Fire Force‘s spectacle has already started, so let’s begin examining the director’s attempts to strengthen the material, the usage of amazing FX animation not just for action purposes but to build character, and just how the hell this many SHAFT staffers ended up joining David Production instead.
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Yuuki Yase
Chief Animation Director: Hideyuki Morioka, Yoshio Kozakai
Animation Direction: Hideyuki Morioka, Riki Matsuura, Yoshio Kozakai, Mayu Fujimoto, Orie Tanaka, Kazuhiro Miwa
Assistant Animation Director: Kazuhito Tominaga
Ace Animator: Kazuhiro Miwa
Main Animator: Hiroyuki Ohkaji, Riki Matsuura
Key Animation: Kazuhiro Miwa, Hiroichi Sato, Yutaka Fukaya, Shiori Tanaka, Yoshio Kozakai, Hiroyuki Ohkaji, Sumire Fukuzawa, Kazuki Baba, Norimasa Kanitani, Minori Homura, Mamoru Kurosawa, Yoshihiro Yoshioka, Mizue Ogawa, Nobuo Takahashi, Shinya Kameyama, Riki Matsuura, Chihiro Nishikawa, Yuki Nakajima, Yasuyuki Kai, Hisashi Tojima, Kiyomi Wada
After featuring the series in the long season preview and dedicating an entire article to the blessed circumstances that enabled Fire Force‘s anime to look as spectacular as it does, you’d think we’d be done with the series for a while. The answer is obviously not, since now we can talk more in-depth about those unique behind the scenes events we alluded to, plus we can actually show the results of everyone’s efforts without going to anime jail for revealing stuff we’re not supposed to. Enjoy this first – not really – post in a new regular series where we’ll cover the explosive intersection of artistic intent and production happenings, as we like to do!
Calling the animation Fire Force‘s main hook doesn’t feel overly reductionist. The series always had its following, as you’d expect from Atsushi Ohkubo‘s new gig, but the reason that this adaptation is turning heads immediately is the explosive animation. While we’ll gladly celebrate all that work too, it seemed unfair to strip all merit away from Ohkubo and series director Yuuki Yase. Since Ohkubo’s successes like his ability to make teams feel like families even without Soul Eater‘s immensely charismatic cast come into play a bit later, we’ll start focusing on Yase.
And honestly, you don’t actually need me to tell you that Yase spent about a decade working almost uninterruptedly as a director at SHAFT. For starters, because we’ve said it over and over, but more importantly, because it’s obvious just by looking at the episode. The tempo has that Shinbo school feel to it since the very start, alternating lingering gazes at the setting with fast cutting to the relevant events that introduce chaos and move the narrative forward. There’s a feeling of artificiality to his staging, in particular when it comes to the trademark cross-sections of buildings and the like that you’d constantly encounter in SHAFT titles. Contrary to what you might assume, though, these shots felt like the most emotionally sincere ones in the first episode, since they were mostly dedicated to isolating a newcomer to the group like Shinra who’d spent years being rejected because of his powers. This is very much how he felt – confined, often secluded. His road towards the feeling of belonging starts here.
Even when it comes to Fire Force‘s sense of humor, which I considered one of the biggest weaknesses of the source material, this adaptation is more likely to put a smile on your face after Yase’s intervention; the flow in and out the dreaded gag zone is more natural so there’s not as much dissonance, and jokes that were once a simple, barely humorous statement are now accompanied by corresponding visual gags. Seeing Yase do a satisfactory job with the less inspired material does give me more confidence about him tackling the more compelling bits of the manga.
And you know what happens to be integral to the Fire Force experience? Fire, duh. As we’ve mentioned before, the source material already found ways to differentiate everyone’s abilities despite them all being based around flames – a bit loosely in some cases, but that’s a fair concession to make that many powers sharing a theme feel diverse. Yase noticed Ohkubo’s efforts and decided to take it all to a whole new level by introducing further specialization: a fundamental divide in how regular fire, the Infernals’ flames, and the fire-based powers are depicted. So now there’s not only each character having their own style of 2DFX shapes, distinct timing of their flame animation, and different degrees of photorealism on their flames depending on the nature of their abilities, but also a more basic separation, so that the production team treats those 3 types of fire as different elements to start with.
When it comes down to it, that means natural fires are composited rather than traditionally animated; that might sound counterintuitive, and the results definitely aren’t the prettiest, but the higher photorealism does make it look more inert and by extension less artificial than the vivid magical flames. Infernals are more traditionally crafted, with raw bodies covered in flat-looking 2DFX without all that many textures, and attacks that show fire animation at its most violent. When it comes to the abilities of the special fire forces the range is much wider so it’s impossible to attribute them an identity, but that’s precisely the point – everyone’s abilities are meant to embody their own character. Ace animator Kazuhiro Miwa has already coded one of his own animation quirks – these impact frames – to Shinra’s flames, and since they happen to fit him so well, other animators are already following suit. Ideally, this balance would be kept: individual animators can do their own thing, but since the flames are an extension of the characters, some consistency in their behavior remains. In a show exempt of more traditional acting, these details go a long way.
I’m not trying to kid anyone here. The main appeal of having someone with Miwa’s tremendous skill level as your main animation asset is that you’ll get many fierce, highly kinetic action sequences, especially if his background animation is complemented with convincing 3D environments. The show has barely started and we’ve already gotten plenty of that! And yet I still feel the need to point at the smaller, more detail-oriented aspects to his work here that we’d never get if he was simply a guest without a full grasp of the characters. I mean, who else but your number one animator will draw creepy feet shaped flames for a tiny fraction of a second to fit the burn marks that made the protagonist infamous? Props to Miwa, and of course to the rest of the team for living up to his incredible level of proficiency and dedication to this series.
Fire aside, another aspect we put emphasis on while explaining the background of this production was that the massive influx of SHAFT members into David Production wasn’t a temporary decision for this project. Artists in this industry tend to come and go, so it’s possible that future David Production titles won’t reach quite this concentration of SHAFT-related talent, especially if they don’t have a director with as much experience at the latter studio as Yase does. As a general trend, however, it will not stop. Many members of SHAFT’s production team, which is to say people who were fully-fledged employees as opposed to creators affiliated to the company more loosely, now work full-time at David Production instead.
Fire Force‘s Animation producer Kousuke Matsunaga – the person who offered the director role to Yase in the first place – managed a handful of projects at SHAFT before quitting in late 2017 / early 2018 and joining David Production. His first role at the new company was gathering staff for a title this important, so who did he decide to trust to manage the process? People like for example Reo Honjoya, who worked alongside him at SHAFT and quit at the same time; as the project’s production desk, Honjoya will work to ensure the schedule stays as healthy as it is, while personally overseeing the making of individual episodes (like this premiere!) as a production assistant. Later down the line, we should be seeing the likes of Shou Sugawara, who followed the exact same trajectory as the aforementioned two before becoming Jojo Part 5‘s production desk. The fate of Fire Force rests on the hands of ex-SHAFT staff, in a very literal sense.
Truth to be told, a situation like this is pretty much unheard of. When so many creators and management personnel decide to embark on a new adventure together, it’s usually because they’ve settled on a specific vision together, so they’ll make a new studio to aim for that dream. And yet they’ve simply decided to join an existing studio, with a culture and goals of their own. This appears to speak volumes of the situation: it’s not that they left because of a shared objective, and obviously not because they didn’t enjoy working with their colleagues since they’ve all ended up together again, so it was simply the environment at SHAFT that pushed them away – sadly unsurprising, since they’d lost many key figures before this huge wave already. If you want a more optimistic reading on the situation, though, just think about all the cool artists that David Production stands to recruit!
And since we ended up talking about these miscellaneous (though very important for the studio’s future) matters, let me add something on a more financial level. In the Fire Force production backstory piece, we mentioned that the project had been quietly delayed, which led to some people asking a very reasonable question: how come the team was granted more time? Right about every TV production could do with an ampler schedule and yet they’re rarely given more time, especially if the production doesn’t find itself in critical trouble. So why did a project that was already going well get that extra time? The answer is that companies involved saw a potential net profit in doing so, of course.
While Fire Force‘s production running for a longer period of time likely meant they had to allocate more funds into the production, the committee stood to gain more with that quiet delay – and not just because making sure your action anime is tremendously polished goes a long way in landing an international hit. American licensing company FUNimation is part of that committee and also features executive producers and planning members in the project, meaning that they were involved since the very start and would have a say in important decisions like the broadcast. By delaying it and thus making sure a large number of episodes are already finished by the time it hits TV and streaming platforms, FUNimation can make their simuldubbing enterprises all that much more doable.
But would the Japanese side – and Chinese for that matter, as streaming company bilibili is in a similar position – be alright with that? Broadcasting station MBS happens to be in Fire Force‘s committee as well, and their needs aligned perfectly by chance; this summer season they’re expanding (in length and reach) their Animeism TV slot into Super Animeism, which they now can promote with a very fancy adaptation of the new series by a popular author. This almost miraculous set of coincidences sums up the project as a whole: a group of talented people happened to feel uncomfortable at their studio, they happened to gather at another company with better conditions, which happened to land a big project, which happened to be produced by companies that stood to gain by delaying the broadcast as opposed to rush things out as usual. You could try to replicate this magic, and 99 times out of 100, you’d fail. If you think that’s an exaggeration, ask the committee behind a certain bald man’s second punch.
Key Animation: Yuki Yamashita, Hiroyuki Ohkaji, Naoto Nakamura, Yutaka Fukaya, Yuki Sato, Yukio Okano, Riki Matsuura, Kazuhiro Miwa, Nozomu Abe, Yasuyuki Kai, Masahito Onoda
Storyboard, Direction, Animation, Painting, Background Art: Taiki Konno
Both opening and ending are attracting lots of attention too, so we might as well end with a quick look at the sequences and the staff behind them. Truth to be told, though, I find the OP to be a beautiful mess; Yase’s approach to action openings is clearly everything happens at all times, as recently seen on Fate/Extra‘s, but this mismatch between that frantic rhythm and the tune makes it kind of an awkward experience. That said, as a showcase of action, it’s a thrilling ride! Veteran Akitoshi Yokoyama brought over fantastic guests like 2DFX king Nozomu Abe, youngsters like Yuuki Yamashita took the chance to leave an imprint, while the main animators continued doing their thing; Riki Matsuura‘s globular explosions deserve a nod, because the timing’s super satisfying but also because it’s nice to see animators who struggled to get attention get so much love all of a sudden. The magic of a positive working environment! If there’s one star appearance I’m uncertain about, it’s Yasuyuki Kai – after showing up both here and in episode #01, will he stay as a regular, or return to the franchises he’s been involved with in the past? We’ll see!
In contrast to the dynamic but not all that cohesive opening, the ending footage is perfectly married to the tempo and tone of the song. The reason why this sequence comes together so well is obvious: Taiki Konno singlehandedly produced it all. He handled the direction and storyboarding of course, every animation step, plus coloring and backgrounds – so everything but the compositing, which followed his guidelines anyway. I’ll refer everyone who needs an introduction to Konno’s background and his unique flair to this profile we published nearly two years ago, but it’s worth noting that some things have changed since then. Konno also broke his ties with SHAFT to join his friends at Studio Colorido’s new sub-unit Team Yamahitsuji… but since Colorido didn’t have all that much to do – something that’s about to change as their unannounced theatrical project is moving forward – we get to enjoy his work alongside another old comrade of his. It was under Yase’s direction that Konno first stood out, so it makes sense for him to reach the next stage working with him again.
Rather conveniently, Konno’s sequence sums up most of the aspects he excels at, even if he didn’t get to sneak in as much traditional Japanese painting as in previous outings. His illustrations in the first half capture the warmth of Iris’ memories, which keep her trapped just as much as the incident we see cruel, painterly traces of. His much more elaborate take on the designs stands out immediately, more so when it comes to depicting women’s bodies; after watching these cuts, it won’t surprise you to hear that Konno has published a few books focusing on… the beauty of the female form in many shapes, let’s say. Sensuality aside, though, it’s that understanding of the body that allows him to put together sequences like this: economical from an animation standpoint, only using silhouettes to boot, and yet evocative of her anxiety in a more convincing way than more extravagant cuts could ever dream of.
Although Konno’s used to working by himself, creating a sequence of this caliber on his very first try is even more proof that he’s something special. Even if Fire Force isn’t quite your thing, you can look forward to whatever the future holds in store for him!