Four and a half stars.
Tatsuki Fujimoto became one of my favorite manga authors as I was reading through his wildly successful Chainsaw Man, the tale of a deranged orphan who made a lifelong deal with a demonic dog that is also somehow a chainsaw. This author came out of nowhere as far as I was concerned, but now I know that he was a prolific author of short stories (in manga format), as well as the creator of a single long-form series called Fire Punch.
The little I learned about Fujimoto’s personal life, apart from the fact that he can levitate, is that working through Fire Punch killed him as a manga artist (in a similar way as Oyasumi Punpun killed Asano). Fujimoto considers himself more of a cinephile and an animator than a mangaka, and his stories show this: they are extremely filmable, often resembling storyboards. When he got his one Serious Series (Serious Punch) out, apparently he thought about retiring with one last story in which he would do whatever crazy shit he wanted, without caring about whether or not others would enjoy it. That last story became Chainsaw Man (link goes to an exceptional trailer of the manga version of that story, which is somewhat spoilery for those who have seen the anime but not read the manga).
I was reluctant to get into Fire Punch because I had heard that it was unrelentingly grim, devoid of Chainsaw Man‘s goofiness, which added humor to an otherwise dark setting. And while Fire Punch does contain plenty of black humor, it comes from a few characters that manage to laugh maniacally against the hopeless and unforgiving world they live in.
The Earth has become a ball of ice. The few remaining human communities are ruled with an iron fist. Weaker people are enslaved and put to work, or else raped, or killed for food. Some humans are born with superpowers, which they call ‘blessings,’ yet the majority of such people are eventually captured and enslaved, to spend the rest of their lives as energy sources, strapped to chairs or beds.
Our protagonist and his sister, both maybe in their teens, have escaped from slavery and found refuge in a tiny community. The protagonist was born with the ability to regenerate wounds almost instantly, and due to such a blessing, he has become the only food source for the much older citizens of this community: the protagonist’s sister chops his arms a few times every day, and the citizens make stew out of them. The siblings are revered as a result.
With their parents long dead, the protagonist and his sister rely on each other as if they were the last people on Earth.
One day, soldiers from some tyrannical community raid them for resources. Upon learning that the citizens of the town survive on human flesh, their commander, who was born with special powers, decides to burn it all down. His are special flames: they will keep burning until the victim dies. Soon enough the protagonist finds himself engulfed in flames, and to his permanent grief, he finds out that his beloved sister has suffered the same fate. With her last breath, she utters a single word-long wish.
The protagonist’s blessing is so strong that he regenerates faster than the fire burns him, and yet that fire won’t go out until he dies. For months, long after everyone he cared about has died, he writhes on the snow while the fire burns his lungs. It takes him a long time to even manage to breathe properly. Some years later, he learns to control his regenerative abilities enough to keep the flames away from his face, and once he manages to think properly for the first time in years, he balls his right hand into a fist.
Burning with a desire for vengeance, along with literal flames, he treks the snowfields in search of the commander who killed his sister. On his way, he comes across desperate communities for whom he becomes a source of inspiration and reverence: the only source of warmth in a dead world, someone who with a single punch sets his foes on fire, burning them to death.
Unable to think properly due to the constant searing pain, the protagonist relies on other hardy people; the most notorious of them early on is a hundreds-of-years-old woman with similarly extreme regenerative abilities, a cinephile that only wished to be left alone and watch movies. However, some time ago her stash of movies went up in flames. Long gone nuts from boredom and detachment, she’s planning to follow the protagonist and film on a handheld camera the last movie of humanity.
As our protagonist obliterates his enemies, as well as hundreds or thousands of innocent bystanders, he comes to resent his sister’s last wish. He wishes he had died back then along with her. But a community has grown around him, and in their desperation, they have come to venerate him as a god. Unable to find a reason to keep going, he tries to lose himself in the roles he needs to play for other people’s personal movies. And maybe someone out there could remind him enough of his sister that he could convince himself that she has survived all along.
The further we get into the story, as the protagonist struggles to hold on to his sanity and humanity, he wonders what enemy remains to pursue and kill so he and his sister could rest. That old commander? The myriad of other enemies along the way? Is it Fire Punch himself?
As the haunting finale approaches, we hold on to that unique thing we can do that keeps us warm and allows us to put one foot in front of the other day after freezing day, long after we have ceased to know or even care why.