By Atsushi Okubo
A supernatural shonen fire-fighting manga is just the kind of weird, renegade concept a maniac like Atsushi Okubo would dream up. There’s a lot of promise in Fire Force‘s premise: people spontaneously combust into doomed fire-monsters called Infernals, so they have to be put down by the titular organization. While this seems like a straightforward excuse for the protagonists to battle ghoulish monsters, the Infernals aren’t presented as some disposable demonic force. The people who become Infernals aren’t necessarily evil, as shown by many innocent, peaceful people spontaneously and tragically transforming without choice. While the Fire Force presents themselves as heroic fire-fighters and soul-savers, that image as been purposefully crafted for public relations, to palatably mask their ostensible operations – killing people.
The Fire Force’s connection with the church, with a nun reciting prayers for the doomed Infernal’s soul as it’s being put down, presents what they’re doing as a moral necessity, for the sake of both the public and Fire Force’s. The tragic element to the monsters adds a humanistic and moral dilemma that underlines the story, and changes the fundamental goal of the protagonists. While public safety requires them to put down Infernals on the day-to-day basis, their ultimate goal is to find a cure for their condition and prevent people from turning into them. This contrasts with protagonist Shinra’s desire to become a hero: he’s saving people by fighting Infernals, but he’s killing them as well. What it means to be a hero when the people you’re fighting aren’t your enemy by choice isn’t simple, and is an interesting question for the series to extrapolate upon going forward. The premise also allows Okubo to integrate just about all of his thematic interests the plot – the role of religion, the cruelty of death, and the madness of the human mind, alongside wacky fan service, goofy comedy, and flashy action sequences. Fire Force twists the tropes of the shonen demon-fighting sub-genre to explore deeper moral questions about good and evil and the nature of justice while still embracing the fun elements that make the genre enjoyable.
Much like Soul Eater, the characters’ signature quirks are informed by their surprisingly dark histories. For example, Shinra’s gimmick of grinning when nervous is innocently silly until it’s revealed why he is mistrusted and feared; when his mother and brother died in a house fire he started he was so emotionally confused all he could do was grin, causing people to believe he did it on purpose. Darkly ironic characterization like this bleakly informs the inherent unjustness of this world, serving a good contrast to the unfortunate fate of the Infernals. Okubo has a great sense of thematic cohesion and relating his characters to his world in interesting ways that enhance them both.
While there is a lot to praise in Fire Force’s first volume, fans of Soul Eater may find it a slow burn. Atsushi Okubo’s storytelling and artwork are defined by a gothic-punk style, and deviant, morbid sensibility. Despite the saturation of ghoul fighting battle manga, Soul Eater popped with it’s pop aesthetic. Okubo’s character designs were fashionable and distinctive, and it was one of the few school-centered series where characters wore different sets of clothing instead of the same uniform. Every character had a unique look and design that unmistakably reflected their personalities, transcending their archetypes with unforgettable characterizations. In Soul Eater, Okubo seemed unbound to convention, and put all manner of crazy concepts, characters, and ideas into a world where both the sun and moon had creepy, smiling faces. But while hints of Okubo’s underground tastes are evident in Fire Force, it doesn’t recapture the same attitude and aesthetic that made its predecessor stand out.
There are a few reasons why Fire Force feels more conventional compared to Soul Eater. The Fire Force all wear the same uniforms with little customization, which doesn’t let the personalities of the characters speak through their designs like Soul Eater’s did. Shinra’s character design, a short shark-toothed black-haired boy, could be mistaken for a number of other shonen protagonists, especially Blue Exorcist’s Rin, whereas no one could possibly mistake Soul or Maka for anyone else. Shinra’s backstory and motivations are interesting, but the supporting cast is mostly defined by common characterizations – the girl with her head stuck in the clouds, a boy who fancies himself a knight, a super serious lieutenant and his aloof captain. While the Fire Force organization is interesting, the world surrounding it is pretty ordinary, in comparison to the Tim Burton-esque twisted fantasy and international hodgepodge of Soul Eater’s world. There are great action scenes with easy to read panel flow and choreography, but little in the way of over-the-top stunts and crazy theatrics. Okubo’s doing a lot of interesting things with Fire Force beneath the surface, but the unique surface level aesthetics and attitude are what defined Soul Eater and set it apart. Removing those elements make Fire Force a lot less engaging to read, even though the storytelling itself is just as strong.
One final, personal gripe I have about the first volume is the fan service. Soul Eater had its share for sure, but the attempts here feel shoehorned in, as if editorially demanded. This is especially egregious in the volume’s last chapter, which introduces Kotatsu, a character that seems specifically designed for fan service jokes. She’s apparently afflicted by a curse called the “Lucky Lecher Lure,” which means she’s frequently accidentally groped by male characters in unbelievably forced scenarios. Somehow, Shinra not only manages to squeeze her boob underneath her bra when he’s just holding out her hand to grab someone else’s shoulder, but also somehow manages to slip his hands into her pants and grope her butt after she randomly bumps into him. The logistics of how this happens makes no sense; sticking hands beneath someone’s clothing shouldn’t be this easy, yet Shinra manages to do this without even trying. It also makes no sense why someone who knows they have a condition causing people to grope her would wear clothing that openly exposes herself. Kotatsu doesn’t wear a shirt, and her pants have these strange holes in their sides that would easily allow easy access for groping. There is no in-universe reason why she’d dress this way, or so easily get into these scenarios when she should clearly know better, outside of Okubo designing and writing the character to be subject to accidental groping in the name of “hilarious” fan service. This entire character and chapter is infuriating because of how shamelessly perverse the intentions behind them were, which is a shame because it’s the last chapter of the volume and the very last pages actually advance the plot. It’s really a minor complaint in an otherwise enjoyable book, but it’s such a baffling aberration it warranted mention and a rant.
Fire Force’s first volume takes a while to ignite, but once its fire is lit you can see a lot of potential surrounding it. Occasionally my enthusiasm was put out by its awkward fan service and more generic trappings, but Okubo’s darkly ironic storytelling still flickers through. Subsequent volumes should illuminate the direction of it’s story and fire up the stakes, and I’m definitely interested in reading more. Even if it doesn’t hold a candle to Soul Eater, there is still an infectiously fun quality to the series, one that I’m confident won’t burn out.