Quote, of course, from the inimitable @dril
It is sadly possible that before long I will be intensely frustrated with Fire Force, because the things I liked about its first episode are things that will probably end up less prominent, and there is a whole fascinating world of things I will not like lurking in the wings unless it lives up to some interesting foreshadowing and pulls off some good revelations. But nevertheless the first episode has spectacular energy to it, combining great aesthetics of combat, a visually impressive setting and a concept that is simple, elegant and effective for setting up an ensemble-cast superhero series. It is not far removed from a Super Sentai series (or perhaps even more like Rescue Fire or one of the Metal Hero series like Winspector) – a team of heroes themed around the emergency services fight monsters related to their specialisation. In this case, in the distant future(?), people often explode into flaming skeletons and it falls to the FIRE SOLDIERS to kick the skeletons to death and shoot them with guns.
This is not an ambitious concept. It will probably be a very entertaining setup for some interesting fights as an array of wizard firefighters develop new and exciting ways to beat up flaming skeletons and other demons. This all sounds very dismissive, but really Fire Force is going for a very specific thing, and doing it with a lot of visual style, and what makes it worth watching compared to other superhero anime is that visual spectacle. The art design makes a lot of the high-visibility strips on a firefighter’s uniform as a unifying blue design set against the bright orange of burning buildings – blue against orange is a fairly common hot/cold aesthetic contrast, and it is thematically appropriate in a series about fire. On top of this, the different characters add neat thematic touches to their uniforms to highlight their individual superpowers, which strengthens my comparison of it to a sentai team. But there’s another, equally impressive aesthetic dimension to the series – its world. Episode 2 builds on it slightly more by having the industrial, artificial world painted orange while the heroes stand in blue and black against that backdrop. There’s an awful lot of conscious and very good design choices here that develop the themes of the series, and that’s keeping me watching.
The architecture combines chaotic early/mid-20th-century industrial aesthetic with fantastical elements including a pervasive religious theme (as the story is about fire demons manifesting in the world). I was immediately reminded (to an extent) of something like Full Metal Alchemist in how the retro-industrial styling is used to give an unspecific historical and cultural tone despite it ostensibly being a fantastical Tokyo. And, indeed, Fire Force brings together no shortage of styles for its heroes from stereotypical witches to muscular warriors and even a traditionally-dressed nun. Indeed, the jargon of the fantasy world – “Fire Cathedral” instead of “Fire Station”, for example, gives this the sense of a society of industrialised, mechanised demon hunting right from the start. Honestly, once again, religious or pseudo-religious demon-hunter organisations are not a new fictional concept, but accepting that what we have here is something running with a simple, effective idea with great energy and a keen eye for visual design is key to enjoying it. So why, then, do I not think my interest will last? Well, visual glitz often declines once a series settles in to regular programming; opening episodes and credits sequences are generally high points compared to most of a series.
The characters themselves are generally broad archetypes but executed well. But at the same time this is where my having watched a lot of sentai and Kamen Rider starts making me wonder how well the energy will last, and the warning flags begin settling in. An ensemble series is carried by all the cast members, and if Fire Force doesn’t succeed in this aspect then it will suffer. Archetypes played without much of a twist or without extremely good writing of those archetypes tend to stop being interesting before long. And my great concern is how well the women of the team will be written, and how much agency in the combat they will have. Obviously the strength of a female character should not be purely defined by her combat capability, but in a series where the heroes form an elite demon-hunting team it would be nice if the women retained a central position in that aspect and weren’t just the obvious sidekicks.
It’s too early to say for sure whether this will be a problem, but the fact it has been a problem in other shows of this ilk and the fact the most notable scene involving them in the first episode was in a shower suggests a slightly tiring thirst on the part of the writing. And, my initial response to the nun character was I hope she gets to do something more than be moral and spiritual support for the team because that doesn’t really fly as a good character unless there is significant plot significance to that role. It’s a case of a decision that’s thematically fitting in the pseudo-religious aesthetic, but also a bit of a waste of a character and a lazy stereotype. Episode 2 has Maki, the main fighting woman, be talked up by the older men as a pro and a ruthless fighter, and gives her a fight against the cockier younger men where she roundly defeats them, but at the same time it’s once again very tiring writing that doesn’t really take her beyond “strong woman who is a victim of casual sexism because her strength is unfeminine and who responds with comically over the top violence.”
There’s probably more you could do here, and hell, even Super Sentai (which skews much younger than this) has tried some different personality types in its female rangers. And after this moment that rather lays out Maki’s archetype, the rest of the episode – the good chats about morality and the nature of demon killing – is once again the place of the men offering paternal advice to the boys. Even if the group’s spiritual supporter is to remain that, it would have at least built on her role as the religious voice to have her deliver the speech Obi does about laying possessed souls to rest.
Episode 2 is significantly more ambitious than episode 1, though, because it does have that moment of moral introspection and goes straight from an action-packed opening promising exploding skeletons to not even a real fight, a reminder that this is just a very strange and unpleasant setting. All Fire Force needs to do it keep hitting this level of reserved tone, this level of strong speechwriting, and let every character move beyond their archetype. The ending credits suggest there is more to how the setting’s organisation employs women than these early stories are letting on – and this is why the tone of my criticism should not be understood as this show is bad because, two episodes into a longrunning story, it has not given female characters enough screen time. Instead I mean unless it lives up to the interesting potential characterisation being promised contextually from the setting, from the good writing on display, and from the strange ending sequence, I will probably lose interest.