Review: “Promare” Challenges Animation’s Constraints Through A World On Fire

Studio Trigger’s theatrical debut is equal parts a visual marvel and a boisterous shout for the West to catch up with Japanese animation.

By , 4 Oct 19 07:36 GMT
Courtesy of GKIDS.

Promare is the first feature film from Studio Trigger, famous for Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007), an anime about subterranean rebels in a mecha-genre setting. In Promare, style and substance pulse in a jubilant package so alive, rebellious, and inventive that multiple viewings are necessary. American audiences left wanting by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) will find Promare equally entertaining. Trigger’s Western introduction is a provocative move worth celebrating; it’s the film that animation industry leaders need to see.

Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima directed and wrote the film, respectively. Both previously worked together on Gurren Lagann. To say that Promare is simply Gurren Lagann’s fiery successor would be both inaccurate and woefully short-sighted. While Promare offers a solid introduction to Trigger’s brand, style, and language, it demonstrates tremendous growth on behalf of the studio. The result is a movie experience that feels delightful, unique, and wondrously cheerful. This is not to say that Promare is a movie without tragedy but it deals with topics of climate change, genocide, and dystopia with Trigger’s winning spirit.

The story starts simple yet evolves to have an epic scope. Promare’s plot, simplistic to some, typical to others, concerns a battle of ice and fire. Thirty years ago, Burnish, a race of fire-mutants, incinerated half the world. In the present, a group of flame terrorists appear, calling themselves “Mad Burnish.” The narrative centers on the conflict between Galo Thymos (Ken’ichi Matsuyama of Death Note), the rookie member of the anti-Burnish rescue team Burning Rescue, and Mad Burnish leader Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome). The chemistry between firebrand Lio Fotia and lionheart Galo Thymos carries the film from start to finish. Plot aside, what makes Promare wildly entertaining is how their inevitable alliance sparks and ignites. As the two collide and learn more about each other, they uncover harrowing revelations about their dystopian city and the mysterious Burnish.

The story, however, serves merely as the backdrop of Promare’s restless roar.

Courtesy of GKIDS.

A Feast for the Eyes

Promare succeeds most as a master class in visual design. The film uses a bold cel-shaded style to tell a spicy action-adventure story and is the aesthetic successor to director Imaishi’s previous projects. Like Into the Spider-Verse, the movie makes smart use of 2D and 3D animation while offering a story that weaponizes a technicolor, lo-fi aesthetic. Within its opening 15 minutes, the film establishes to the audience that fire is purple, lens-flare is square, and mecha battles are swathed in awesome proportions of sound and color.

From the characters to the mecha, designer Shigeto Koyama showcases creations that are equal parts cool and whimsical. Koyama realizes super-robot firefighting and flame-bikers with proud confidence. Simply put, Promare feels like a colorful candy store. Guns fire ice cubes, flame dragons tessellate pink and purple, and humvees transform seamlessly into intimidating airplanes. Backgrounds are sparsely decorated to enhance the fluid choreography of the fight scenes. The sensory overload, while rewarding, feels deserving of multiple viewings to fully appreciate. It’s incredibly easy to cross your arms and shout back, “Seconds please!” to Promare’s plucky protagonists.

Promare demonstrates a tremendous achievement for Trigger. While Trigger has catered to anime connoisseurs for almost a decade, Promare serves as the studio’s confident step towards the mainstream. Fans of Trigger’s previous productions will be relieved to know that it’s business as usual in Promare. Even within a theatrical setting, Trigger never favors narrative complexities over delivering an unhinged sense of fun.

So how should one ideally experience Promare? It’s a film best seen with a rowdy crowd or, at least, a cheeky grin. In thanks to the film’s distributor, GKIDS, the West can experience Trigger’s bizarre and distinctly Japanese candy store.

Courtesy of GKIDS.

A New Flame in the West

The film traces Western influences from the get-go. From the Thunderbirds Are GOesque opening sequence to the vehicular battle scenes heavily inspired by the American Fast and the Furious franchise. Studio Trigger admits this directly, explaining how Promare didn’t just borrow visuals—it took inspiration from how Furious used the film medium as “pure entertainment” as opposed to a dry, commercial exercise. Critics largely describe Promare as unabashedly wild and euphoric. Western animation, in comparison, has continued to remain tame and predictable.

With a few exceptions, Western animation has become comfortable, stagnant, and sometimes self-important. There’s a certain prestige associated with studios like Pixar and Disney. While both have produced masterpieces that ultimately shaped the landscape of animation, they also left behind set expectations for American moviegoers. Film critic Roger Ebert once said, “when U.S. moviegoers think of animation, they have tunnel vision: they want a Disney movie, or something that looks like Disney.” Yet, not much has changed since Ebert said this in 1999. Even today, animation is still marginalized as a “safe” genre meant for young audiences. This has almost never been true for its Eastern counterpart.

Promare’s protagonist Galo Thymos might as well be yelling “wake up, America!” in lieu of his boisterous declarations. Thanks to GKIDS’ distribution, Promare serves a re-introduction to how animation can go beyond the Disney template. It’s difficult not to compare Promare’s appearance in the West to its grandfather, Akira (1988), a Japanese animation magnum opus that tells the tale of telekinetic misfits. Both Akira and Promare open with a strange, destructive phenomenon that devastates the world. Then, both films cut to a time skip where a new metropolis thrives upon a dystopian bedrock. Similarly, both films leave Western viewers contemplating the possibilities of the animation medium and what can be learned from the Japanese.

When Akira was released in Japan in 1988, director Katsuhiro Otomo showed the world that cartoons could transcend the animation praxis into something revolutionary. Akira threw narrative convention to the wayside in favor of confident action, awesome visual effects, and groundbreaking strokes in art, music, and cinematic design. Most importantly, Akira served as the West’s entry point into Japanese animation, which at the time was simultaneously disorienting and fascinating. To watch Akira is to understand that the animation medium exists to challenge live-action constraints. But more than that, Akira and its cultural successor, Promare, refuse to behave within the animation playground. Like Akira, Promare unleashes the imagination so fully to enhance a story pushed so heavily by the medium that it cannot possibly exist in the real world. Promare never once tries to be self-important or politely sensible. And this is the experience that Western audiences absolutely need to see and be rattled by.

While director Imaishi designed Promare with the intention to draw in audiences unfamiliar with Trigger and anime, he has a long road ahead of him. Film critics have largely accepted Promare as a triumph, but Western studios will still need time to build upon its influence. The unfortunate reality is that American animation studios still struggle with challenging the medium. Until studios can open their minds to what’s possible, it will be difficult for Western animation (and storytelling) to carry Promare’s torch.

If you want to see one of the best kinetic films that the animation genre has to offer, catch Promare in theaters before it flickers out with a cacophonous boom.

•  •  •

Promare is currently screening in select US theaters.

Promare (Japanese: プロメア)—Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi. First released May 24, 2019. Running time 1hr 51 min. Voices by Kenichi Matsuyama, Taichi Saotome, Masato Sakai, Ayane Sakura.

Correction: a previous version of this article referred to director Hiroyuki Imaishi as director Wakabayashi. 

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