The most recent episode of Mob Psycho had a pretty impressive cut by webgen animators Kazuto Arai and Miso (Itsuki Tsuchigami) full of some of the most spectacular fire effects this season, hands down. So spectacular in fact that they have drawn comparison to both Yoshimichi Kameda’s cut from Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood 19 (my start down the sakuga path) and Yutaka Nakamura’s work on the original. The scene is so overwhelming that it’d be easy to just sit back and watch, but this is not an afforded luxury when asking what made them so impressive. Why is this scene so good? With a careful eye, we can know why.
A strong foundation for this is the difference between the animation and the manga. Comparing the source material and its adaptation, we can easily see what embellishments were made to make the whole scene far more sensual. The first panel is re-framed in the hallway, having Teruki turn into the camera before the onslaught of flames barrels down the corridor. This re-framing is a necessary change for the anime, where the space the fire consumes is more defined, versus the negative backgrounds of the manga which offer no details as to the size or scale of the space Teruki inhabits.
Hiroshi Kobayashi (Kiznaiver director), storyboarder this episode, wisely decides to pull the camera back from the action, allowing us to see the approach of the inferno, giving us time to take in what is about to happen. The camera shakes in testament to the flames’ power as they splash against the walls, waves of blurred embers rushing towards the camera as if they were about to escape the screen and involve us in the same perilous fate as Teruki. Just as we suspect the young psychic to be swallowed in a burning cruelty, the long shot cuts to an extreme closeup of Teruki’s dilated pupil – and we share the emotion. Animation serves this scene far better than ONE’s original version which lacks the same sense of scale (we see the fire is bigger than Teruki, but that’s it). It’s a vast improvement in emotionally involving the viewer.
Kazuto Arai’s opening is key to the whole scene. Flames taking the form of liquid is an instant setup, incurring the sensation of drowning; we are totally washed over. Like water, the flames have a weight to them that traps us in the moment, submerging us in a whole new world where we cannot see outside of the fire. But cleverly, Arai gives the flames a sort of texture that allows us to clearly understand that it is fire we are seeing, but yet we can relate to the sensation of drowning and scorching. We hold our breath out of the dual fear of engulfing water and burning flame.
Arai clearly identifies the flames as an attacking force, they are the ‘bad guy’. Captivating is his use of flickering silhouette to transfer these feelings of danger on to the villain, Miyagawa. Tails of the blaze climb each other in a constant, fierce updraft, their ethereal rage and inconsistency depicted perfectly in the surreal movement of on-the-ones animation. Literally every frame resulting in the flame taking a new pose of stylish danger. In the exact same nature, the silhouette of Miyagawa emerges from the flame, and for a brief moment, he is as incorporeal as the fire – he is the fire.
A quick swirl of flame serves as a wipe transition, and Miso takes control of the cut from Arai by mimicking his silhouette style. Miso takes advantage of the constantly changing nature of the scene to shift into his much brighter and cartoon like style. The burning background is assigned a scratchy depth from hatched lines, almost like the fire would have texture if you touched it, but still unfriendly nonetheless. But as soon as Miyagawa is brought into the light, a second extreme closeup of Teruki keys us into his emotional state, the intensity and thickness of his expression keeps the audience calibrated to the serious peril of the situation. Following this is a more traditional framed closeup of the insidious and crazed assailant, be we are not meant to relate to him, so the camera is pulled back to allow the idea of that this may be a shot from Teruki’s perspective. It’s a style shift every cut, but it locks so perfectly into the emotion of the moment.
It’s a perfect storm of sakuga. The artist now has the power and ability to shift from style to style, and the villain will automatically identify with that style since he is part of the scene, or maybe it’s the other way around and he is the scene. And that’s exactly what happens. During the course of the fight, flames transition from debris-like globs to lifelike towering glows, wisps flowing in direction of the action, then back to a near liquid type of form with glare, shine, and all.
Every shot of Teruki serves as our portal into the hellish inferno, and through repeated closeups, we come to trust his senses, it’s part of being the good guy. We can relate to chapped lips in the heat of a hot Summer day, only now it’s intensified a hundred fold, and because we can relate to it we can feel it. What’s interesting about all of this is how less sensate this scene in is the manga. True, manga has no control over the time the readers’ eye stays on any given panel, but it’s not the paneling or disadvantageous elements of the medium that lead to it’s failings, it’s framing entirely. Too often the limited page space prevents the flames from being an all encompassing force. Part of the blame also goes to the introduction of Miyagawa, who is not shown to be part of the fire, but apart from it. The emotional math is not ‘Teruki vs Evil-Fire’ more more ‘Teruki vs Guy-who-uses-fire’; the same feelings aren’t attached.
The anime solves this with the use of long shots, establishing a sense of space the manga does not provide. This also places greater importance in the previously mentioned closeups; long shots have a tendency to place us outside (or away) from the conflict as we see it as a bystander does. Important details in tone are given in these closeups, and the fight is shot in such a masterful way that the long shots expand that tone instead of diminishing it. The finale of the clash relies on this synergy to reach resolution. With the flames contained in (contrasted in a shot with shallow depth of field -shot 2), Miyagawa is defeated in a manner reminiscent to Kameda’s work with Roy Mustang.
With tensions cooled, the final shot is a long shot, the background clearly visible, the fire gone. Teruki, in his pink sweater, is the last splash of unmuted color, standing victorious. We are detached from the intensity of mere seconds ago, and as the characters are shrunk against the background, Miyagawa’s defeat is trivialized by both the mere flick of a finger and in the amount of space devoted to it. The entire scene lasts for a whole two minutes, a decent chunk of time for consistent and dynamic sakuga to be on screen. But for two minutes, it was the episode.