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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Me Gumi no Daigo: Kajiba no Bakayaro: Based on One of the Best Manga You Never Read!

Name: Hiroshi Kitadani
Nicknames: "Dani"
Date of Birth: August 24, 1968
Debut Year: 1994 (as part of the trio Stagger), 1999 (solo)
Iconic Song: "We Are!" (from One Piece)
Catchphrase: "Cool!"

Similar to Eizou Sakamoto from the original line-up, Hiroshi Kitadani is easily the "underdog" of JAM Project due to the fact that he doesn't have quite as extensive of a catalog of memorable songs to his name (Sakamoto & Kitadani were even both part of JAM for close to a year before Sakamoto's "graduation" in early 2003). Hell, Kitadani wasn't even given his own "featuring" song with JAM until 2007's "Divine love" from Saint Beast ~Kouin Jojishi Tenshitan~! Still, that doesn't mean that you should think less of the first "new" member of JAM Project. "We Are!" is still one of the catchiest anime themes ever & Kitadani even returned to One Piece not long ago with "We Go!", a true-blue "sequel song" to his breakout hit as a solo artist. Also, the man is a true hard rocker, showcasing some of his best work during his time with the group Lapis Lazuli from 1999-2004. In fact, Lapis Lazuli might be a highly underappreciated J-Rock band in general, being the force behind the Tough OVAs rocking ending theme, "Private Emotion", as well as Guilty Gear X: Rising Force Of Gear Image Vocal Tracks, three entire albums (Rock  You!!, Slash!!, & Destroy!!) of absolutely awesome vocalized versions of the soundtrack from Guilty Gear X! Seriously, don't take Hiroshi Kitadani lightly, and the same can be said of the anime that features one of his earliest themes...

Me Gumi no Daigo by Masahito Soda debuted in Weekly Shonen Sunday back in late-1995 & ran until mid-1999, lasting 20 volumes. It told the story of Daigo Asahina, a rookie firefighter who makes it his personal goal to never have anyone die in a fire that he's up against, no matter what rules he breaks along the way. Viz, inspired by the actions of the men who worked their asses off after 9/11, decided to release the manga, & House of 1000 Manga's Jason Thompson (who was working for Viz at the time) got his choice for the title selected: Firefighter! Daigo of Fire Company M; since then Thompson regretted the name, realizing "Fireman!" would have sounded better. Unfortunately, while the entire series was released in English, this manga absolutely bombed for Viz, so much so that Ed Chavez (of Vertical Publishing) checked the Neilsen BookScan numbers & revealed that the entire run of 20 volumes sold less than 2,000 units; yes, on average it sold less than 100 copies/volume for Neilsen! That's an astounding crime, because Daigo is easily one of the absolute best stories (not just manga, not just comics, but stories) I have ever read; read Jason's article & see what you're missing. Now imagine if Viz had tried releasing the anime...

Random Trivia: Bing Translator translates "Bakayaro" as "U.s.a.!"

Yes, there was an anime adaptation of the manga. On July 27, 1999, right around the time the manga ended, Shogakukan & Sunrise, with help from Toho, debuted a ~45 minute anime movie as part of the "Summer Thanks! Japan Sunday Festival" theatrical showcase. Using the first chapter's title as the sub-title, Me Gumi no Daigo: Kajiba no Bakayaro (Viz translated that sub-title as "The Fool in the Firehouse") is the only anime version of this excellent manga (in 2004 a live-action TV adaptation ran called Fire Boys ~Me Gumi no Daigo~), but does it stack up against a truly underrated & ignored (in America, at least) manga classic?

During a firefighting effort at the Eastline Market in Sengoku City, Daigo breaks protocol & starts tossing people that need rescuing onto the emergency mat on the ground. Though he assures that everyone's safe by doing so he injures his foot & is punished with unpaid leave. He returns to work & helps make sure that the city's new Civil Center is safe & easy to escape from if a fire breaks out. Upon hearing from his old teacher Miss Ochiai (who's leading a class trip) that the A.C. feels weak, Daigo checks out the basement & finds a warm wall that shouldn't be. His hunch is correct & upon breaking the wall unleashes a massive fire. While rescuing some people in the flooded auditorium, though, the rescue team gets trapped behind a fallen set of spotlights, electrifying the water. Determined the rescue the rescue team & the people they were saving, Daigo will have to think outside of the fire hose to reach them.

Me Gumi no Daigo may be about firefighting, but it still follows a fair amount of the traditional shonen elements. Daigo may have absolutely amazing intuition when it comes to fires, but his ideas & extreme devotion to making sure no one dies on his watch constantly puts him into trouble with the brass, putting his immediate boss, Chief Hajime Gomi, into the crossfire as well. Gomi, in turn, knows Daigo is potentially dangerous but generally trusts his methods because he knows they get results. While not a "rival" exactly, Shiro Amakasu is Daigo's classmate from firefighting school who generally follows the rules & acts like he doesn't exactly like Daigo, but in reality he respects him probably more than anyone else & has no problem working with him; Amakasu being with a different firehouse makes these moments rare, though. A more traditional "rival" would be Okano, a reporter who wants to tell everything as it is and isn't a fan of Daigo's devil-may-care operating style, especially since Okano knows a thing or two about fire safety & the like.

Still, the title does veer away from traditional shonen simply by focusing solely on adults & even having Daigo have feelings for an older woman. Said woman would be Shizuka Ochiai, who thinks of Daigo as a little brother & is always worrying about his safety, hoping he would just stop being a fireman. Though she worries, Miss Ochiai is only looking out for the best for Daigo. In the manga their relationship is handled perfectly & the movie showcases it well in small doses. Among shonen series this is a fairly mature one from a character perspective. Still, it's a shonen series and the way it showcases that is via the fires Daigo & his fellow firefighters take on, with the movie focusing on a really enjoyable one.

The movie does spend about half of the runtime focusing on character development, which works nicely, but the second half is where it really shines. Though Daigo technically is the one who unleashes the fire, one can only imagine how bad it could have been had it been allowed to spread & become even worse. Anyway, the Civil Center fire showcases a lot of dangers to consider, with the electrified water, the raging fire, the thick smoke, & no traditional way to rescue the rescue squad. As the entire scene goes on you're always seeing the gears in Daigo's head spin and it never becomes boring. The solution Daigo comes up with is extremely out-of-the-box & does seem like something a shonen lead would come up with, but it's the kind of solution that simply makes you want to cheer for Daigo. He's the firefighter that you wish existed in real life; one who's willing to truly do anything to save people.

Honestly, among any sort of "wish fulfillment" that titles like these bring about, Daigo Asahina represents one of the best. He isn't trying to save the world... He's only trying to save people, and that's something that's always worth wishing for.

This movie was directed by Susumu Nishizawa (Maps [1994], Gundam SEED C.E.73:Stargazer, episodes 1-15 of Hikaru no Go), who also pulls extra work by doing the storyboards, animation direction, & even co-writing the ending theme! Working mostly as an animation director (plus some key animation) Nishizawa certainly knows how to handle fluid animation & it shows in this movie; even having to rely on VHS-sourced footage one can tell the movie was well animated for its time. The script by Akihiko Inari (10 episodes of Escaflowne) is likewise well done, adapting from the manga very concisely. The character designs by Hideyuki Motohashi (B't X, Fushigi Yugi) stick very close to Masahito Soda's "mature" drawing style, though it does adapt them into a look that's more anime-friendly. Finally, the music by Shiroh Hamaguchi (Next Senki Ehrgeiz, One Piece) is epic & flowing, giving even more proof that the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra (of Giant Robo fame) is an excellent group of musicians to work with for anime. The ending theme is "Red Darkness" by Hiroshi Kitadani and actually predates "We Are!" by a few months, making this song Kitadani's debut into anime music. That said, it's still one of his absolute best anime songs, bringing a similarly epic flow & delivery, and the lyrics (when reading a translation) act as a perfect anthem for how Daigo operates. It's a song that's been lost to the times, partially due to "We Are!"'s iconic-ness, but it really shouldn't be; it fits Kitadani's extremely underrated career to a "T".

Daigo is voiced by Wataru Takagi (Garrod Ran in Gundam X, Aoki in Hajime no Ippo), who brings about a steadfastness & energy that suits Daigo extremely well. Similarly, Kazuya Ichijou (Foh in B't X, Zafira in Nanoha) delivers a great match for Takagi with his delivery of Amakasu. On the matter of Daigo's "better half", Kikuko Inoue (Belldandy in Ah! My Goddess, Aina in Gundam: 08th MS Team) voices a fitting Miss Ochiai, giving the character's worry & fear real feeling. Naoya Uchida (Jin Hayato ever since Getter Robo: Armageddon) makes Okano come off almost like a "hard boiled" journalist, while Yuusaku Yara rounds out the main cast well as a gristled-but-quick Gomi. I'm sad that an actual TV anime never came about for this series, because I would gladly have liked to see this cast return.

Me Gumi no Daigo: Kajiba no Bakayaro is a great anime adaptation of one of the many fires showcased in the original manga. Sunrise took this movie seriously, even bringing in the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra to help out, and the result in an exciting look at the work of firefighters that Masahito Soda showed Japan in Shonen Sunday magazine during the 90s. Unfortunately, it was only given a VHS release in early 2000, with no DVD release ever happening. It will definitely appeal to fans of the manga, but since so few have read it I'd imagine most people who would watch this (it is fansubbed) are newcomers. In that case I do feel that this movie works well as a basic introduction to the larger series, as it introduces the major characters & showcases very well the way Daigo Asahina thinks & works. If you enjoy this movie & actually want to read the manga then you're in luck digitally. Even though it was an absolute bomb in print, Viz is giving Firefighter! a second chance via a digital release; as of this review they've up to Volume 15 & putting new books out weekly. So let's recap:
1. Read Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga article & see if it interests you.
2. If you're still not sure then check out this movie.
3. Buy this manga digitally! You won't regret it one bit. (By the way, the movie's fire happens in Volume 9)

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