In this debut manga, My Hero Academia’s Shoto Todoroki takes front in center in his own shonen quest to become the very best *fill-in-the-blank,* channeling the power of fire to wage war with The Chronicles of Narnia’s White Witch and her never-ending winter.
That’s what I was afraid I was signing up for when I picked up Fire Punch.
Manga artist Tatsuki Fujimoto boldly quashes those and any other misconceptions you might have from the jump. In the most memorable first page-turn of the genre in recent memory, our protagonist is dismembered with a dull ax upon a tree stump. Starkly textured and unflinchingly brutal, the introduction makes for one hell of a tone-setter.
If that doesn’t unsettle you, the follow-up sure will. Agni is a boy endowed with exceptional regenerative capabilities. Given the misnomer of a title, this initial revelation does its job of attention-grabbing. One of the so-called “blessed,” or those born with supernatural talents, Agni will sprout another arm no matter how often you cut it off. The temporary relief that the act you’ve witnessed wasn’t life-threatening (and the sense that you’ve consequently been hoodwinked) doesn’t last long.
Agni and his likewise blessed sister, Luna, repeatedly chop up one another in order to share their meat with the village. In this frozen wasteland, it’s choice between starvation and cannibalism, and not everyone is making it. The siblings’ preserved appendages drape the walls of one such villager who’d rather die than resort to barbarism, not unlike cured sausages.
In spite of this dire situation, the orphaned pair are doing what it takes to survive, that is until the arrival of Doma and his military caravan. Doma’s boys are fighting the good fighting against the Ice Witch, whose blessed cold has irreparably devastated the climate. In need of supplies and able bodies, Doma deems Agni’s village to be sacrificial to the cause. Unwilling to turn over their only rations nor join their ranks in fear of enslavement, Agni, his sister, and the villagers are abruptly immolated by Doma’s blessed fire. Agni toils in agony, incinerated to the brink of ash, only to regenerate and repeat the cycle until the fire extinguishes.
Except that, it doesn’t extinguish.
Doma’s fire has the unique quality of burning until its fuel runs out. No strong breeze or water are capable of putting out this fire. Because Agni can repair the damage his body would normally suffer as a result of going without food or sleep, it is all he can do to relive this cycle of immolation. So long as Agni lives, so too will this fire. Thus, Agni burns alive for years until he has built up the tolerance necessary to think, to stand, and to be motivated to move forward.
Despite the familiar tropes of uniquely gifted protagonists with elemental abilities and the dystopian future that they must struggle against, Fire Punch isn’t shonen. At no point are we invited to revel in feel-good triumphs or be satisfied by incremental payoffs on the path to salvation. Rather, its tone and narrative style are more reminiscent to a graphic novel á la Le Transperceneige, and not because of the common wintery thread. Fire Punch is the kind of gritty and bleak that is out to make your stomach turn. Though it may not always be front and center, suffering is a set piece that is always strategically within frame. It reads more like a biographical memoir at times than an adventure.
Agni never purports to be a savior or even that he is acting for the right reasons; he is spurred on by personal revenge. This is no hero’s tale and there is no promise of redemption. There is only unsleeping, unfeeling, undying Agni. There are favorable parallels to be made between him and the trials and tribulations of Berserk’s Guts, but Agni’s humanity is more evident from the get-go.
I would be remiss if I did not address the more vulgar and taboo elements of Fire Punch in this review. The discussion of cannibalism and its merits is frank. There are panels depicting urination, although these are not graphic by any means. The blunt implication of sex, prostitution, and rape are present and frequent. One character goes so far as to make a suggestion of bestiality. I say all this in order to make clear that this manga is intended for a very mature audience. Fujimoto has no qualms about making the reader uncomfortable, and at times these elements made me more than uncomfortable: specifically, the thematic romantic interest between Agni and Luna. Incest, while not depicted, is unavoidably central to the text, and while it is tied into the survivalist aspect of the work, it is nonetheless disconcerting.
Fire Punch packs a wallop with its hooks and is immersive in its world-building. The strength of volume one lies in its commitment to tone, impressive introduction, and visceral imagery. There are sequences toward the end which lack clarity, but I believe much of this vague action may be elaborated on in what is to come. Were it not for the title’s questionable taboo direction, I would be giving this one a high recommendation, but despite this drawback, Fire Punch earns a solid rating.