamed “devil” during his time at the academy over something that happened in his childhood.” Shinra says nothing.

Later during the battle against the infernal dubbed “Factory Manger’s Wife” (they don’t even bother naming either of them?), the Lieutenant calls Shinra “devil” and says essentially that ‘someone with such a badass nickname can’t be going down this easily’. No other characters bring this up or interact with this piece of information, making it feel imposed on Shinra by the Lieutenant specifically.

Now this bit has some potential. Whether negative or positive, the concept of “devil” is still being imposed on Shinra against his will. In that same battle he says “I’m no devil, I’m a hero.” Even with that positive spin, he’s not willing to accept that identity. There’s merit to either path. A reclamation of something once used against you can be powerful. But crafting your own identity and rejecting that which has been imposed on you can also be something powerful. I’m interested to see where this goes and hope it’s expanded upon and not simply brushed aside.

The (Shounen) World’s Most Overused Trope: The Death of the Mother

A mere 3 minutes after we’re first introduced to the nickname “devil”, we’re already getting the full backstory. It comes in the form of a flashback that isn’t triggered by anything nor takes place in a dream. Shinra is simply lying in bed ruminating.

Surprise, surprise! Shinra’s mother died in a fire. His baby brother also died in that fire. Shinra — having fire-creating abilities (for some reason not yet explained) — is blamed for the incident. It is at this point that Shinra starts his nervous smiling habit, perhaps as a kind of trauma coping mechanism. The people around him of course, take that as an admission of guilt and of pride in having killed his family. Thus, they began calling him “devil”.

The orphaning of the main character, and in particular the death of a mother is one of the most common tropes in the Shounen genre. What’s worse is that given the world this story takes place in, this is probably an incredibly common occurrence. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the Fire Force is made up of children orphaned in this way.

Essentially what this does is make Shinra incredibly normal. His background is common and even his powers are not too rare. This could become a kind of underdog story, if his “normalcy” is consistent. But, I get the feeling that somewhere down the line they’ll discover something “special” about him, probably related to whatever actually killed his mother and brother.

Failed World Introduction

After Shinra’s formal introduction, we get a pep talk / briefing from the Captain. While the scene feels inorganic and unnecessary given the characters in the room, it’s quite typical as an information delivery method for the audience. This is the first real piece of lore or worldbuilding we get in the show.

One day people began to spontaneously combust. But these people didn’t just burn, they turned into some kind of fire entity dubbed “Infernal”. The Fire Force exists to extinguish these being and also to uncover the mystery behind their existence. The concept of the Infernals being called “First Generation” is briefly mentioned, but no explanation for how the “Second” and “Third Generation” are related to this.

We know through bits of conversation, but mostly through floating text in the first (and second) episode that 2nd and 3rd Generation refers to people who can control and create fire respectively. It’s not something included in the Captain’s briefing although it would have made sense to include it there. And their powers are never explained despite the fact that they seem to be unique and a new member warrants a quick intro.

At every turn I have questions about the world being presented to me. What makes someone “Second Generation”? How long has it been since the Infernals started appearing? Have they discovered any patterns? What exactly are their powers? These and several other questions still floating about only serve to distract from the story.

As a whole, the first episode does a poor job of setting up the world and story of Fire Force. We can look ahead and imagine where the story is going because it’s predictable as a Shounen anime, not because the building blocks are properly set in place.

Episode 02 – The Heart of a Fire Soldier

Episode 02 StrengthsEpisode 02 Weaknesses
– 2nd / 3rd Generation Distinction
– Maki Oze shows off her skills
– Intro: Infernals are not all
mindless?
– Plot feels disjointed & scattered
– Making a joke out of Maki’s power
– The Lieutenant has Anger Issues

I’m being a little generous with the “strengths” I’ve listed for this episode. They’re more like redeeming factors and don’t really balance out the weaknesses.

Disjointed Storytelling

Episode 01 introduces Shinra as a new arrival to Company 8. Episode 02 introduces yet another new arrival. My first question is “why so many new arrivals so close together?” but of course that never comes up.

Instead we learn about the existence of “The Rookie Fire Soldier Games”. Trope-y? Check. Irrelevant? Mostly. From the looks of it, the games won’t be relevant until next episode, so I wonder why they were mentioned here.

We get a cute scene with the two girls, Maki and Sister Iris. Maki shows off her ability to control fire by creating a seemingly sentient fire being. This goes far beyond anything I was expecting and I immediately wanted to know how this was possible. A short explanation for Iris (and my) benefit would have been more than enough to satiate my curiosity but no. I have no idea how “controlling fire” translates into “sentient fire beings”.

The arrival of the new-new recruit prompts a 2-on-1 sparring match. New kids vs. Maki. Senpai Maki Oze wipes the floor with the two boys in seconds. Amazing. (see my rant below on this whole scene)

The Captain introduces the boys to an axe that also shoots some kind of special bullet, cool. Shinra is given the axe on the way to their next mission but told to keep it hidden. Shinra and newcomer Arther are both idiots and disobey what the Captain just told them. Despite there being an infernal inside, he takes the boys aside and lectures them about displaying weapons in front of family/loved ones. It’s a great point and something important to the narrative, but the lecture probably could have waited until after since they already had shown their weapons. It breaks the scene’s tension.

We’re also introduced to a villain! Some creepy-looking guy with something that looks like gunpowder seems to be manipulating the flames. He may be responsible for the ‘strange happenings’ in the area — something mentioned off-hand in that same scene.

For a single episode there’s a lot of different things going on. A lot of new plot-points are being introduced, and because they seem mostly unrelated to each other, the episode feels disjointed. The bits of information introduced in the first half of the episode distract from what’s probably the heart of the episode: the Infernal they go take care of and his daughter who now has lost both parents in the same way, and the creepy guy who’s probably responsible. The information I don’t have is also distracting.

The Lieutenant has Anger Issues

This came up in episode 01, but it became obvious in this episode that this is a gag here to stay.

The Lieutenant is shown to have an incredibly short temper that results in explosive and violent reactions. In episode 01, while the other characters were having side-conversation he threw a clipboard into a screen/blackboard to get their attention. In episode 02 his anger is triggered just by the presence of Maki’s fire creature and he extinguishes it before confronting Maki. Strangely enough, his anger dissipates in front of Arthur despite the rude way he spoke to him.

It’s an old gag drawn out to the extreme, to the point where I actually don’t trust this guy and would understand if others on his team didn’t either. Being feared by his own team seems counter productive at best. While we haven’t seen him physically harming anyone on-screen, it can easily be imagined that he has or will in the future.

Maki Oze is a Badass and Does Not Deserve to be Ridiculed

During the first part of episode 2, Maki faces off against the two new recruits, Shinra and Arthur, both 3rd Generation fire soldiers — whatever that means — and presumably more powerful than her .

She wipes the floor with them using both her physical abilities and skill in controlling fire.

Instead of reacting with awe and praise at Maki’s abilities, the boys react with surprise, fear, and ridicule. They both call her “ogre-like”. She responds with fury at being called “gorilla” instead. The joke here is supposed to be that she is often ridiculed for her strength and physique, and therefore has a bit of a complex about it. This joke felt like slap in the face. I consider Maki to be incredibly attractive, a beauty who is also ripped and therefore hot as hell. For that to be made into a joke that basically says ‘women are gross if they’re too strong’ is frankly, disgusting and out of date.

After the match, the boys go out to eat, and say absolutely nothing about the match. A battle that should have taught them to respect her as a ‘senpai’ and a skilled fire soldier, seems not to matter to them at all.

tldr;

While Atsushi Ōkubo’s Soul Eater is dynamic and subversive of the Shounen genre, Fire Force seems like little more than a pile of tropes loosely stringed together. While I think the concept is great and there are a few elements that have some potential, based on the first two episodes I have little hope that they’ll be well executed.

Because of the way these things go, I’m going to give episode 03 a chance before I completely give up on this anime, but I’m not too optimistic. I’m sure there’s a big audience out there that will really enjoy this — especially those that generally enjoy Shounen — but I don’t think it’s for me.


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