Fireball/Fireball Charming

Beginning in 2008, Disney’s Japanese division (of all studios) released Fireball, following it in 2011 with a prequel series entitled Fireball Charming. The series achieved moderate (if somewhat short-lived) success, enough to net it a small amount of merchandise and the previously mentioned prequel series. Despite being somewhat obscure (it has never been released outside of Japan in any official form), it is an intriguing work, and at least in my opinion deserves a closer look.

The plot of the series is very vague, intentionally so, and almost entirely dialogue-driven; it’s centred around a robotic kingdom in what appears to be the ruined Earth. The two main (and almost only) characters are Drossel von Flugel- a scatterbrained robotic princess, whose name roughly translates to “Wings of the Thrush”- and Gedachtnis, her long-suffering manservant, a colossal spider-like robot whose name means “Memory” in German. The two robots at no point actually leave the positively gargantuan fortress they live in (named “Tempest Tower”) and spend most of their time in conversation, trying to work out what is wrong with their crumbling home or attempting to comprehend the function of some new gadget that one or the other has discovered.

The series is a comedy- a Boke (fool) and Tsukkomi (straight man) double-act- albeit a somewhat unusual one. Drossel is the Boke and Gedachtnis is the Tsukkomi, but as they are both self aware robots, the routine is a lot different than the usual variety. Both are largely emotionless, although occasional flashes of emotion (usually frustration) do surface from time to time, and both robots speak in highly formal, oddly sterile Japanese. As with more traditional Boke and Tsukkomi comedy, however, a lot of the humour is based around puns, wordplay and misunderstandings. One episode in particular takes this to its extreme with both robots suffering from language processor errors, resulting in a torrent of puns only those familiar with Japanese will understand. It is possibly for this reason that the series has yet to be exported. There is a small amount of fourth-wall breaking humour, but it is kept on a very tight rein such that it does not become obnoxious.

On the technical side of things, Fireball is rather curious for a Japanese production in that it is done entirely in 3D CGI and does not make use of cel-shading (as would be the norm). The original series, although impressive for 2008,  is nice looking but nothing particularly spectacular. The actual animation- that is, the rendering of movement- is highly competent, with the characters moving in a highly convincing manner- every little detail of their movement is meticulously done, somehow portraying emotion exceedingly well despite their movements being very convincingly mechanical.

The designs of the characters differ drastically between Fireball and Fireball Charming; in the original, Drossel herself is very cartoony and fairly minimalistic, with large feet, slightly large “mitteny” hands, long metal “pigtail” fins on her head and a basic but effective face design. She could easily be misinterpreted as someone in a suit due to her overall shape and lack of any overwhelmingly “robotic” detailing. Gedachtnis, meanwhile, is more unusual (appearing as a boxy, multi-limbed crab-like robot with a single eye) but still fairly unremarkable and minimalistic. In Fireball Charming, however, both robots have undergone massive design changes. Drossel in particular is an exceptional piece of mecha design; rather than the cartoony, simplistic design she had in the original, she now resembles something out of high science fiction. She now has visible, exposed robotic jointwork and piston detailing on her joints and parts of her body- not so much that she appears overly busy, but just enough to give a slight edge of hard sci-fi verisimilitude to the design. Her overall body shape is very different too, shying away from the “girl in a robot suit” look and embracing something far more unique. For one thing, she now has no feet per se, her legs tapering down to bevelled off points (with deployable miniature wheels). Speaking of her legs, she has a very feminine design, with large, voluptuous thighs, wide hips and legs the size of her body. In contrast with her heavily stylized lower half, her upper body is fairly normally proportioned and almost entirely functional, with regular arms and (refreshingly) no attempt at giving her “breasts”. Her head, however, is highly unusual: her face is almost completely featureless, save for her almost perfectly circular eyes, and the back of her head stretches out into a jointed “third leg” almost like a professional cyclists helmet. In fact, at one point early in the show when she is still regaining her balance, it too deploys a wheel and she uses it in conjunction with her leg wheels as a kind of wheeled tripod. Furthermore, whereas the original design was almost entirely gloss white, this design breaks up the white with black and metallic detailing on the mechanical parts, and also features intricate black “tattoos” which somewhat resemble filigree. It’s a very well executed design that gives her a very appealing, almost sensual appearance without falling prey to the usual “sexy robot” cliches (a humanoid face, soft parts or robotic breasts). Gedachtnis too is greatly changed, maintaining his orange colouration, quadrupedal stance and singular eye but becoming far, far larger and far more detailed, resembling nothing so much as a piece of construction machinery- each of his legs is now a pillar of gleaming pistons and folding mechanisms, whilst his eye and claws are now mounted on a swivelling assembly around his main body. Overall, whilst the mechanical designs in the original fireball were effective but unremarkable, the designs in Fireball Charming are truly superb.

So how well does the series work then? Fairly well actually. the characters (all two of them) are believable as robots but no less enjoyable for it, and the dynamic between the two remains amusing throughout. The running gags do not overstay their welcome and the show is just self-aware enough to be amusing without falling into the pit so many “self aware” comedies do, such as constantly breaking the fourth wall, making jokes about the fact that they broke the fourth wall and generally pushing the whole “LOL THEY KNOW THEY’RE IN A WORK OF FICTION SO FUNNY” shtick to the point of obnoxiousness. Case in point, there is a very amusing “making of” type interview with the robots of the series as an extra on the original series disc- at several points they make references to the book that Fireball was based on…a book that doesn’t actually exist. The series has some interesting philosophical moments too, although nothing exactly revolutionary and they’re mainly there for the sake of humour rather than trying to make the thing into some kind of great work of art. This is no weakness however- if anything, it is to the writers’ credit that they didn’t attempt to make a simple if intelligent comedy into a pretentious mess. In fact it could be argued that the whole thing is something of a satire of pretentious comedy- whilst there are plenty of mythology gags that require some degree of education to understand (being the pleb I am I still have no idea who Sancho Panza is) all the jokes are based on simple character interaction and contemporary Japanese humour.

Does it have its weaknesses? Absolutely. The humour is undeniably extremely Japanese and thus is somewhat impenetrable to the average Westerner, relying heavily on wordplay that doesn’t translate well at all. I’d argue that the best way of watching Fireball would be without subtitles and with an extremely comprehensive knowledge of the Japanese language- a method I’m certainly not capable of yet. Furthermore I do feel like the large amount of mythology and backstory alluded to but not at all expanded upon is somewhat wasted in what is essentially a series of 2-minute long comedic shorts. I suppose it’s more to its credit that it manages to have an interesting setting despite never really mentioning much of it, and I am perhaps looking a little deep into the series, but if it ever gets revisited I would love to see what happens outside of the Tempest Tower.

So should you watch it? I think so. It’s very short and there’s absolutely nothing actually bad about it- its main weaknesses are unavoidable aspects of its format and its origin. Overall it’s an enjoyable series, perhaps not a modern classic but definitely a well-executed and entertaining comedy.

Also, it has Fumihiko Tachiki as a robotic monkey.

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