Me Gumi No Daigo
Soda Masahito's Firefighting Manga
Ended 1999 in Shonen Sunday
Me Gumi No Daigo ("Daigo of Company `Me'") is one of those
not-so-rare manga that has: no sex, no battle mechs, no blazing
swords, no really big hair, no space ships, no nudity. So what does it
have instead? Great suspense, action, plot, art, and some of
the best in-depth, interesting characters anywhere. For character
exploration, I have found no manga more extraordinary (though many
have matched or come close, in their own ways). Not to say it's
stuffy --- it has a good sense of humor, pacing, and action.
Our hero is Asahina Daigo, a young man fresh out of school and
inaugurated into Company "Me," a firefighting unit in an area known
for its lack of fires (which gives Company "Me" a slacker image).
Daigo is not particularly heroic; he's overly competitive against his
rivals, naive, myopic, inexperienced, short-tempered, and is often off
in la-la land with a spaced-out expression on his face.
But something happens to Daigo when he's in a real emergency. His
eyes become bright and sharp and intense; he does and says things he
hardly recognizes later; he does crazy things that no one, including
himself, would expect. And as a result, he saves lives: families',
children's, fellow firefighters', animals' --- in raging fires, in
flooded waters, and all sorts of precarious situations. He is almost
possessed by a spirit that somehow knows of lives in danger, and
which somehow manages to always save them.
Through the developing story, the reader has watched as Daigo at first
retreats in fear from his actions. His crazy actions unnerve not only
his colleagues (which is not good in Japanese society), but also
himself. Gradually, though, he has come to realize that he loves the
action; risking his own life is when he feels truly alive. But, just
recently (late 1997), Daigo has suddenly realized that it's as if some
part of his "soul" is missing: all his almost suicidal actions, his
daring plans and dangerous rescues, have been done without the motive
of helping others. He does rescue for the thrill of that brief
shining moment where life and death are balanced --- but not for
the sake of saving others. He doesn't even feel happy when he has
saved the lives of people or animals; only now does he realize that
this is a distinct lack of something.
How to resolve this strange realization? Daigo, a careless, brooding
young man, recently reconciled to his job, but now increasingly aware
of something missing in himself.... Eventually he gains a much deeper
insight into himself, and he comes to accept himself as he is; but the
development of his character is the real entertainment of this series.
But it is not just Daigo whose character we see in newer and
increasingly more interesting light. One by one, we receive insights
into the people around Daigo, and what we see is not what we (or at
least Daigo) expect.
There are many more glimpses into the characters, these and others,
that show the depth at which the author has envisioned and understood
them. These insights are what truly form the backbone of this
- Daigo's boss Gomi is a quiet, soft-spoken, cap-wearing man who
turns out to have saved Daigo's life years before in a fire; the cap
serves to hide terrible scars. Daigo at one point notices that Gomi
leaves work every day promptly at quitting time, unlike other people
who stay to do extra work; this irritates Daigo no end. So Daigo
follows Gomi and watches as his boss takes a leisurely stroll through
the neighborhood ... talking to people about fire safety, watching for
fire hazards, and catching unattended fires. In other words, Daigo
discovers the main reason Company Me's territory is so unusually free
of fires is due to the quiet, uncelebrated work of one man, who stops
fires before they can occur.
- In another story, one of Daigo's coworkers watches in disbelief
as Daigo drives a pump truck through the side of a building to reach
trapped rescue workers. This is unheard of: Daigo is clearly
disobedient, unwilling to follow Procedure, illogical, impulsive,
unpredictable, nearly insane, and obviously unfit to be a firefighter
(crimes made all the worse because this is conformist Japan) --- yet,
that very craziness has, beyond all reason, just saved numerous lives.
Now to the point of not knowing right from wrong any more, Daigo's
friend suddenly also "snaps" --- and he stands up to claim full blame
for the pump truck, thus keeping Daigo's actions from becoming public
knowledge (which would've been bad). He is suspended from work for
several days, until Daigo owns up to his actions (how he did so is
- Ms. Ochiai is a high school science teacher who had once taught
Daigo; now she is vaguely his love interest. In one episode, she
witnesses him doing a particularly brave but suicidal rescue. When he
returns to safety, she, with tears streaming down her face, slaps him
in front of the gathered crowd of gawkers and media. It isn't until
many episodes later that he actually learns the true motivation behind
the slap. It wasn't so much that she was afraid for his life, but
that she was feeling her own failings. How was it, she wondered, that
he could risk his life for others' sakes, while she was failing to
pursue her own childhood dreams? She had long wanted to become a
famous naturalist, by perhaps discovering a new species of insect in
Japan --- and yet she had somehow given up on the dream. Seeing
Daigo, she suddenly saw the contrast, and was ashamed. (But this is
also when Daigo realizes that everyone thinks he is acting out of
altruism, instead of just for the thrill of it.)
- Ara is a high-ranking official of the Rescue Team, whose
orange-suited members are considered an elite firefighting task force.
Normally cold in a clammy, fish-like way, Ara becomes excited when he
sees Daigo in action. It turns out that Ara, in his younger days in
the Rescue Team, had the same "danger sense" as Daigo. In fact, Ara
tests Daigo by secretly rigging a trap for him in a practice exercise,
but Daigo unknowingly avoids the trap by getting the sudden,
inexplicable, and mysteriously fortuitous urge to go to the bathroom.
Ara is intrigued to see this. But in a real emergency, Ara suddenly
realizes this about Daigo: Daigo's sixth sense and instinctive drive
to save lives is more than Ara had bargained for; it defies notions of
safety far beyond what Ara is willing to handle. Ara suddenly sees
Daigo as a dangerous wild card, to be feared and avoided. But Daigo
has been called back to work with the Rescue Team, so the two are sure
to interact again in the future....
Of course, there is plenty of action, too. As noted above, it's not
battle violence, but the thrill of the battle against fire, against
impending disaster --- yet even more than that, it's the thrill of
wondering what new and strange action Daigo will perform next.
If there is one irritating thing about the manga, however, it's
witnessing the awe and confusion that others feel when they watch
Daigo in action --- over and over again. It's the usual shonen/boys'
manga problem that the hero must always be (at some point) admired and
respected in some way by other characters. But the psychological
complexity and intrigue more than make up for this minor irritation.
What helps make this manga so refreshing is that it doesn't go into
the weird stuff; it instead just shows how people deal with it in
their daily lives. While the manga has ended (on a note that I wasn't very
fond of, but oh well), it still stands out as one of the most psychologically
interesting manga to have run in Shonen Sunday in recent memory.
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