Atsushi Okubo interview: Fire Force (Enen no Shouboutai) manga’s ending, Shinra’s character design discussed by creator at Anime Expo 2019

Shinra in Fire Force
We sat down with Fire Force manga creator Atsushi Okubo at Anime Expo 2019 to discuss themes, the manga’s ending, and how Shinra ties into the central mystery of the story. Pic credit: David Production

The Fire Force anime lit up audiences at Anime Expo 2019 during its premiere. Already, fans are enjoying the first several episodes of Enen no Shouboutai on streaming sites worldwide, but the story of Shinra Kusakabe has a ways to go based on the source material.

The story for the Fire Force anime is based on the Enen no Shouboutai manga by series creator Atsushi Okubo. If you don’t recognize his name you will recognize his previous work, Soul Eater, which was adapted into an anime several years ago.

Serialized since 2015 in Weekly Shonen Magazine, the Fire Force manga has been collected into 16 volumes so far. Here’s the official plot summary:

Year 198 of the Solar Era in Tokyo, special fire brigades are fighting against a phenomenon called spontaneous human combustion where humans beings are turned into living infernos called ‘Infernals’. While the Infernals are first generation cases of spontaneous human combustion, later generations possess the ability to manipulate flames while retaining human form. Shinra Kusakabe, a youth who gained the nickname Devil’s Footprints for his ability to ignite his feet at will, joins the Special Fire Force Company 8 which composes of other flames users as they work to extinguish any Infernals they encounter. As a faction that is creating Infernals appears, Shira begins to uncover the truth behind a mysterious fire that caused the death of his family twelve years ago.

Before meeting with the creator of the Fire Force manga, Monsters and Critics had a chance to attend the Episode 1 premiere during Anime Expo 2019. The presentation was provided by FUNimation which meant it included the Fire Force English dub since the series is receiving a simuldub streaming broadcast from FUNimation Now.

The Anime Expo 2019 panel with Atsushi Okubo and Megumu Tsuchiya

Following the Fire Force premiere of Episode 1, Okubo and Weekly Shonen Jump manga editor Megumu Tsuchiya were both asked multiple questions during a panel. The one thing about the anime that stood out to the manga creator was the way that the blue stripes of the uniforms came alive when animated.

In order to add contrast to the discussion, Okubo was also asked how he felt when he saw the first episode of Soul Eater many years ago (that question actually elicited boos from the crowd). Okubo had difficulty recalling his exact first impression, but he felt Fire Force was a different form of expression, especially with the light and the fire. That was really fresh and new in comparison to Soul Eater.

When Okubo was asked if he was having similar feelings or completely different feelings, he said his favorite scene was when Shinra did the jump-kick that made the booming sound.

“That to me was just so cool,” Okubo said.

Tsuchiya made everyone laugh by saying his favorite scene was the shower scene with the girls.

When asked if their favorite character changed by watching the anime, Okubo said he’s always liked Company 8 Commander Takehisa Hinawa but hearing the character voiced in the anime only solidified that choice. Tsuchiya likes Maki Oze because she’s calm and collected during a battle but in her mind, she’s a romantic.

They were also asked when they first heard that the Fire Force manga was receiving an anime adaptation and how they initially felt about that news. It turns out the project was a long time in the making since they were approached about doing an anime quite a while ago but “some things happened” so it took this long to be released.

This being the third anime adaptation of Okubo’s works, the previous anime, Soul Eater, was done with animation studio BONES, whereas the Fire Force anime is being done with studio David Productions. On this basis, Okubo feels like it’s a fresh experience and he’s looking forward to how the project unfolds.

As of Anime Expo 2019, Okubo had watched up through Fire Force Episode 4 and he personally felt that was his favorite as of that time. The character that shows up in Episode 4, Princess Hibana, seeing her moving and being animated was the most exciting part.

Tsuchiya highlighted Fire Force Episode 3 because a character named Joker will make an appearance and fight Shinra. The human vs human fight was done very well in the anime in his opinion.

Okubo was asked whether he considers the creation of an anime adaptation when he writes and illustrates the manga. In response, Okubo explained that he does not always have an anime in mind when creating manga.

At the same time, he first envisions anime-like sequences in his mind and he translates those images into manga, so it’s like a “weird full circle” of creation where it turns into an anime again (this description caused the audience to laugh). He also creates color panels for the manga volumes so he has a good grasp on how the characters will look animated.

As a manga editor, Tsuchiya felt (at the risk of sounding arrogant) the Fire Force manga was very easy to visualize as an anime because of the way Okubo breaks up the panels and adjusts the camera angle for each thing. For Tsuchiya, it was an easy transition to see Fire Force as an anime.

The manga creator and editor were asked which character they most related to personally. Okubo relates to Arthur Boyle because he’s an “idiot” and also the bad guy “because I think of some bad things sometimes, too.”

“He’s an idiot, too. And I think I’m an idiot,” Okubo explained. “Arthur, well, he’s just an idiot, so I figure there’s a lot of relatability there.”

Tsuchiya related to Shinra because of the way the character gets nervous and tenses up. For the record, Tsuchiya said he was very tense before coming up on the stage and he had a bunch of things he wanted to say but he wasn’t sure where they all went.

“I feel like we all have to learn from Shinra one thing is to smile even when it hurts,” the FUNimation rep said in agreement. “That’s something he’s very great at.”

Since Fire Force was the first manga and anime to use firefighters as the main theme, Okubo was asked what inspired him to use firefighters as the focus.

“The real heroes closest to us are the firefighters all around us. They’re the closest thing we have to a hero so I really wanted to create a manga that gives them the spotlight,” Okubo responded. “I think even if you’re in the fantasy world you’re still going to have fires, right, so who puts those out? That’s why we need firefighters in this fantasy world and they have to fight fires with fantasy powers.”

It was pointed out that in games like Pokemon you don’t fight fire with fire because it doesn’t make sense. You use water. Even in the Fire Force anime, the characters use water to combat the Infernals, so why is fire used as a power for the characters?

Okubo started his explanation by contrasting Fire Force against Soul Eater, which had a bunch of different powers. Every team was very well balanced with characters using ice, lightning, water, etc. and these powers all complement each other. In Soul Eater there’s a group that uses all thunder powers.

In real life, you have times where similar skill sets overlap in a team, so Okubo pondered pushing that idea further by having everyone fight with only one single power at the core. He wanted to create a battle manga that just used fire so the characters who can’t really master this power turn into Infernals, the fire zombies. Those who can control their powers are then in charge of controlling that. They are the firefighters of this fantasy world.

Since Okubo knows this world so deeply, he was asked what powers from the world he would want and why. Okubo said he liked the simple and straight-forward way that Shinra uses fire to fly around.

Tsuchiya, on the other hand, simply wants a lightsaber like that wielded by Arthur Boyle. The Japanese have a Samurai heritage so anything with swords is really cool.

Fire Force anime Enen no Shouboutai Arthur Boyle
Arthur Boyle’s lightsaber will probably make him a fan-favorite anime character. Pic credit: David Productions

Speaking of Arthur, the FUNimation rep believed there was a dynamic between Shinra and Arthur’s relationship that was quite different from other Shonen series. In other series, rivals will often try to trip up the other rival so they can cross the finish line first, but Shinra and Arthur have a more complementary relationship that’s supportive and helpful, which could be a considered a form of rivalry. In addition, the main character usually doesn’t have a lot of power whereas the main rival has a starting advantage, but that’s not the case with Fire Force.

So, Okubo was asked why he chose to do that. As it turns out, Okubo himself didn’t seem aware of the unique nature of Shinra and Arthur’s rivalry since he replied, “Well, it’s not uncommon for me to be oblivious to something when everyone else says, ‘You know, that’s kind of weird.’ Maybe it’s one of those.”

In regards to future anime episodes, Okubo was asked if there was anything he was looking forward to specifically. Okubo noted that there was a lot of unique firefighters showing up over the course of the anime. Company 8 is quite unique by itself but some of the other firefighting companies are even farther out there.

Finally, Okubo had a message for the fans, saying that he and the anime team have worked very hard so he hoped that everyone would be watching it. Tsuchiya said that normally as a manga editor he distances himself from the project but, in this case, with Fire Force, he turns into a fan every time he reads the manuscripts. The manga editor wants everyone else to feel that same excitement.

Fire Force Anime
The Enen no Shouboutai anime has a chance to be one of the anime of the year. Pic credit: David Production

The Fire Force interview

NOTE: Anime Geek was still part of Monsters and Critics at the time of this interview.

The day after the premiere, FUNimation set up the opportunity for Monsters and Critics to interview Atsushi Okubo in private with the help of a translator. Since so many common questions had been answered at the panel, we decided to build on that conversation by jumping straight into questions about thematic elements.

Monsters and Critics: The Special Fire Force is trying to unravel the supernatural mystery behind human combustion. This combination of firefighting and exorcism seemingly sets up the theme of Man vs Nature at the beginning. Do you see it as that way?

Okubo: The flames and protagonists, they are kind of both the main characters in this manga. Putting out fires and those types of things have been done a lot in live action so I wanted to have something different, which is what led me to human combustion.

Monsters and Critics: What do you see as the main overarching theme of Fire Force over the entire series?

Okubo: The overall theme will be life and protecting lives.

Monsters and Critics: There are religious overtones to how the firefighters deal with Infernals since members of the Holy Sol Temple pray for the souls of Infernals upon death. Where did these prayers come from?

Okubo: They are Infernals but they just used to be humans like regular firefighters and they are out to kill these sinless people, so to speak. I wanted to have prayer so the firefighters are not just out killing monsters.

Monsters and Critics: We feel sympathy for them [the Infernals] since they didn’t choose to be this way.

Okubo: Exactly. Right.

Monsters and Critics: Exorcism is usually related to Catholicism, so what made you invent a new religion for the story?

Okubo: In English-speaking countries, exorcism is usually directly related to Christianity, but even in Japan we have something similar to that. It’s just called differently. There will be similar ideas throughout the world so I wanted to combine them all.

Monsters and Critics: So, regardless of the culture, there will be similar ideas.

Okubo: Yes, I wanted to create something that can be related to by anyone in the world.

Monsters and Critics: Makes sense. Now, Shinra is derived from the Japanese word “shinrabanshō” which can be translated as either “all creation” or “all things in nature”. What is the meaning behind giving Shinra this name?

Okubo: The cause of human combustion is still a mystery. No one knows how it happens. This is happening from shinrabanshō and the protagonist Shinra is trying to solve this mystery through the concept of shinrabanshō. If that makes sense.

Monsters and Critics: So the concept of the main character himself is related to the concept of all things… 

Okubo: The shinrabanshō is kind of like that, too. All creation. So, we don’t know exactly what specific factor is causing that phenomenon.

Monsters and Critics: So, his name ties directly into the overall mystery of the story?

Okubo: Right. He’s the one solving that mystery.

Monsters and Critics: Shinra’s core primary motivation is to be recognized as a hero since he promised his family he’d become a hero before they died. Do you envision this primary motivation evolving or changing over time?

Okubo: It will change and evolve. In the beginning, Shinra’s motivation is a vague promise he made to his mother, but over time he’ll think about what being a hero really means.

Fire Force anime Enen no Shouboutai Shinra And Arthur Boyle Small
Shinra Kusakabe and Arthur Boyle. Pic credit: Atsushi Okubo

Monsters and Critics: A lot of fans see Shinra as having a rivalry with a fellow third-generation fire soldier named Arthur Boyle. This question came up yesterday during the panel. Now that you’ve had time to think about it…. since rivalries are common in shonen stories, do you plan on making this particular rivalry stand out from the crowd in a certain way?

Okubo: Shinra is a newbie at Special Fire Force Company 8 and the rest of the team is pretty much older adults. Having another character that’s a similar age to Shinra results in an interaction that feels more natural in comparison to how he acts with other characters in the team. That will probably stand out a lot.

Monsters and Critics: Shinra’s toothy grin is caused by stress but misunderstandings have led people to think he’s a psychopathic devil even though he hasn’t smiled for real in years. What inspired you to give Shinra this trademark smile; was it because of Soul from Soul Eater?

Okubo: I liked the toothy smile from Soul Eater, obviously, but in this series, Shinra is a firefighter so he’s not supposed to smile when he’s working. So I decided Shinra would have this nervous laugh and smile when he’s stressed out.

Monsters and Critics: Did the smile start with wanting to give emotional depth to the character of Shinra or did it start from wanting the smile to resemble the previous character Soul?

Okubo: I simply like to draw that smile but from there I thought of the emotional side of the smile and how it will give depth to the character. It’s kind of like a combination of both.

Monsters and Critics: I’ve heard that sometimes characters just happen to resemble each other and it’s not planned that way. I’m assuming that happens a lot in this industry where you enjoy drawing a certain type of archetype or style.

Okubo: Let’s say you picked anger as one of the emotions. Anger only means anger, but a smile can be a lot of different things. A smile can be played with since a person can be smirking or be really happy.

Monsters and Critics: A multitude of emotions. Speaking of distinctive physical features, Shinra’s “devil’s footprints” stand out. Why fire feet? Did Shinra’s design always start with fire feet or did that focus evolve over time?

Okubo: The focus is going to be solely on his feet. Shinra’s power is not going to move to other parts of his body. It’s always going to be his feet.

Monsters and Critics: The design has always been that way from the beginning?

Okubo: Yeah, because if he started shooting fire out of his other body parts that’d start to resemble other characters from different manga.

Monsters and Critics: [Laughs] All of a sudden Shinra is Endeavor from My Hero Academia. Have you mapped out the entire story for the manga with an ending in mind?

Okubo: I did have an ending in mind from the very beginning of the creative process, but it was not anything too set in stone. As I’m creating I’ll come up with different ideas to make the series interesting and fun. It is kind of flexible but my older manga stories also lead to the ending I had in mind from the beginning.

Monsters and Critics: As you fell in love with the characters did the characters themselves change how you are reaching that ending?

Okubo: [Laughs] Yeah, that happened.

Fire Force Manga Volume 16 Cover Shinmon Benimaru
The cover of Fire Force Volume 16 features the character Shinmon Benimaru who wears the gear of a traditional Japanese firefighter. Pic credit: Atsushi Okubo

Monsters and Critics: That’s awesome. About how far along in the overall story is the manga series now?

Okubo: Volume 16, which is past the midpoint.

Monsters and Critics: So, shooting for Volume 40? [Laughs] You never know.

Okubo: Probably Volume 30. It could change. [Laughs] But no more than 50.

Monsters and Critics: When you envision the manga you first see it as an anime in your head and then you draw it as still images only to have those sequences go full circle and become animated. From what you see in your head (when it’s like an anime in your head) how do you choose which individual moments to draw in the manga?

Okubo: I was inspired by anime. When I draw the Fire Force manga I have characters moving around in my head but to see it actually happening definitely inspires me.

Monsters and Critics: The manga has full-color drawings in the book volumes so the glowing appearance of the Blue Stripes was well-defined before anime production even started. Have any of the anime design decisions or colors surprised you?

Okubo: I thought it was beautiful. [Laughs] I like glowing blue in, like, anything in general. In manga, it’s black and white. When I see flowing blue in my head you really can’t see that in the manga so to see that animated was great.

Monsters and Critics: It’s beautiful, it really is. Yesterday, you mentioned that you watched up through Episode 4 and that means the episode is currently your favorite [because of seeing Princess Hibana animated]. What panel or story section from the manga are you most looking forward to seeing animated and why?

Okubo: There are so many scenes I would love to see animated, but I have to say there is a character named Rekka Hoshimiya. He’s a very interesting character so I would like to see him animated.

Fire Force Manga Character Rekka Hoshimiya
Rekka is skilled in karate and uses bursts of flames to augment his punches by launching his fists like a rocket. Pic credit: Atsushi Okubo

Okubo: There’s also [Company 7 battalion commander] Shinmon Benimaru. He’s like a traditional Japanese firefighter and I’m really excited to see how that will be received by U.S. fans.

Monsters and Critics: Does Benimaru’s design include the fan-like pole that traditional Japanese firefighters hold?

Yes, that’s the one. The one with the big fan.

Fire Force Traditional Firefighter Gear
Since the 17th century there have been Japanese professional firefighters called the hikeshi. They wore specially-designed coats using the sashiko weaving technique for durability.

Monsters and Critics: That’ll be amazing to see in action. Thank you so much for your time!

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