Friday, January 15, 2010

Fire Investigator Nanase vol. 1 & 2

With the coming of the New Year, it's time to spread your wings and try new things. At least that's the theory. I'm trying to catch up reading with my piles of existing graphic novels and manga. I've wanted to get my reactions and thoughts down on paper. My reading choices will be all over the place.

I hope you'll enjoy these reviews and please leave feedback, so I have some idea how I'm doing, good or bad.

Fire Investigator Nanase

As a firefighter academy student, Nanase Takamine saved a notorious serial arsonist. Three years later, Nanase is a precocious rookie fire investigator determined to solve the crime, even if it means butting heads with her supervisor Fire Chief Tachibana. No one believes her when she goes off on her wild theories. That brings her back into contact with that arsonist -- "Firebug".

Katherine Dacey likened this series to being "like Silence of the Lambs, CSI, and Firefighter Daigo rolled into one!" And she's not wrong by much; maybe add in a little "Backdraft" and "Towering Inferno" for good measure.

Fire Investigator Nanase is part procedural and part psychological mystery. The episodic parts of the manga focus on the particular arson cases. The cases allow Nanase to showcase her knowledge, but also get her into trouble. Her "girl detective" act is clearly not wanted. Fire Chief Tachibana and his team like nice and simple answers. The only person who encourages her to question what she sees is the last person you'd expect and yet the person who knows fire better than anyone – the infamous "Firebug".

While the one-sided relationship has a feel of "Silence of the Lambs", the scene in chapter 5 with the candelabra and his flowing shirt and scarred face brought to mind "Phantom of the Opera". So "Firebug" is part rival and antagonist, but he's also mentor and artist. Fire to him is some sort of twisted art form and he hates seeing it misused. In Nanase, he's found someone that appreciates fire's innate power and fury.

Nanase is what they'd call a spunky heroine. She's not afraid to dive right into tough situations, even when it's dangerous or particularly when she's not wanted. But she's never shown as too cocky. She has very personal reasons for wanting to be a firefighter and a fire investigator, ones that add poignance to her story. She doesn't have to be shown how dangerous fire is – she's lived through it, so she knows.

The biggest question after those first volumes is what "Firebug" wants of Nanase. Nanase saved his life, so clearly "Firebug" feels grateful for her help, but to what end? "Firebug" clearly needs her alive for something. He saves her from other predators on occasion, but he's not afraid to let her fend for herself. He also wants to test her knowledge of fires and how they work. So he's preparing her for something. From a story perspective, waiting to see what "Firebug" has in store for Nanase is both suspenseful and terrifying.

Unfortutnately while the story is fascinating, the artwork sometimes detracts more than it helps. On the plus side, Tomoshige Ichikawa draws Nanase as young and tough. She's no pushover. And even when we're treated to the otherwise distracting fanservice, Nanase can and does get herself out of the situation pretty well. The fires themselves are shown with a certain rough beauty, especially the "Flashover" sequence in volume one. But all the faces except Nanase look downright evil with scary eyes and faces, so it's hard to know who to like or trust. (Considering "Firebug" appears to be a master of disguise, maybe that's not a bad thing.) Maybe the rough quality is part of the shounen style, but it's still off-putting.

Bottom line: The story is interesting enough to consider reading further volumes. Nanase is a likeable and determined heroine and "Firebug" is a scary and twisted antagonist. "Fire Investigator Nanase" could be a cool series to appeal to the fans of procedural crime dramas. Unfortunately the artwork isn't doing the manga any favors.

Fire Investigator Nanase, volume 1 & 2, story by Izo Hashimoto, art by Tomoshige Ichikawa, published by CMX Manga, rated Teen Plus, includes violence, language, brief nudity and suggestive situations.

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