Fire Force Premiere & Panel Report | Anime Expo 2019
At approximately 11:55 am on the morning of Friday, July 5th, I received a text from VLordGTZ that read in anxious all-caps “GENERAL LINE FOR FIRE FORCE IS CAPPED” followed quickly by another message that read “TRY TO GET TO THE PRIORITY LINE ASAP.” At the time I was leisurely eating a pretty bad lunch courtesy of one of the food trucks at Anime Expo (word of advice, don’t order the chicken sandwich from the BBQ place – it’s a mess), and my casual chillness certainly contrasted with both the hot L.A. sun and the burning passion of VLord and the thousands of fans who crowded the courtyard early to get in line for the Fire Force premiere. Well, it wasn’t exactly the show’s premiere, per se. Unlike Dr. Stone, which premiered at AX a day before it went live worldwide, Fire Force’s first episode had already come out three hours earlier that morning. What was actually premiering wasn’t the episode itself, but FUNimation’s English dub of the episode. Which makes it all the more surprising that over 5000 people scheduled the event in the Anime Expo app, over five times as many people as room 408 AB could hold. I suspect that even if the Fire Force event was held in the Main Events hall, it still would’ve been capped – there was too much heat behind it.
However, it wasn’t just to see the episode fans were lining up to see. Rather, I believe it was the presence of the series’ creator, Atsushi Okubo, that really drew attention. Even ten years out, Okubo’s previous work Soul Eater remains one of the biggest series in western fandom; a shonen action show with unique horror sensibilities and gothic aesthetics brought to life with charismatic animation courtesy of Studio Bones. Which isn’t to say Fire Force itself isn’t a big deal; the manga’s been out for a while in North America and is quite popular in its own right. The anime adaption being handled by a team of ex-SHAFT animators under David Productions of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure fame even lit a fire in those uninterested in the show’s shonen storytelling but drawn like a moth to flame at the potential artistry of its animation. Suffice to say, Fire Force was one of the most highly anticipated shows for the season for general anime fans and sakuga studiers alike. I’d checked out the manga back when it first came out, but unlike Soul Eater, it didn’t capture my imagination enough to keep up with it. That said, I’d always felt the world of Fire Force would be enhanced by the vibrant colors and fluidity of movement provided by a stellar animated adaptation, much like Soul Eater did, and the promise behind the production piqued my interest profusely.
The first episode lit my expectations ablaze and blew me away.
From the opening frames, the flames of Fire Force are a sight to behold. From the onset, it was clear what would set Fire Force apart would be the way it animated fire. It is a central part of its premise and appeal that both the heroes and villains fight using fire as their power source. This would normally run the risk of every character’s abilities looking samey and indistinguishable, but Okubo makes it work in the manga thanks to the different shapes he uses to depict each character’s flames. The anime goes a step further by using color, motion, form, and the timing of the fire’s flickering to further distinguish the abilities of the characters with their own individual characteristics, best put on display during the opening theme’s sequence showing off all the protagonists’ powers. Not only that, but there is another degree of separation between how the flames used by the Fire Force members, the infernals, and regular fire is depicted as well. I’ll say that the CGI effects on background fire stand out a little too much compared to the gorgeous rendered traditionally animated effects, but the attention to detail and clear modes of separation really help keep the action clear to follow, allowing viewers to identify whose powers are whose during the battle sequences. The excellent fire effects are combined with incredibly dynamic fight animation, a particular standout being towards the beginning of the episode when the Fire Force take on an Infernal in the Train Station, where smoke effects are used to allow great transitions between scenes of character’s performing their signature techniques.
The way the characters interact with background elements and the three-dimensional movement of the camera is also impressive, like when we see Maki running from a side view from a perspective inside the train, and the camera twists to see the soles of her feet when she jumps on the side of the train to launch her attack. Possibly the most impressive cut of the episode is when Shira activates his powers for the first time, where we initially follow him from behind the soles of his feet, which then slowly moves to seeing him moving from a head-on view, only for the camera to then zoom in on his eye to take in his expression, and then twist its way behind his body so we see him leaving the camera behind and he blasts away. The trail of flames from Shinra’s feet as we follow his path of motion keeps the viewer’s focus clear even as Shinra moves erratically through the environment, and the full impact of his speed and the power of his flames make a strong first impression. Suffice to say, Fire Force’s animation is indeed fire.
Even when Fire Force isn’t moving, it’s gorgeous to look at. The character designs are brimming with personality and carry over all the eccentricities of their manga counterparts. I particularly appreciate the attention to detail on the characters’ muscles, particularly Maki’s, which really help convey that these characters are professional firefighters and have really trained their bodies for the job. The art direction and compositions in the show are phenomenal at conveying mood and tone with maximum impact, which helps keep even expository scenes engaging. A great example is when Shinra finally regains his composure, the blue lights on his uniform illuminate inside a pitch-black frame, signaling his resolve to fight. Shinra’s isolation and despair when his grandmother refuses to adopt him is also perfectly communicated in a single still shot. The oppressive red and black colors, tilted perspective, erratic white lines below him on the road and the net-like black power lines above him, all communicate the sensation of feeling trapped in an emotionally distressing situation that Shinra can’t escape from. Fire Force is able to use surreal shots like this alongside experimental sequences that use sketchier animation and more unusual colors to elicit feelings of anxiety and unease underlying the show’s world, emphasizing the chaotic and emotionally volatile threat the Infernals pose of the order of daily life. The underlying sensation of insanity about to overtake order was an integral theme in Okubo’s stories, and it’s great to see it depicted so ominously in Fire Force as well.
While I think the show’s animation and art direction have received universal praise, one underrated strength I think it has as an adaptation is its comedic timing. The Fire Force manga’s jokes were always hit or miss to me, but every joke landed for the audience in the premiere screening, and it’s all thanks to an excellent sense of timing. The anime paces each shot to let the joke hit at just the right moment and even gives new layers to jokes from the manga. A particularly great example in the first episode is Hinawa scribbling in his notepad, where we see him become increasingly irritated by the shenanigans of his peers. This is an addition to the anime not present in the original manga and is a runner throughout the early part of the episode that plays out during the background of other jokes, like when he snaps his pen after being irritated by Iris and Maki’s antics. It culminates with him throwing his clipboard into the wall, lingering on the impact with a warped perspective shot as everyone stares in silence and slowly turns their heads to look at Hinawa. It then cuts back to him, still in a throwing pose, as he calmly orders Obi to begin the roll call. What’s great about this sequence isn’t just its humor, but also how it perfectly communicates Hinawa’s personality and role in the group to the audience in an efficient and effective way. The ways the anime embellishes Fire Force’s humor not only makes it funnier, but it helps establish characterizations in a more endearing manner as well that makes it easier to get invested in the characters and eager to see more of the story.
Another asset in the show’s favor are excellent performances that imbue so much personality into the characters just on their own. I’ll only comment on the dub since that was what was shown at the screening, but considering FUNimation was on the production committee I have to imagine that they already had an idea of how they wanted to cast and direct the dub as the show was being made. Every voice actor was pitch-perfect and really fun in their roles, their personalities matching my idea of how they would sound like from reading the manga. The particular standout for me was Jeremy Inman’s Obi, who perfectly reflected his dueling nonchalance and perceptiveness, and little flourishes like his “Yeeeaaahhh” response when Hinawa demands he begin the meeting really got a kick out of me.
Of course, Derick Snow’s Shinra has to do a lot of heavy lifting as the protagonist. He carries out the role with just the right degree of naivety and vulnerability betraying Shinra’s supposed readiness to be a hero, really letting Shinra’s moments of anxiety palpitate and also selling his resolve in his impassioned declaration and screams towards the end of the episode. If I had one quibble, it’s that his performance as Shinra as a young child seemed a little forced. It’s a bit too squeaky and pitched up, sounding more like an impression of a young boy’s voice than the authentic thing. Regardless, his performance elicited giggles and fawning from the audience, who still found baby Shinra undeniably adorable, so it’s not much of an issue. In general, the audience became very invested in the characters by the end of the premiere, particularly Shinra. The entire auditorium seemed to coo “aww” at Shinra’s happy smile at the episode’s end, which was then followed by uproarious applause and someone screaming out “next episode please!”
For how great and well-received the premiere was, it’s a shame that the event itself had many issues. The line being capped over an hour before the panel started didn’t stop people from asking volunteer staff whether they could get in or not, to which they weren’t on the same page about. I was told by one staff member that they didn’t know if they were still letting more press in, only to notice another staffer allow my friends Sakaki and Jecka, also press, walk into the press line without impediment. While those of us in the priority line got into the room on time, the same was not true for the general attendees, who were directed very slowly into the room. To further complicate matters, there seemed to be an issue with the audio and video setup that the FUNimation crew needed to troubleshoot through briefly. Even after they got things figured out, I felt that the sound quality wasn’t the best in the auditorium. The audio mix during the train station scene was particularly unbalanced and hard to make out at times, and in general, the stereo in the auditorium was a little too echoey. Ultimately, an event that was supposed to begin at 1 pm instead ended up starting a half-hour late, closer to 1:30 pm. A full half-hour of panel time with Okubo was wasted on logistical issues, which was a real shame for fans looking forward to a longer conversation with him.
That said, the interview conducted with Okubo was plenty of fun for fans and they packed a lot of interesting information in a half-hour. Okubo went up on stage asking in English “What’s up LA?” and if the audience enjoyed the episode, which earned a loud and agreeable response. Megumu Tsuchiya, Okubo’s editor on Fire Force for Weekly Shonen Magazine, was invited on stage next. The duo were then asked what the thought about the first episode. Okubo was surprised by how cool it was, wondering “did my manga look so cool?” Tsuchiya, meanwhile, really liked how the uniforms came alive in animation.
Okubo was asked to compare how he felt watching the first episode of Fire Force to watching the first episode of the Soul Eater anime a decade ago. Okubo felt that Fire Force has a different method of expressing light and fire that he didn’t see in Soul Eater. He was then asked to clarify if felt similar or different feelings watching the anime compared to Soul Eater. Okubo responded that his favorite scene in the episode was when Shinra did the jump kick to defeat the infernal at the end, which he described as a “boom” moment. His other favorite moment was, of course, the shower scene with Maki and Iris.
Next they were asked if there was a particular character from the series they liked, or if their favorite had changed after watching the anime. Okubo responded that he always kinda liked Hinawa, and seeing him voiced and in animation made him love him all over again. Tsuchiya, meanwhile, is a fan of Maki and finds the dynamic between her and Hinawa to be a lot of fun.
Another question was asked about how they felt about Fire Force receiving an adaptation. Okubo said that the show had been a long time in the making. Even though Fire Force is the third adaptation of his works, he described working with David Productions as a fresh experience. When asked how much of the anime he has seen, Okubo remarked that he’d seen up to the fourth episode, and that was his personal favorite so far. He also mentioned that seeing Princess Hibana moving and animated was the most exciting part for him. Tsuchiya chimed in and said that Joker will show up in episode three and fight Shinra, and he’s excited for the audience to finally see that, since there are few fights between humans in the series and those really stand out to him.
On whether Okubo had considered the potential of an anime adaptation when he first started the manga, he replied that he didn’t necessarily have it in mind. However, he had always imagined how it might look, and in his mind he already envisions it like an anime and tries to depict that mental image in his manga. He chuckled that in a weird way “it somehow becomes an anime again.” Tsuchiya added on by saying that it was very easy to visualize Fire Force as an anime, because Okubo’s paneling and where he puts the camera is already very cinematic.
The duo were then asked which characters they related to most. Okubo replied that because Arthur is just an idiot, and he finds a lot of relatability there. Tsuchiya, meanwhile, relates to Shinra and his nervousness, joking that “I was nervous today when I was coming up!”
The moderator then asked what inspired Okubo to use firefighters as the main theme for a shonen series. Okubo replied that he thinks the heroes closest to us are in fact Fire Fighters. “They’re real heroes. Even in a fantasy world there’s fires, so who puts them out? So even in a fantasy world there needs to be firefighters.” When asked why the Fire Force fights fire with fire, Okubo replied that in Soul Eater there were a lot of different powers that complimented each other really well. There were three Soul Eater characters in particular who used variations of a thunder-based power, and that made him think “so what if I pushed this idea even further, and they all used the same power?”
As a follow-up, the duo were then asked what powers they’d want to have. Okubo said he’d like to be liked Shinra because “just the way he flies around is very straightforward and simple.” Tsuchiya responded that as a japanese person, anything with swords is really cool, so he’d like to be like Arthur, who fights with a lightsaber (as Okubo jokingly puts it).
On the subject of Arthur, Okubo was asked whether he chose to write Fire Force’s rivalry differently than Soul Eater’s. Okubo seemed puzzled by the question and asked the audience if they thought the relationship was unique, to which they applauded approvingly. Okubo shrugged and admitted that the two did compliment each other, and that was in its own way another form of rivalry. He also joked that “it’s not uncommon for me to be oblivious to something obvious.”
Finally, Okubo and Tsuchiya were asked if there was anything they wanted fans to look forward to in the show specifically. Okubo replied that there were a lot of unique firefighters and that some of the others are even farther out there. He remarked that “the anime team and myself worked really hard to put this all together, so I hope you’ll all watch it.” Tsuchiya then closed off the interview by reflecting how “oftentimes in editing, I have to put my editor hat on…but with Fire Force, I just become a fan, and I want you all to experience it so much.”
Fire Force is such a superbly produced show that I wrote down more notes that I could possibly work into this writeup without breaking format and just listing everything I liked. It’s definitely the best-looking show of the season, and everything we’ve heard about the production scheduled and staff involved has been incredibly promising. Fire Force is absolutely one of the hottest shows of both the season and the year, and here’s hoping future episodes continue to turn up the heat as Okubo and Tsuchiya have promised.