I Wanted to Love Fire Force

I have tried to watch Soul Eater on four different occasions and the farthest I’ve gotten is episode four. When I tell my friends this, they are surprised (for good reason). I have long been a huge fan of the works of Studio Bones, with two of my three favorite shows of all time having been made by them. I’m also a huge fan of sakuga and consider it to be one of the coolest things about watching anime. Most importantly, Takuya Igarashi is one of my favorite directors of all time.

That I was unable to get into a show applicable to all three above qualities is entirely explainable but still a head-scratcher. Especially if you’ve read any of my posts on Studio Bones in the past, it seems like a show I would love. The short of it was that the writing and characters did nothing to draw me into the show and I was somewhat bored.

But when I saw the trailers for David Production’s adaptation of Fire Force – another work from Soul Eater author Atsushi Okubo – I got excited. The artwork and music conveyed a darker tone and got me thinking that a different kind of story by the same creator might be more to my liking. Hell, it already looked like a show by Bones anyway and David Productions has been growing steadily thanks to stuff like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Fire Force quickly became my most anticipated show of the summer.

Now, as Fire Force‘s first season nears the midway point, I’m left a little underwhelmed. How did such a promising show fail to meet my expectations? More importantly, is it good enough to continue watching?

Originally this was gonna go up on the first of October. However, the 12th episode of Fire Force didn’t air on the 27th of September like planned. It got delayed and while I thought it would air on the fourth, I discovered it is actually being released on the 11th. I wanted to at least wait until episode 12 to do a “mid-season review.”

Even if my review wasn’t gonna be too positive, I at least wanted to give it until the midway point (or until they had a new opening). After all, I’m sure some people will disagree with me about this show and tell me to keep going so I felt like I owed them that. Alas, here we are, but it isn’t as though one episode was gonna change my opinion too much, mind you. So without further ado…

[These are my first impressions of episodes 1-11 of Fire Force]

Fire Force is set in a new era of Japanese history known as the Solar Era where humanity began to fall victim to a plague. Random humans begin combusting into flames, turning into fire demons called Infernals. Combating the threat of the Infernals is the Fire Force, a unit of specially trained Fire Soldiers who are lucky enough to harness the fire inside them.

A new recruit to the 8th Company, Shinra Kusakabe, has just arrived in hopes of becoming a hero. Shinra has suffered the loss of his mother and brother, and the rest of his family turned their backs on him. They blamed him and his ability for their deaths and labeled him a demon for his nervous tick that paints a smile across his face.

Shinra Kusakabe, voiced by Gakuto Kajiwara

His squad is comprised of capable soldiers both pyrokinetic and not. Maki is a hand-to-hand proficient soldier with versatile control of flames whose strong-willed exterior hides the heart of a hopeless romantic. Next, Takehisa Hinawa, a straight-laced gunslinger who can control the gunpowder explosions within bullets.

Then we have Iris, a non-pyrokinetic sister of the church qualified to offer prayers for the souls of the former humans who need to be put down. Think of her as the moral center of the group. Finally, Captain Akitaru Obi, the charismatic leader who fights the infernals head-on despite lacking fire abilities.

Maki Oze, voiced by Saeko Kamijou

Together they welcome Shinra with open arms and fill him in on the ultimate mission of the Fire Force: discover the secrets behind the human combustions and put a stop to it. It’s the kind of lofty long-term plot set-up in the Shonen genre that makes one think “this is gonna take a while.” As such, the real drama anchoring the audience to the story comes from the little arcs throughout, something a cast like this one has a lot of potential for.

Let’s start with what I enjoyed. I would say that the first episode of Fire Force was a solid start. It establishes this very spiritual society that has placed its faith in the Fire Force to put our fellow people to rest when they turn into demons. It also does a great job of introducing the cast and their abilities, the main threat of the episode being large enough to justify seeing all of them in action a few times.

Akitaru Obi, voiced by Kazuya Nakai

Shinra’s past is also presented with such grim circumstances that I was instantly interested to see his rise as a hero. I wondered what kinds of hardships would he face and how will society see him? There was even some solid action throughout with plenty of heavy use of bass-boosted effects in the sound design. Ever since Jojo gained popularity, anime seems to be doing that more and more, from the SAO movie to the Fate franchise and I’m not complaining. I demand more.

However, after the first two episodes, I quickly began to fear that the story would start getting stale if they didn’t keep things moving along. From the outset, the story’s most engaging element was Shinra. The first three episodes focused mostly on him while also serving to further establish the world and a mysterious villain.

Takehisa Hinawa, voiced by Kinichi Suzumura

While not particularly engaged with these subsequent episodes, I wasn’t yet ready to make any hard judgment calls. It wasn’t until around episode four that I began to get mixed feelings. The audience is introduced to all of this internal struggling between the Fire Force companies and the execution leaves something to be desired.

There are suspicions that someone is engineering human combustions. Our heroes realize the leads they need are being held by another, morally nebulous company. Princess Hibana, the captain of the 5th Company becomes the antagonist of the arc.

The fact that there are internal struggles between the companies isn’t an inherently bad plot point. It did feel weird for the show to so quickly shift focus from the infernals as the chief threat to other humans, but it’s more thought out than at first glance. There is an episode later on where we see Hinawa and Obi meeting for the first time and starting the 8th. This is where it is established that there is a lot of dispassionate conduct among those working as fire soldiers.

This serves to inform Obi’s character and how he wishes to better serve society. It also establishes this nihilism in the world that justifies the purpose of the 8th fighting their own brothers in arms. In contrast, this earlier conflict centered on Hibana lost me because her motivations didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Iris becomes a bit more important to the plot, having been friends with Hibana in the past. This past is even heavily implied through the end credits. The two shared a traumatic moment in the past that caused them to grow apart because of differing philosophies.

As we see what unfolded, it’s easy to assume why Hibana grew distant from Iris. My issue is that Hibana’s apparent resolve in wake of that tragedy and her career path afterward don’t really correlate as well as the writer wants. It over-explains what could have been simply explained as a loss of hope.

Iris, voiced by Mao Ichimichi

Upon rewatching, I think I can appreciate it a bit more, if only for how the whole ordeal develops Shinra as a hero. There are some cute moments especially at the end that give a sense of how selfless and understanding he is of what kinds of pain turn people into villains. I could even see the long-term goal of the story being about the 8th unifying the Fire Force so they can finally stop the combustions. What holds all this back is how the story is told.

Yoshio Kozakai and Hideyuki Morioka are listed as the animation directors. As soon as I saw that both were animation directors on a few entries in the Monogatari series, a lot of things started to click. See, Monogatari has long thrived on the kind of direction seen in Fire Force. Lots of static shots of scenery and characters with minimal animation, but with an emphasis on artwork and plenty of occasional sakuga cuts.

However, what worked for Monogatari doesn’t necessarily work here. Granted, there is lots of beautiful imagery, and there was at least one moment each episode that begged to be turned into a wallpaper. Then again, there are times scenes will just cut away with seemingly no rhyme or reason, leaving me to wonder what the hell the point of the shot was.

Even in the first episode, I noticed some rather distinct jump cuts but I took it as a way to give a kinetic, yet economic presentation. For all I knew by that point, the pacing could have been blistering. As it has gone on though, the direction has created more awkward moments and the pacing was anything but quick.

The sound direction also suffers. I’m not talking about music, because I actually think the music is phenomenal and I’ll talk about it in more detail later. What I’m talking about is the presence of sound throughout the production. Some scenes lack music or any type of background sound, making them feel somewhat dead.

All of the faults in the direction can be felt in the comedy. At least for me, Fire Force has some of the worst comedic direction and timing I have ever seen. I’ll try to illustrate my thinking on this with two characters who I personally did not enjoy: Arthur and Tamaki.

The former has to be one of the blandest and uninteresting characters despite this attitude that they are supposed to be the really awesome work rival of the protagonist. His whole gimmick is that he models himself after King Arthur in attitude and aesthetic. He even calls his ability Excalibur, a hilt through which he channels his flames to create a plasma sword.

Arthur Boyle, voiced by Yuusuke Kobayashi

Cool sword aside, he left very little impact for me. Episode nine ended with a shot of him in a desert with no explanation and I can’t decide if I was angry to remember he existed or that they expected that tease to mean anything. It’s not like it was building up to anything, he was just as forgettable the next episode.

I’m being harsh for the sake of levity. To be real though, I wanted to like him, but he just didn’t do anything for me. Arthur is the kind of character who’s primary allure is their personality and humor, but I already didn’t find the show that funny. He’s supposed to be the airhead with a supremely awesome ability and sure, the ability is cool, but they build it up in really odd ways.

He spends one fight getting his ass kicked until he goes “whoops I’m right-handed, my bad” before just annihilating his opponent. It’s a spin on the trope of a hero defeating an opponent with ease, but the tension dispersal comes after a lengthy fight, making for a rather unsatisfying conclusion when it ends so quickly. The scene is more about hyping up his power level than trying to deepen him as a character.

What’s worse? The comedy itself falling flat, or poorly mixing said comedy with serious drama? See, the latter can be done well with the right director at the helm. Soul Eater’s Takuya Igarashi is very skilled at composing moments of character drama while injecting levity here and there. If you have a tonal dissonance, you can create some really aggravating scenes. This brings me to Tamaki, or more accurately, the arc in which she is heavily featured.

Tamaki Kotatsu, voiced by Aoi Yuki

First off, let me be blunt. Most of the time, I don’t give a FUCK about sexualization. A lot of people take issue with her because of fan service and those defending her portrayal often assume this to be the only problem seen with her. It ain’t mine, though. The sexualization is only an issue in that once again it is an example of poor comedic timing.

There is a recurring joke in which she has this almost supernatural bad luck with getting accidentally groped or having her clothes disappear. If she were a My Hero Academia character, I swear it would be her quirk. So, in the middle of an admittedly cool battle with an excellent dramatic soundtrack, Shinra just randomly falls into Tamaki’s breasts. Then he walks away but “oops for some reason I walked away with her skirt and now she has even fewer clothes.” It goes on for a time.

But see, this is the same episode where they go above and beyond to try and make you feel sorry for Tamaki and empathize with her. After all, she has mostly been hostile towards the protagonist before this point and the punishment she endures is pretty nasty. There is a long animation cut focused on her face during a moment of pause that was spectacular. The combination of her face contorting with such mixed emotions and the strained crying of voice actress Aoi Yuki was honestly incredible.

It’s even more heart wrenching with sound (Animation by Hideyuki Morioka and Yuki Matsuo)

See I get it when I see people on twitter respond to criticism of the sexualization with “then maybe anime isn’t for you” or “stop watching shonen.” The thing is, there are better shonen that have better characters and better comedic timing AND STILL have fan service (better fanservice too). Is it so bad to chastise this one for failing to connect me to a character?

As an adaptation that seeks to add motion and music to a story, it is the height of failure to conduct such a great moment but fail in keeping consistent. I get that this tonal divide isn’t always easy to create and it might have been better to just cut out the comedy altogether for this scene, but the method isn’t too hard to imagine.

In weaving together disparate emotional appeals, you want to take your audience on a roller coaster. Sometimes that means working your way down from the ledge to laugh. Other times the contrast is starker, but if there is a commitment to it and the overall tone has been built up to allow that to happen, all the better.

Most times a story will benefit from establishing their tone(s) within the earliest points of the show, letting it evolve over time if need be. Fire Force never really got a solid footing and if it did, it was for its more serious moments.

On the occasion that Fire Force dedicated time to placing a specific character in the spotlight, I was fairly enthralled. Obi and Hinawa had a strong episode to get to know them and Shinra gets more likable the more I reflect on him. The rest of them are more of a “wait and see” kind of deal, but I doubt I’ll be waiting.

I think that I generally have an issue with the way that Atsushi Okubo writes characters. They’re almost always beautifully designed, but can be one-dimensional for the longest time. It’s as if he believes that catch-phrases and running jokes are synonymous with character traits.

Arthur’s knight persona is just the tip of the iceberg. Shinra has this running joke where he will create some conjoined phrase followed by “Man” to describe himself when facing an opponent. Later, characters like Karim use take random words and string them together incoherently into sentences meant to be insulting. The joke is that he ends up confusing his opponents unintentionally. Thankfully as soon as the latter becomes an actual part of the plot he cuts that shit out.

If the direction or script had allowed for half of the scenes to actually be funny, I’d probably be sitting here struggling to explain in words how clever the dialogue is. Instead, I’m sitting here trying to explain what the hell these weird quirks are so you can understand what I’m getting at.

I think this sticks the knife in a bit more because Okubo’s stories don’t progress in a way that my attention. If the stories begin with a strong hook, they might deviate, getting caught up in the minutia of side-stories. The story isn’t progressing fast enough and the characters can’t compensate. That really sucks for me because the world has the potential to build on themes that would motivate captivating character growth.

Episode 11 actually excited me for the first time in several episodes. I realized that the coolest thing Fire Force had done besides the occasionally awesome sakuga cut was the culture of the world. Once nature seems to have made death frighteningly random, people adapt to this paradigm in spiritual ways.

Animation by Yuki Sato

Once people turn into infernals, their loved ones don’t just break down in grief but pray that they can be put down quickly. Episode 11 portrayed a culture that almost turns the killing of each infernal into a festival that celebrates the life of the one turned. They put their faith in the Fire Soldier who leads their village and see death at his hands as an honor. Fire Force looks at society’s response to mortality and the power of faith in keeping it functioning during times of crisis.

Fire Force was directed by Yuki Yase, whose only other directorial work I’m aware of is Mekakucity Actors. From what I’ve seen, it was an adaptation of questionable quality, particularly in animation during the TV airing. I’m not suggesting that Fire Force looks AS UNFINISHED as Mekakucity did, merely that hearing of Yase’s work put my disappointment into perspective. I have a feeling that this show wasn’t in his wheelhouse, given his reputation for working on Studio Shaft shows.

Some episodes did carry a heavy Studio Bones feel, but the animation direction and color design all feel like a show by Shaft. That’s not a bad thing since after all, style is subjective. However, it’s application here and how it contrasts with other episodes creates some minor inconsistencies. Whether it bothers you depends on your standard for overall animation quality, which could easily be catered to by this show’s high points.

Throughout what I watched, the effects animation was dazzling in exactly the places it should have, namely the fire. Memorable action was less often. I’ve been told that the manga’s battles are one of the best things about it and that the anime’s choreography in action leaves something to be desired. I think I would agree, though I’ll defend that the effects and music make them significantly better than they could have been.

The only soundtrack of Kenichiro Suehiro’s (Golden Kamuy, Re: Zero) I’ve heard previously was Space Patrol Luluco, a show that was charming in every way possible. Of the few bright spots I found in this show, his work was delightful and I look forward to the soundtrack’s official release. Fire Force also had a strong opening and an even stronger ending theme, which was sadly censored after the Kyoto Animation fire, but hasn’t lost any of its allure.

Despite such a cool concept, I don’t think I can continue watching Fire Force beyond the first half of its season. The direction, from its shoddy visual pacing to the tonal dissonance, made it hard to connect with the characters. The stories lacked a gravity to fully grab me and I found myself almost falling asleep during the minutia of certain episodes.

Fire Force may not have won me over but I can imagine there is something here for those willing to put in the time. The fact that Okubo could create so many different kinds of unique abilities, yet make them all fire abilities is beyond impressive. Combine that with some stellar character designs by Hideyuki Morioka and occasionally stunning artwork and you have an aesthetically pleasing experience, though one you might not fall in love with.

Fire Force is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll and FunimationNow

What did you think of Fire Force? Are you still watching? Did you even start? What shows are you most looking forward to this fall? Leave a comment below and tell me all your thoughts!

Next week I plan to discuss a work by one of my favorite directors and shine a spotlight on their career in the process. If all goes well, I’ll have weekly content at least until the end of October. When this streak will end is uncertain, but while it lasts, let’s savor it. Thank you for reading and I’ll see you next week.

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