Anyone who followed anime and manga through the Noughties will be familiar with the "Big Three": the shonen franchises of One Piece, Naruto and Bleach that dominated the popular manga scene for the entire decade and for the better part of the years either side of it too. While the "Big Three" may be a Western concept - Japan does have other evergreen franchises, as even if Case Closed never caught on well over here the original Detective Conan is still going strong back home - Japanese audiences do still recognise the commercial importance of what Futaba posters call the "Holy Shonen Trinity". Yet even the tallest mountain erodes away after enough time, and like a interminable tournament arc eventually reaching the final bout the Big Three have fallen away to the Great One (Piece). Bleach screeched to a halt very suddenly and unceremoniously with an ending that everyone agreed was so rushed and abrupt for a manga that had been trundling along for fifteen years that there must have been behind-the-scenes ructions bigger than those between Konami and Hideo Kojima to get the guillotine slammed down so hard. Naruto benefited from better editorial support, organisation and planning and once it had come to its end it slid smoothly into the next generation with its sequel manga Boruto; but hopes that a spring-clean would refresh and revivify the series have been disappointing. Boruto is currently selling around 400,000 copies per volume: a cliff-face drop of over two-thirds from Naruto which was easily vaulting over a million copies per volume right up until its conclusion. While at an individual level 400,000 copies is still a stupendous bestselling figure that most writers would gladly chew their own arms off to attain, on an industrial scale it represents a worrisome weakening of the backbone that bears up the whole manga economy - in both the East and the West - that has got to be making executives nervous.
It's no surprise then that intrepid licensors have been questing across the yellowing paper canyons of manga archives seeking the shining grail of the Next Big Thing. It was for a while going to be Attack on Titan but that turned out to be a false prophet as the producers took their eye off the ball and Studio Wit had to waste years marking time with Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress; by the time they returned to Attack on Titan the buzz had drained away. My Hero Academia has been touted as an alternative but although Shonen Jump magazine even featured a special comic where the lead Izuku received the Olympic torch in a relay from Naruto to Dragonball Z's Goku the manga's only just about getting Boruto-scale sales - good, but not enough. As Dan identified in his review of Black Clover there was also a palpable sense behind the heavy marketing push of that series that some people are really insistent that we are to accept it as the next Naruto - unfortunately the laughably bad voice-acting of the hero has knocked out its momentum (even 4chan are admitting through clenched teeth that the dub is better than the sub, and if you look outside you'll see rivers flowing uphill and cats & dogs living together) and the misguided attempt to repeat the same weekly format will undoubtedly weigh it down to a stop. We live in a world of fractured, on-demand media and the seasonal box set - people don't tune into Toonami week to week the way they used to and won't sit through the filler just because the routine has already been inculcated into them like in the 366 episodes of Bleach broadcast before its anime ended in 2012.
Can there be another great shonen title like the others of the past generation? While I was cleaning up all the detritus from Guy Fawkes' Night last weekend the smouldering remains of the bonfire reminded me of a title that's actually been on our shelves for a quite a while already but doesn't seem to have attracted much attention before now: Fire Force, the next project of Atsushi Okubo who was the mangaka of the successful Soul Eater. Is Fire Force the can of gasoline we need to put fire back in the engine of the manga industry, or is it only going to sputter as a damp squib?
The world of Fire Force is one that would surely drive a Health & Safety inspector to drink. No matter how many risk assessments you complete and how many draft-excluding doors you install, you cannot manage the threat of spontaneous human combustion. Far from being the preserve of National Inquirer and Sunday Sport-level cranks, in Fire Force spontaneous human combustion is an all too real and all too immediate threat. Anyone, anywhere, at anytime, for any reason, could instantly erupt into flame and there is nothing that can be done to prevent it - everyone in the world is quite literally a ticking time bomb. What makes it even worse is that anyone who succumbs to spontaneous human combustion doesn't just burn himself to ash but is transformed into a blazing fire demon, blind with pain and mad with fury, that will rampage to incinerate everything around it - an Infernal!
The world hasn't been burned to ashes yet because fortunately there is a way to contain the Infernals, through the Fire Force of the title - a special branch of the fire brigade which doesn't just douse flames but cools the tormented souls of the original victim still trapped inside the Infernal to guide them to the afterlife, while suppressing their demonic conflagrations with magical powers and secret technologies. The Fire Force are saviours to all, and their latest recruit is a callow youth, Shinra Kusakabe. His entire family were consumed by an Infernal while he was still a child, and he's determined to become a new hero of the Fire Force to solve the mystery of what's causing spontaneous human combustion - and smother that fire at the source!
The art style of Fire Force is an interesting one that seems relatively uncommon in manga - the midpoint between steampunk and cyberpunk, an aesthetic that some people call dieselpunk. Not the the elegant brass-bright filigree of steampunk's wistful Victoriana, nor the dizzying jacked-in superhighway rush of cyberpunk's lawless digital frontier, but the grimier chokes of pipes and riveting built into industrial piles and Roaring Twenties steel, lit not by delicate gas lamps or buzzing flourescent tubes but the actinic arc-surge of bare filaments. Dieselpunk is a suitable backdrop for Fire Force - firefighting is after all a pretty sooty business! The very fact that there is a backdrop anyway is a positive factor, too - cranked out at double-time to meet a weekly deadline as they are many shonen series are notorious for completely omitting backgrounds (culminating in the infamous "The Heart" page of Bleach), but while Fire Force certainly has plenty of blank white space of its own I'd say it actually puts a lot more effort into its setting and mise-en-scene than most other titles in its class.
Costume design is also interesting. Keeping up the firefighting theme of the manga the "Fire Soldiers" of Fire Force suit up in 'bunker gear' to fight the Infernals and it's chunky, solid kit that feels well-worn, doughty and practical for fierce battling and it sports plenty of detail too. One thing I was a bit wary of at first was the semi-religious nature of the Fire Force - many members are clerics of the 'Holy Sol Temple' which prays for the souls of humans trapped inside Infernals - and while I would have thought that mashing together big red fire-trucks with a pseudo-Catholic church would be an ungainly ill-fitting mess it actually works astonishingly well! Thick turnout coats and tight flash hoods are a smooth seamless analogue to habits and veils. It's really smart design.
The characters themselves stand out too. Okubo is transporting his style from Soul Eater very much in its entirety so there are no significant departures or real visual surprises for anyone who's read his previous work, but that's still effectively lively, bright and expressive. The hero Shinra has an interesting nervous tic where he grins when he's worried - it's drawn well, you can see a savage knife-edge crinkling up involuntarily in jagged jumps, and it adds a bit a depth and ambiguity to the usual shonen-protagonist gutsiness - it makes everything from catching an upskirt glimpse (where you don't know if he's excited or embarrassed) to fighting an Infernal (where you're not sure if he's eager or scared) more interesting. In the finest traditions of the Anime Battle Nun, from Chrono Crusade's Rosette to Cardfight Vanguard's Cocoa, the shy and demure Iris nonetheless musters to the alarm bell in an outfit with a devastating slit running right up her thigh. It's an achievement of some genius in Okubo's artwork that Iris can be absolutely smothered in heavy flame-retardant gear but with just a cut here and a tuck there he can still make her look underdressed!
As the above suggests there's a bit of light-to-moderate fanservice scattered throughout Fire Force. The girls dutifully strip off for one regulation shower scene per volume, but while they unroll plenty of soft yielding curves to slide your eyes down it only leads to Barbie anatomy so other than one panel of half a backside in volume 1 there's been no nudity in all of the three books that I've read. Another girl also has what she calls her "lucky lecher lure" magical power, in that whenever she wants to catch or distract someone she'll tumble into them so they can't help but end up fondling her in true accidental-pervert, eek-baka-hentai! tradition. It's left a bit vague about whether this 'lucky lecher lure' is a deliberately-activated ability where she willingly sacrifices her dignity for the sake of the team, or it's a bit of a mordant running joke about her persistent misfortune, which like Shinra's inappropriate smiles puts a bit of twist to keep your attention so you don't breeze over these overly-familiar publishing staples. All in all Fire Force seems to strike a good balance between sweetening the meal with a bit of eye-candy without oversaturating it into pure ecchi territory.
Moving the flavour from sugar to savoury, the fight scenes of Fire Force also bring an interesting suite of abilities to the field as Shinra and his Fire Soldier comrades have fire-manipulating powers of their own. Shinra's hot feet, where he runs so fast he literally starts burning rubber as his shoes melt, is an great energetic and physical ability for a shonen hero to stay in the thick of things and get up close. Other characters also show off a great deal of variety and while one wields a legally-safe lightsabre in the form of a plasma jet, that's the only really conventional application these three volumes have: other characters show off a great deal of imaginative variety that's far more diverse than just casting fireballs. From being able to control bullets by using sparks from ricochet impacts, to a fire mage actually having ice powers thanks to a barmy convolution of thermo-acoustic engines, they're all outright daft and contrived but it's impressive and fascinating just how much mileage can be made out of just one fire-magic concept.
The art of Fire Force is fine throughout and really the only thing that could be better are the Infernals themselves. Their introduction in the first chapter is great, as the monsters lurch as walking clouds of crumbling cinders, but this was evidently too detailed and time-consuming to draw for a weekly manga - mangaka can take their time over the 'pilot episode' of chapter one but once the series is confirmed and the regular publication schedule kicks in the Infernals just become plain black shadow-people after that, which is a bit of a shame.
This is not a great problem but only because it's obscured by another one, in that despite its setup Fire Force doesn't spend a great deal of time fighting Infernals - indeed over half each of volume 2 and 3 are spent kicking over rivals in the Fire Force instead! It's a problem that the overarching plot of Fire Force kicks in far too quickly - I wouldn't have minded being able to spend more time with some straightforward filler-y monster-of-the-week episodes just to let the concept bed in, but before the end of volume one we're off to the races with others seeking to use the Infernal outbreak for their own nefarious deeds. Shinra just so happens to find out that he's randomly enlisted in a secret Internal Affairs division of the Fire Force dedicated to exposing underhanded goings-on in the other Fire Force companies - it would have been far more interesting Shinra and has new friends to be regular troopers who tripped over a loose thread and pulled it to unravel a conspiracy. If this was planned to be the focus of Fire Force then making the characters amateur sleuths finding out things during downtime around their regular duties would have given the series a more investigative slant, introduced dilemmas between balancing work responsibilities and moral urgings, and infused the plot with a scrappy improvised underdog status that's better for a shonen manga (which after all are about building yourself up from nothing) than getting a teacher's-pet stamp of official approval for everything. Seeing as the characters' special status as investigators only comes up a few times in dialogue it could even be achieved with very little rewriting too.
I'm not too happy with the plotting of Fire Force but the writing around it is better. It strikes familiar shonen beats - like Simon punching out Rossiu in Gurren Lagann, just give the cynical villainess a good hearty smack in the kisser to turn her from heel to babyface and have her join the goodies' team - but the marks are hit squarely and confidently. Dialogue's decent, there's even a bit of fun in the relationship charts commenting on each character's foibles in the story-so-far sections that open each volume and there are surprisingly detailed translation notes for a shonen manga too which extend into a commentary on the manga's action and even talk about the end-of-volume omakes as well. It can strike a surprisingly mature tone too. Back in Japan Fire Force is published in Weekly Shonen Magazine and it serves to illustrate that while we English speakers tend to rather plainly translate the shonen/shoujo/seinen/josei manga demographics as boys/girls/men/women, the Japanese understanding is a bit broader - although a shonen publication Weekly Shonen Magazine is more for a university-age audience. Whereas Soul Eater did have ghosts and ghouls it was always tempered by its Halloween-y setting, but Fire Force is blunt about people dying and being killed throughout. Infernal attack sites are littered with charred corpses; there's one scene where a schoolgirl arrives home asking what's for dinner, only to realise the smell of home cooking is actually her father spontaneously combusting, which was so utterly barbaric I gave a shocked disbelieving laugh at the sight of it. However, while 'mature' is an ambiguous word it doesn't have to mean 'adults-only' and Fire Force falls on the more restrained side of the term, not showing off blood'n'guts but instead taking the time for more thoughtful interludes on the Fire Force's ministering role in quieting tormented souls trapped in the Infernals and the implications that has for comforting the bereaved. There also still remains plenty of light-hearted levity around these scenes too to ensure they don't become too heavy; much like the art, the writing strikes a good balance too.
Fire Force is a successful shonen series. The high-concept makes for a good hook, and it follows through with distinctive art for lively battles which lightly hop from playful to serious without becoming too frivolous on the one hand or ponderous on the other. It's an easy, fun read and these opening volumes have definitely stoked the furnace to power more adventures to come.