Fire!: Mizuno Hideko

Fire is a legend. If you start getting into the history of shojo or just reading older shojo, you will come across people talking about Fire. You don’t even have to focus on shojo; if you go back in manga history in any genre, you will eventually run into Fire. You will read passionate praise of Mizuno and her groundbreaking masterwork, you will learn that she once apprenticed to the mighty Tezuka himself, you will find out that she was the only woman to live in the famed Tokiwa house of manga artists in the sixties—you will be told that she was the cool girl, the one who could keep up with the boys. 

You will not, however, be able to read Fire. Or so it was for the fifty years since Fire was completed in 1971 until this very year when Bungeishunju at last brought the series back into print. Two weeks after I was finally able to get the original Sun Comics series off of Yahoo Auctions…

I’m not mad about it, though. Nothing like having a first-edition of a classic shojo manga, and I love getting the original reading experience of a tween in the seventies. Plus, this way I got to see that the annoying habit of shojo publishers not leaving enough of a gutter in their books so that art and dialogue gets swallowed up by the binding is not a recent phenomenon—it’s been going on as long as there has been shojo manga, apparently. I chose not to break the spines on these old books, so there are some lines I will simply never know the end of. I’ve made my peace with that. 

Like a lot of shojo of this era, this book is fully bonkers and completely about the vibes. Mizuno really gets into the idea of freedom and seeking it, but never really specifies what kind of freedom and most of the seeking ends up being a bunch of hippies driving across the US and getting kicked out of every state and/or hassled by cops along the way. It’s a mood, and if you are not willing to sit and live in that mood, you should reconsider your life choices and also not read this series. 

The whole tragic tale starts with little Aaron wanting to get his poor mother a hat for Easter. This naturally leads to him being sent to juvvie literally ten pages later, thanks to a hooligan on a motorcycle named Fire Wolf, who steals that hat right from the store window for him. No, it does not make any sense at all. When he gets to juvvie, Fire Wolf is also there and has been for quite some time, which might make the careful reader wonder why he was out there stealing Easter hats the other day. This is explained later as the most absurd juvenile detention conspiracy of all time that also features a hunger strike for freedom. Freedom!

Aaron gets the shit kicked out of him in juvvie, and it’s no wonder really. He didn’t even steal a hat to be in there; he is not much of a JD. He works through some issues, finds music, and learns to play guitar from the formerly evil Fire Wolf who has now become a hero to the young hoodlums. When Aaron gets out at the age of eighteen, he is a hardened man; he has seen things. He also plays guitar, but hasn’t quite found music. That happens when he moves to Detroit to work in a factory. There he meets John and joins the rock scene. This is when it all clicks for him, and he realizes that music is the only life for him. Cue the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. 

The series is a roller-coaster from start to finish. Mizuno never gives her readers the chance to breathe as she moves from one high or low to the next. Aaron is in love! His heart is broken! He got a gig! His nemesis stole his gig! He got a band together! Racists try to kill them! The lack of space between any of the many, many things that happen to our hero Aaron and his pals definitely has that breathless feel of the drama of being a teenager. But it also makes a lot of that action feel sort of empty because she never leaves the reader time to react to any of it. Even death is gone in the next panel. I feel like this was the style of shojo in particular at the time, so I try not to be too critical. But there were a couple times in this book where it felt very weird to keep barreling forward without any reflection on what had just occurred. 

There’s also an odd muppet-y quality to the art, especially in the beginning, that I found hard to ignore. Lots of necks that are the same width as the heads that sit upon them, the only boundary between the two the cleft drawn into the jaw. I honestly spent most of the first book with Janice superimposed over pretty much every male character. And I like Janice, don’t get me wrong! But she is not who I would pick to helm a romantic turn on, drop out sixties rock epic. 

But I do love the way Mizuno depicts music as radiating out of the characters or the scenes they’re in. And she gets rid of outlines in moments of great musicality or passion, so that it feels like characters are bathed in some kind of spotlight, which is such an amazing and effective technique. There’s some really dynamic and cinematic panelling throughout the series, too, that tells you that Mizuno has been working in comics for a while and that work was toward creating this wild ride called Fire, which was unique at the time it was released in so many ways, not the least of which was for having a male protagonist when girls were the norm.   

I’m assuming the series was out of print for so long because of rights issues. Japanese copyright can be a lot more complicated than it is in most English-speaking countries, with publisher and author (and oddly enough, printer!) holding different kinds of rights to the work. When Sun Comics went under, any clear path to reprint rights vanished with it. Since Bungeishunju has managed to get this classic back into print, I have to assume that someone detangled that messy pile of threads. Does this mean an English license has become possible at long last? If nothing else, the files have been at least digitized now, so I for one am choosing to dare to dream! It’s the Fire way!


  1. Fire has been available on ebookjapan since 2010: I almost bought it last year, but I didn’t feel like creating a new ebook account (I use Kobo). Glad I waited since I prefer the Bungeishunju covers. 😛

    Anyway, thanks for your review! It’s funny how old-school shojo manga always seems to have been jam-packed with non-stop DRAMA! But that’s what makes them fun to read, lol.

    1. I’m not much of an ebook reader, so I wanted to grab a print copy. But it’s good to know the ebook exists!

      The DRAMA is the reason we love old-school shojo. Just a non-stop rollercoaster!

  2. I’ve been Fire! obsessed since I read about it (and saw an image) in Manga! Manga! back when I was 13… 30 years ago. In fact I got to present about it at a conference last month in Texas (and everyone there was shocked it wasn’t out in English–they didn’t seem to know how manga translation works…)

    I’ll try not to just go on and on about why I love it so much, and how important and wonderful Mizuno is.

    But one correction–it has not been out of print as long as you may think. In fact the first copy I got from a Japanese friend in high school (I asked her to look for it when she was going back to Japan) was a three volume bunko editon from the 1990s. There was also a three volume hardcover edition in the 80s, the Sun comics edition you have (and I also picked up) and my prized possession, a thick, one volume hardcover edition complete with box from the mid 70s which was actually the first collected version (several of Mizuno’s classics were released at this time, for the first time in book form, in the format.) My friend who is part of the Toshonoie shoujo manga group (who published an amazing book dedicated to Mizuno last year) have a list of the book editions of Mizuno which shows the rundown of these.

    But I’m not surprised many people get the impression it’s been out of print so long–the new (beautiful) editions implied that in their advertising and it hasn’t been in print IIRC since the 90s bunkos.

    Yoko at Toshonoie helped me with my presentation, and she told me it wasn’t a rights issue. It was more just that Mizuno was kinda… forgotten (like many pre “Year 24” shoujo mangaka.) Fire! was a massive hit of course, and probably the first mature shoujo work since it was one of the first serials in Weekly Seventeen, the fashion magazine Shueisha launched advertising it for readers who had outgrown Margaret magazine–which is why Mizuno was finally allowed to do some things she had long wanted to do (write about a male protagonist, incorporate her obsessions with the counter culture, and just tell a harsher story) though in an interview she still says she was constricted by length (I find it almost charming how just filled with incident it is…)

    There’s a terrific interview with Mizuno by Keiko Takemiya that my friend translated for my needs, and she’s very frank about all this (also her desire to show “nakedness” in every sense of the word.) Mizuno was also excited to get so much fan mail from male readers, which I know to some sounds like internalized misogyny, but she explains at the time it really made her feel taken seriously as a mangaka. And of course it was a big influence on others–Hagio and Takemiya say it showed them they could write about boys (all these shoujo mangaka wanting to write about boys but not being allowed to…) and Ikeda has said Oscar was influenced by Fire Wolf! Mizuno also mentions how she wanted to push the homoeroticism and while it’s not even proto BL really the way Poe Clan, say, is, it was the first time that men were eroticized in shoujo manga (the publishers did make her erase Fire Wolf’s navel in a scene where he’s meant to be naked–she drew it back in for the later book edition.)

    But after Fire! Mizuno, always a non conformer, raised a son on her own and she has regretted that it made it impossible for her to do another serial, though she did a lot of fascinating one shots (especially for seinen magazines) and art, often around psychedelic rock bands. In the late 80s she worked on what she thought would be her other masterpiece, Ludwig (about the Bavarian king) but she had lost her reputation and only a small manga magazine was interested in publishing it–and after two tankoubons they folded with no other company she shopped the title to interested in publishing it (which baffles me) and she has spoken in several interviews how she regrets that she feels too old to finish it.

    So what changed? According to Toshonoie it was an exhibit and accompanying art book (which is one of my prized possessions) around 4-5 years back. It’s funny, I’m obviously not a great part of the Japanese manga scene, but in general it seemed like for decades you simply never heard it mentions–even a few months back I read a well meaning manga blog that said Rose of Versailles was the first shoujo manga to appeal to older readers (and really Fire! makes Rose of V look like child’s play.) But maybe due to the reprint, or whatever, suddenly a lot more interest in Fire! and Mizuno in general seems to be popping up, and the gossip on Twitter is that it will be out in French within the next year and a half (which just feels surreal to me, as I’ve been obsessed with it so long–originally reading it back in high school side by side with a handwritten translation my friend made for me for my birthday which I still keep.)

    Certainly now in Japan, thanks to groups of Toshonoie, I’ve been told people are realizing that the rhetoric that shoujo was mostly worthless before the Year 24 group (and Ikeda who isn’t part of the group of course) is a fallacy and Mizuno’s work shows that more than anything (and she really created so many shoujo genres–the first historical shoujo with White Troika in 1964, the first shoujo manga to focus on romantic/sexual love with Harp of the Stars in 1960, etc, etc.) I think she’s just incredible and from interviews also seems to have been an incredible, fearless woman.

    Despite my blind devotion to the manga your comment: ” The lack of space between any of the many, many things that happen to our hero Aaron and his pals definitely has that breathless feel of the drama of being a teenager. But it also makes a lot of that action feel sort of empty because she never leaves the reader time to react to any of it. ” is certainly fair.

    Like you say, I think that was just a symptom of manga at the time (as I mentioned, Mizuno has said it would have been 10 volumes or more if it had come ten years later.) It was published in 20 page weekly instalments as the one manga at the time in Seventeen (I’m lucky to have a few issues) and each instalment was *required* by the editors to have a cliffhanger. But certainly you see this too in Rose of Versailles which also was in weekly 20 page chapters, as the edition you beautifully translated which finally puts back in the chapter breaks, shows (I wish all manga reprints would keep the chapter breaks honestly as it gives a bit more sense to why the story is shaped as it is.) And I do find that has its own charm.

    For my conference presentation I really wanted to focus on how these manga (I picked out as a progression, Fire, Poe Clan and KazeKi) were meant to be read in serialized instalments over a long period of time (VERY long for KazeKi, my friend says too long…) So I was able to interview my friend at Toshonoie about her experience reading these as they came out (she was young when Fire! came out–only twelve but had a Seventeen subscription because she was obsessed with the male idols in it.) And as you say you like reading the old tankoubons best, I think even more so it’s fascinating to consider how they were read back then, especially when there wasn’t the expectation that they would end up in book form (something my friend said she found a far less exciting way to read them–and it took away part of the fun which was talking with friends about what would happen next week or month, like with modern TV serial watchers) She still has the clipped instalments she saved (that her parents didn’t throw out) because she just never assumed they’d come out in book.

    OK I’ll shut up, but I’m thrilled you covered Fire!

    1. Oh and I oddly find the characters in Fire! really… attractive? I can kinda see the Muppets thing since you bring it up, but I refuse to acknowledge it–I just love how she draws characters.

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