Content Warning: mild gore
What’s it about? Humanity lives in small villages surrounded by vast, dangerous forests; the only thing that protects them from the monsters that lurk in the dark are Fire Hunters. When a Fire Hunter dies protecting young girl Touko, she is tasked with returning the dog and weapon he left behind to the capital.
My experience with Oshii Mamoru is a bit odd. He’s directed some of the most well-regarded anime of the 1980s and ‘90s—Urusei Yatsura, Angel’s Egg, Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor—and I, completely unintentionally, have missed basically all of them. Which means my experience with Oshii is mainly the embittered old man who sounds like an absolute bag of dicks in interviews.
I can note that Oshii has gathered a lot of collaborators from previous projects here—director Nishimura Junji, art director Ogura Hiromasa, animator and character designer Saito Takuya—but all that tells me is…well, from my experience with auteur creators, it speaks to someone who’s gotten to a level where they can insulate themselves from criticism, especially when all those collaborators are at the highest creative levels on the project. But I am a longtime David Cronenberg fan, so I should only throw so many stones. And at least in this case, the result is a pretty engaging premiere.
The aesthetic of The Fire Hunter calls back to a subgenre I like to call Very Deep 2000s Anime. Its muted palette, its closer-to-realistic proportions of facial features, its young protagonist who faces a world that seems alien if not outright hostile. It’s a vibe you’d recognize at least in part from Haibane Renmei, Paranoia Agent, and Kino’s Journey. Not a bad style to cultivate since those works are all classics, though the deliberate pace won’t be for everyone.
I said “muted,” but there’s a gorgeous and deliberate contrast at work. The characters are rendered with flat, minimally shaded color, while the environments around them are vivid and rich. Fire in particular almost pops off the screen; everything it touches, even in a tertiary sense, is luminescent. It’s a great bit of visual storytelling, conveying the embers of a dying world. The best parts of this episode are watching the characters go about their daily lives, sinking into an alien world and picking up the scraps that remain. It puts the viewer in the same small, overwhelmed state as Touko (who has very little dialogue here but still comes across as expressive and compelling), and each new sight feels rewarding.
It’s a bit of a shame that Oshii’s script feels terribly anxious about just letting the worldbuilding emerge through context clues. There’s some lovely naturalistic dialogue about “the old days” and other incidental comments that establish the setting as being post-post-apocalyptic…and then, halfway through, a narrator drops in to directly explain how humanity lost its ability to harness fire. It was a shame, but a bit of fudging I was prepared to accept given that it’s hard to adapt the density of prose novels into anime format. But then, like an unwelcome houseguest, the narrator decided to stick around and comment on almost every subsequent scene in the episode.
It’d be fair to argue that the environmentalist themes the story is setting out to establish, where city air is almost poisonous and human workers are unprotected from the dangers associated with their labor, are worth hitting on the nose to make sure it gets home. I don’t mind a lack of subtlety, but I would put it to you that the viewer who needs it driven home beyond the panning images of abandoned factories, characters commenting on the high death rate, and grimy cityscapes that the current setting might involve climate change and pollution fallout is probably not watching a show drawn and paced like The Fire Hunter. It’s excusable for a premiere, but if it keeps up it risks moving the overall mood from “atmospheric” to “didactic and self-satisfied.”
That aside, this is an easy recommendation for anyone looking to scratch their “experimental and artsy” itch this season—particularly if you found yourself drawn into 2021’s Sonny Boy. While drawing from four novels of source material is a tall order, oddball and ambitious titles like this are a big part of what keeps my love of anime alive.