Going in to “Shadows Cast by Divine Light”, I wasn't expecting to get a deep dive into Joker's backstory and motivations smack in the middle of the assault on the Holy Sol Temple's underground compound, but I don't know why I was surprised when that is exactly what happened this week. For all of this second season's improvements to Fire Force's writing and direction, it is still an adaptation of a supremely goofy and proudly formulaic shonen battle manga. Sudden revelations about a character's tragic past and their secret relationship with whichever villainous force is being subjected to all of that battling are par for the course. Thankfully, Fire Force manages to balance the scales of cliché and awkward pacing with some thrilling action and sizzling stylish production values, easily topping the disappointing beginning to this arc that was last week's episode.
All of these melodramatic reveals and explosions of spectacle are in service of finally telling us just what the hell is up with Joker, a character who has mostly existed on Fire Force's periphery for the last three dozen episodes, looking spooky and offering cryptic advice for Shinra when the occasion called for it. It turns out that Joker's got some trauma he's working through with this two-headed attack on the Holy Sol Temple, because he used to belong to the ranks of the order himself. Specifically, he was a member of the Holy Sol's Shadows, a squadron of assassins whose goofy jester-esque outfits bely how deadly they are.
You see, the Shadows fill their ranks with orphans and cast-offs with no other ties to society, and their absolutely brutal training regimen is all about beating every ounce of willpower and individuality that a young kid like Joker could have possessed, all in the name of producing more perfect weapons for the Temple to wield. The Captain of the Shadows that led Joker's unit of Shadows was an especially cruel man; not did he round out Joker's initiation with bloody sparring sessions and literal acts of torture, but it is heavily implied that he raped Joker as well, in an effort to break every single facet of the boy.
It's a very dark reveal, and honestly a bit tasteless, but it is also rather effective at making you hate both the Captain himself and the Holy Sol Temple in general that much more. When Joker escapes the Temple and finds solace in an improbably accepting family of strangers, it feels like overkills when Joker comes back to find that the Shadows have slaughtered them all. I guess every vigilante needs an origin story, though, and you really do start to get impatient for the inevitable beatdown that Joker is fit to deliver onto his old comrades. Like I said up top, Fire Force doesn't stumble like it did in “Dark Hero” when it comes to delivering the goods. The “goods”, in this episode's case, are five blissful minutes in which Joker and Benimaru are given free reign to unleash an unholy ass-whooping on the Captain and his Shadows. David Production gives Benimaru some slick cuts of bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat, which is always appreciated, but this is Joker's show to steal, and Fire Force goes all out by adding layers of visceral, psychedelic style to his already flashy combat skills.
I eventually realized that the song that Joker had been reciting throughout the fight was a Fire Force variant on the classic Steve Miller Band song that must have inspired the character's whole shtick. The show shuffles and changes the lyrics from “I'm a joker/I'm a smoker/I'm a midnight toker” to “I'm a midnight thinker/I'm a joker/I'm a smoker”. I don't know of this is from a Japanese-language version of the song that native fans might be familiar with, or an Atsushi Okubo original cover, and my guess is that “thinker” was a safer choice of words for a culture that still places a very heavy taboo on recreational drug use. Then again, maybe the Japanese word for “thinker” is a euphemism for someone who indulges in the occasional toke from the Devil's Lettuce, since after he expunges all of the cards in his deck, Joker reveals that he has a fifty-third card, a joker card. He also explains that the smoke from his cigarette has certain “mind-altering” effects that transform the whole scene into a nightmare cavalcade of terror-clown imagery and kaleidoscopic colors. It's one of the most gorgeous and experimental flourishes Fire Force has played with yet, and you can just tell that the David Production crew had a blast putting it into motion.
Excepting the goofy humor I've come to enjoy, “Shadows Cast by Divine Light” really has it all when it comes to what Fire Force does best. The art and animation are top notch, the direction is confident and brimming with a uniquely weird flair, and Joker's backstory does flesh him out as an interesting and sympathetic warrior against the deceitful will of the Holy Sol Temple — and if it wasn't already becoming very obvious, this week makes it pretty inarguable that the Temple will be an enemy for our heroes to vanquish, perhaps the great force of evil in the whole show. If bringing down this dark church will give Fire Force more opportunities to kick ass and take names like this episode does, then I can't wait to see what comes next.
Odds and Ends
• Even though Fire Force Season 2 is way less creepy and gross with how it treats characters like Tamaki, this is still a show that plays up the sexual humiliation of its women for laughs. Not only is the implied abuse that Joker suffers a needlessly gross element to toss into a backstory that was already dark and sad enough, Fire Force is maybe the last show that be exploiting rape as a cheap way to amp up its dramatic stakes; , I think maybe the show ought to address its own nasty sexual hang-ups first.
•When the Shadow Captain is stomping Joker's head down onto the floor, Joker breaks out of it by doing a push up with just his tongue. It's both a really weird and kind of cool flex for Joker to bust out from nowhere? What a show, man.
•Oh yeah, Captain Burns shows up at the end for a little cliffhanger, which…okay, yeah, he always seemed to be sketchy-as-hell. I don't know if the show was trying to play the reveal as a big surprise; even for whatever help he's provided Company 8 in the past, did anyone honestly think Burns was trustworthy?