Back when Tatsuki Fujimoto exploded into the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump with Chainsaw Man late last year, most of us were taken by surprise. But there were some that were not. Those were the people who had somehow already consumed Fujimoto’s debut work, Fire Punch.
Finding out about Fire Punch must have been a hard task. The series was published between 2014 and 2018 exclusively via Shueisha’s digital Jump Plus service, and only unofficial fan translations were available until very recently. Not to mention the fact that Fujimoto had only just made his one-shot debut a couple of months prior – meaning that the series lacked the star power that something like Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru is able to use to its advantage.
Since then, things have changed quite dramatically. Jump Plus has come into its own as a service with two hit series, Fire Punch has also been picked up for an official translation by VIZ Media, and Tatsuki Fujimoto is now practically a household name thanks to the success of Chainsaw Man. With the final volume of VIZ’s translation set to hit both store shelves and the Shonen Jump service on 15 October, perhaps it’s finally time to check out Tatsuki Fujimoto’s explosive debut.
Dark, Dark and Darker
It must be said that Fire Punch is not for the faint of heart.
The series starts off with a scene of a child cutting off his own arm with an axe, and things hardly stop from there. Incest, rape, slavery, torture, murder, suicide… it’s all in here and accounted for, so much so that VIZ Media has marked the series as strictly 18+ only, meaning that you can’t access it from the Shonen Jump app.
Far from just the content of the series, the overarching story of Fire Punch is remarkably bleak. The story takes place on what seems to be Earth, which has been beset by an eternal winter, supposedly at the hands of an evil figure named the ‘Ice Witch.’
The Ice Witch is a ‘Blessed’ with the powers of ice, other kinds of which populate the story. Our main character, Agni, is a Blessed with the powers of regeneration, who lives alongside his similarly gifted sister in a small village where they use their regenerative powers to feed the community with their own flesh.
When a group of soldiers from the city of Behemdorg led by a Blessed named Doma comes into contact with the village, however, all of that quickly changes. Disgusted by their cannibalistic ways, he decides to destroy them all with his fire powers that do not extinguish until their fuel, in this case, human bodies, turns to ash.
Death by Doma’s hand, however, is a fate too kind for our protagonist, Agni. Instead, when Doma’s never-ending flames come into contact with his ever-regenerating body, he manages to survive. With his entire community massacred and his beloved sister dead, Agni vows revenge while his body continues to burn… Fire Punch is born.
All of that setup is contained almost entirely within the first chapter, and I must say that it is one of the bleakest openers to any manga I’ve ever read. It makes Berserk look like Beatrix Potter.
Luckily, Tatsuki Fujimoto seems very aware that too much relentless darkness can often become tiresome after a while. Those who have read Chainsaw Man will be very aware of how he attempts to remedy this problem: lots of humor, and crude humor at that.
Our main source of humor in the story comes when Agni (aka Fire Punch) comes into contact with the sadistic, perverted character of Togata. She’s a regenerative Blessed just like Agni, but has seemingly lost her mind after being alive for over 300 years. She’s also obsessed with movies, particularly western ones, and sets out to make a movie with Agni as the main character.
Fujimoto was right to conclude that humor was needed to offset the darkness of his story. Togata and Agni’s antics give a real heart to the otherwise overwhelming darkness, as humanity struggles with the question of its continued survival. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that the inclusion of Togata’s character saves the story from turning into a self-righteous edgefest.
There are, however, several other decisions that Fujimoto takes that turn the story in the right direction. Very early on, there are hints that the world is not what it seems, and throughout the course of Agni’s adventures, we learn the truth about the current state of the world, the reason why the ‘Blessed’ exist, and what the future of humanity might be. The story also presents a very tasteful take on LGBT and trans issues, which once more give some real heart to the otherwise heartless story.
Some have criticized Fire Punch for being a self-indulgent dark fantasy, but I’d argue that Fujimoto’s decisions over the course of the series turn it away from such a fate and turn it into anything but. My experience with the series isn’t something I’m going to forget any time soon, because of its overwhelming darkness and humorous emotional core. Furthermore, when considering the interesting ideas that Fujimoto presents through the character of Agni, we begin to see that Fire Punch is perhaps a little more thoughtful than it seems at first sight.
Agni: The Hero?
After the destruction of everything he holds dear at the hands of Doma, Agni is given one purpose: kill those responsible.
In the first instance, this is obviously the man who instigated the attack and consigned him to his cruel, never-ending fate: Doma. However, as we quickly discover, things aren’t exactly what they seem.
It takes Agni eight years to hone his regenerative powers to the point where he can deal with and control Doma’s never-ending flames, which constantly tear apart his body, by which point things have changed just a little bit.
Agni makes his way to the city of Behemdorg after an encounter with the electricity-type Blessed named Sun to carry out his revenge, only to find out that Doma has now become an old man, racked with guilt for the terrible things he’s done, including destroying Agni’s village. Rather than put up a proper fight, he begs Agni for forgiveness.
In this sense, the goal of the hero of our story is at once revealed to not be as righteous as it once seemed. At this point, killing Doma would be satisfying for neither the reader nor Agni, as he clearly regrets his actions and is trying to make amends for them. But what is the hero without a goal? Aren’t we reading the story because we’re rooting for Agni and his success? Then again, what makes a hero and a villain, a protagonist and an antagonist?
It must be said that the idea that a shonen protagonist might be neither perfectly righteous nor perfectly sane is not a new one. I already mentioned Berserk, but Kentaro Miura has been doing this for over 30 years with the character of Guts. A more recent example comes in the form of Eren Yeager from Attack on Titan, who is on a very interesting moral trajectory as of the time of writing.
Still, I always enjoy seeing this kind of dilemma play out in a story. It helps us realize that morality is always subjective and that the idea of a righteous hero protagonist always comes from a certain ideological and subjective viewpoint. Furthermore, it’s interesting to see Shueisha publishing this kind of story, even if in their more low-key Jump Plus service, as it directly addresses the motives of many of the characters of their stories across their 50-year history.
Given this context, Tatsuki Fujimoto also makes the very smart choice of combining Fire Punch’s meditation on the shonen protagonist and subjective morality with the idea of projected and assumed roles, suggesting that the hero is only heroic because those around them, including the reader, assume them to be.
Fujimoto starts the story of Fire Punch with the prophetic words: ‘The freezing masses yearn for fire.’
Obviously, this has a more direct meaning within the context of the story, as those living in the world of Fire Punch literally struggle every day to obtain warmth in the frozen hellscape that Earth has become.
But this also has a more symbolic meaning. Throughout the story, Agni’s blazing form is constantly contrasted with the freezing white landscape, which elevates his character design for not just the reader, but also the characters within the story.
The misery that many characters in the story have faced on a day-to-day basis because of the elements is enough for them to wish for a savior, a hero and a God to come and save them. Agni, with his tremendous power and magnificent, blazing form against the desolate landscape, seems to be, for all intents and purposes, all three.
In this sense, Fujimoto suggests that the hero can only truly become a hero when others perceive them to be; a perception that is inevitably linked to their material reality. If Agni wasn’t a blazing ‘matchstick man’ among a frozen landscape, it’s therefore unlikely that he would have become the hero that the story and the characters both need him to be.
But there is also a twisted side to this relationship. Even someone who is not a hero can be forced into the role of a hero if the masses will them to be, which is exactly what happens to Agni over the course of the story.
Agni’s realization early on in the story that his righteous cause might not be so righteous, but rather selfish and outright destructive, creates a dissonance between his true self and his assumed self: the hero named ‘Fire Punch’ that the inhabitants of the world wish him to be.
This manifests itself as a split personality delivered through dream sequences, which unfortunately leads to some of the series’ most frustrating aspects.
In general, I’m not a big fan of the way that shonen manga often use split personalities. Such series as Black Clover use it as a lazy way to visually represent a character’s fatal dilemma instead of having the character themselves emote it and live it in a more subtle and engaging way.
In many ways, Fire Punch commits the worst crimes that this style of storytelling offers. A demonic version of Agni begins to face him in a literal confrontation between the ideas of good and evil, which leads to quasi-dream sequences that are often left confusingly vague as to whether they are real or not.
But this is easily the worst part of Fire Punch, and given how many other, more interesting ideas Tatsuki Fujimoto offers up through his storytelling, I’m inclined to forgive this transgression. Furthermore, when comparing Fujimoto’s debut work with Chainsaw Man, it becomes clear that Fire Punch shows the author at his most creative.
Fire Punch in Context
Don’t get me wrong. I love Chainsaw Man and I look forward to reading it every week when it launches on VIZ Media’s Shonen Jump service.
Nevertheless, I have been slightly frustrated by the series as of late. Gone is the furiously primal, relentless energy of the initial chapters in favor of a more structured approach, where arcs are clearly defined and the future of the narrative largely choreographed.
To a certain extent, I understand why Tatsuki Fujimoto has done this. He’s finally managed to get a series in Weekly Shonen Jump four years after his debut, and he’s not about to give up his place just yet. Structure and consistency are, therefore, key to ensuring longevity.
Reading Fire Punch, however, shows that Weekly Shonen Jump perhaps isn’t the best fit for Fujimoto’s twisted mind.
Fire Punch does have a structure, even clearly indicating a name for each arc as it begins, but what is contained within each arc is far from predictable. Shortly after Agni becomes ‘Fire Punch’ at the beginning of the story, we’re whisked away to a flashback that then gives way to the introduction of a gung-ho Blessed named Sun, and then we’re away to the introduction of the madcap Togata.
The content of each chapter also widely varies. One moment Fujimoto is sketching out gory battle scenes that use superpowers just as much as they use martial arts before we’re watching the behind-the-scenes of a fictional movie that may or may not become the final movie of humankind. At one moment, your belly hurts from laughing at how loveably stupid Agni can be before recoiling at the twisted barbarity of Behemodorg or simply of humanity itself.
Each panel is also a delight to behold. Fujimoto’s art contained within is brilliant, balancing unique character designs with highly detailed scenery, but it is his eye for cinematic visuals that really deserve special attention. Often, key scenes will be delivered with no dialogue or text at all, just characters’ expressions and their movement.
This is also a treat to behold, alongside other moments when Fujimoto uses unique panel placements to denote certain feelings, such as simultaneity and the passage of time.
Fujimoto’s art in Fire Punch and how it differs from the more conventional Chainsaw Man is what has me convinced that Jump Plus is a more natural fit for his tendencies as a creator. Some of his compositions here are genuinely breathtaking and capture a real sense of artistry that you wouldn’t expect from a series otherwise so brutally violent and deeply twisted.
Again, to a certain extent, I understand why Chainsaw Man is so radically different from Fire Punch. For however controversial the former may be among the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, it doesn’t exactly cover the same types of dark subject matter that the latter does (rape, incest, torture, murder, etc.) wouldn’t exactly fit within the pages of a magazine meant for boys. Being horny, however, does.
Even so, it’s a shame to see that Fujimoto has clearly been compelled to change up his art so much from Fire Punch to Chainsaw Man, losing that sense of artistry in the process. When considering, in turn, how many other elements Fujimoto brought over from the former to the latter (crude humor, excessive gore and even the basic idea for Togata in the form of Himeko) I wish that he’d also brought over some of his more artistic tendencies. Someone needs to innovate in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, and Tatsuki Fujimoto could very well have been the man to do it.
Fire Punch: An Explosive Debut
Now that I’ve read Fire Punch, it’s not hard to see why the select few who had read the series before Chainsaw Man came on the scene were so vocal about their support for Tatsuki Fujimoto.
The fact that this series was penned and written by a rookie author who had made his debut mere months before is nothing short of astonishing. Each facet of the series oozes with imagination, and the way that potentially controversial subject matter is treated with grace is great to see.
Fire Punch is also gripping from start to end, as it meditates on the idea of what makes a hero and how society pushes us into roles that we may not be suited to inhabit. The series’ last arc, in particular, is utterly heart wrenching as Agni is forced to reconcile his true nature and his assumed nature, leading to an utterly spellbinding conclusion.
You can read Fire Punch via VIZ Media’s free Shonen Jump service. The final volume came out on 15 October 2020 . Chainsaw Man is also available to read for free.