WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Season 1, Episodes 1-8 of Fire Force.
Fire Force, the anime that mixes exorcisms with fire fighters, has been blazing through its story at a scorching pace. We've seen its central rookie recruit, Shinra, go from strength to strength over the course of the show's first eight episodes, smiting corrupted human souls (Infernals) and burning through the Special Fire Force's own systemic corruption.
However, Tamaki, Company 1's most prominent female character, has rather the opposite tale to tell.
When we first meet her, her gritted determination and character design evokes creator, Atsushi Ōkubo's Maka, the female star of his previous work, Soul Eater. Maka fulfilled the "tomboy" stereotype in a way that was surprisingly refreshing; her no-nonsense attitude always undercut by a deep love for her friends. Plus, she was a real badass. Tamaki certainly has the potential to be similarly well-balanced but, so far, she's been weighted down by troublesome tropes, preventing her from feeling like a flesh-and-blood heroine and more like your average anime cliché.
While starting off strong in the Rookie Fire Soldier Games, Tamaki quickly falls by the wayside to make room for Shinra's and Arthur's achievements. Granted, the former is the real star of this ensemble affair, but too often in anime -- and other media -- a male protagonist's successes come at the expense of a female one's stagnation, or worse, deterioration; a trope known as Trinity Syndrome.
A similar thing happened to Bleach's Rukia, who is quickly relegated to the damsel in distress role to enable Ichigo to quite literally ascend to power and rescue her in a tournament-esque arc. This is even more pronounced in Sword Art Online, where Asuna goes from being the MMORPG's best swordstress to Kirito's tag-along, virtual reality wife. Things don't get much better for her in ALfheim Online, as her new avatar becomes trapped not only in a video game but in a cage in a video game.
Not all female fighters in anime are fated to fall so hard. Neon Genesis Evangelion's Asuka was used less like a cheerleader for Shinji's development and more like an irritable coach. Her vulnerabilities were drawn out from her own personal insecurities and her eventual downfall, while still ripe for criticism, was similarly punctuated by personal trauma, rather than engineered to simply make her male counterpart look better.
Elsewhere in Fire Force, Company 8's Maki -- who thoroughly kicked Shinra and Arthur's butts in their initial meeting -- hasn't been given much screen time since, while Company 5 Captain Hibana's villain to ally shift has at least allowed her to keep playing a key role, even if it did mean her becoming a mere stepping stone on Shinra's road to success.
Tamaki's fall from hero to zero -- in just two episodes -- feels, unfortunately, like a botched attempt at "growth." Once a seemingly capable heroine, Tamaki is reduced to a shivering wreck when Company 1's Lieutenant Rekka, a man she idolized, is exposed as a secret villain.
After betraying her trust, Rekka proceeds to beat Tamaki within an inch of her life, a level of ultra-violence we haven't seen on the show thus far. It's made all the more upsetting when close focus is given to her swollen, tearful expression as Shinra turns up to save her, and all the more confusing in tone when most of Tamaki's clothes are burnt off during Shinra's battle with Rekka. Cue several lewd moments of Shinra flying headfirst into her bosom, as part of her "Lucky Lecher Lure" quirk. A little levity goes a long way in dark moments, but this just felt weird. Are we supposed to be turned on by the body of a battered women?
Tamaki is the constant punchline in the show's over-reliance on ecchi gags. But while they were especially nothing out of the ordinary before, the use of them in this particular moment seems wholly inappropriate.
Ecchi -- Japanese slang to describe sexual innuendo or perversion -- definitely has its place. Things like Highschool of the Dead, which has become something of a sleeper cult classic, mixes gory zombie action and softcore eroticism with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. It knows what it is and it knows what its audience is after. Elsewhere, less graphic ecchi comedies make up an entire thriving subgenre.
Western viewers, too, always have to be mindful of cultural barriers that color their reading of foreign taste levels. Not every instance of mildly racy content in the middle of a shonen series is cause for pearl-clutching concern. But there's a distinct difference between consensual, trashy titillation and just plain assault, which, when inserted into mainstream genres can make for uncomfortable viewing.
Tamaki’s sexualization in Fire Force's eighth episode is not only made worse by her already physically weakened state, but also by its clunkiness. Why is our central hero nosediving into the nearest cleavage when he's in the middle of a boss fight? Is the gag really worth it?
This mishandling is, as we've touched upon, a common problem across lots of shonen and action-oriented anime. Even shows with a great female cast like My Hero Academia indulge in the "loveable pervert" convention by way of Mineta. Perhaps worst of all, though, in Tamaki's case, is that there's no focus on the emotional fallout when the dust has settled. She just smiles, endures a temporary demotion as punishment for her insubordination, and carries on being clumsily groped. We may yet see the horrific experience spur the young Fire Soldier to the same greatness it did Shinra, but for now, Fire Force has ended things on an unsatisfying note.