(Note: the film was originally viewed by our editor in chief at Anime Expo in early July, but this review was delayed by a handful of circumstances, including the recent tragedies surrounding Kyoto Animation and some behind-the-scenes site maintenance.)
(Mild spoilers in the review)
It’s incredibly hard to not be excited at the existence of Promare, the latest project from Studio Trigger and their first feature film overall. Trigger’s always had a knack for exceptionally bombastic over-the-top action sequences and equally overblown characters and storytelling, from full-length series like Kill la Kill and Little Witch Academia to shorter fare like Space Patrol Luluco and Ninja Slayer From Animation. In particular, Promare also represents the first time studio co-founder Hiroyuki Imaishi has stepped up to direct a feature film in 15 years, with his first major directing project being the 2004 cult classic Dead Leaves. With the pedigree of talent on display from the studio/crew, how does Promare fare as a film?
In the near future, mankind experiences a catastrophic phenomenon of spontaneous combustion as civilians transform into fiery creatures called Burnish and wreak havoc on society. To combat this epidemic, the Burning Rescue Fire Department is established to tackle all Burnish threats, including an exceptionally threatening terrorist faction called Mad Burnish. Our heroes, a team joined by the boisterous new rookie Galo Thymos, come into conflict with Mad Burnish at the start of the film, including their leader Lio Fotia. As the battles go on, a series of truths force Galo and his allies to question their position in and the entire nature of the Burnish conflict.
Trigger’s penchant for boldly stylistic visual direction and design work is as on point as its ever been in Promare, all while retaining a unique identity all its own. Certain trademarks of the studio and Imaishi’s creative sensibilities are fully accounted for with the vivid color palettes and recurring design tropes (Galo’s spiked blue hair and brash overconfidence has been repeatedly likened to Kamina from Gurren Lagann, for example), but the film has a uniquely futuristic identity to it. This is made immediately clear with the opening montage, where the Burnish epidemic is communicated through heavy use of geometric shapes like triangles and other heavily angular formations alongside an intense neon color palette that’s not far off from the aesthetic of games like Furi or Hotline Miami. On top of this, the soundtrack from Hiroyuki Sawano takes his more industrial synth-heavy tendencies and places them at the forefront of the music, sounding like his take on a Carpenter Brut or Perturbator album, falling perfectly in line with the hyper-futuristic visual design.
These design choices remain consistent throughout the entire film, and when the bright colors and heavily angular geometric visuals combine with the stellar direction within the film’s various action sequences, that’s when the film shines with that special Trigger flare. Seeing the intensely detailed and stylized mech designs (Galo’s own mech armor, named MATOI, is a particular standout) come into contact with the constantly shifting neon purple glows of the Burnish menace makes for some incredibly striking action and imagery. The scale and scope of the fights is also impressive, as you can always feel just how massive the damage is alongside the sheer intensity of the powers of everyone involved. This gets even more over-the-top as, of course, this is a Trigger production, meaning that naturally the battles can grow to be so massive as to be universe-engulfing like the climax of Gurren Lagann. The last 30 minutes in particular are just a pure fireworks show of explosions and mech fusions, complimented by some excellent sound design work that makes every electrical flicker and explosion burst with impactful sonic detail.
The experience of Promare as another Imaishi-led fireworks display is as satisfying to watch as it’s ever been for any long-time fans of his work, and while the characters and story are on very similar levels of engaging and huge-sounding in their emotions, it’s also here where the film can admittedly present something of an issue. I’ve neglected to mention any concrete plot and fuller character details until now, and while I’m not planning to break down every facet of the story in an overly lengthy digression, it’s worth noting the broad trajectory. As previously mentioned, the story begins with Burnish as a threat to be contained and dealt with as swiftly as possible. The conflict is painted as black/white and straightforward: Galo and Burning Rescue are the good guys, Mad Burnish are the villains, and it’s as simple as that. However, as the plot goes on, things become quite muddy and not as clear: characters like Vulcan, the colonel of a police force working on Burnish-related crimes, seems to take a suspicious glee in masochistic treatment of any and all Burnish, even including an attack on a Burnish who had spent his life minding his business working inside of a pizzeria.
Further reversals are entirely present and accounted for, including the realization that the city’s leader, Mayor Foresight, someone that Galo sees as a guiding figure in his life, may not be entirely truthful or noble in his intentions. These plot beats and character twists are not bad or anything: far from it, in fact. Seeing the way these explosive personalities clash and play off each other is as engaging and fun as anything else the studio has ever made, and some of the film’s strongest moments are surprisingly found in its quieter moments. When Mad Burnish is captured and imprisoned by Vulcan, we’re given an opportunity to see victims of the Burnish epidemic caught alongside them, forcing us to question the nature of the conflict early on. Additionally, there’s a moment in the middle of the film where Galo and Lio are face-to-face with one another and have a tense conversation that forces Galo himself to reevaluate his priorities in the overarching story. Beats like these work wonderfully well, and they offer a nice balance to the more grandiose displays of character and emotion throughout.
As for the aforementioned potential issues for viewers, these mainly come towards the final act when the film characteristically floors it into a massive explosion of sound and visual fury. From the citywide carnage to the mech fusions and the expected galaxy-sized final moments (wouldn’t be Trigger without that little detail), the action spectacle is suitably grand and satisfying… but then the plot comes into play. The best way to describe the film’s climax is to imagine the entire back half of Kill La Kill crammed into about a half hour of screentime. Not only does this apply to the action, but this also applies to the plot, as during all of this chaos, the story throws out tons of backstory details solidifying the true alliances of the various players in the conflict as well as the truth of the Burnish epidemic… and it just slams you with all of this throughout the climax. The narrative issue here is that while the details themselves aren’t bad or anything, it becomes a little too much to handle when watching, especially on a first viewing. Anyone watching this will naturally tend to focus first on the action, which again is spectacular in its overblown scale, visual inventiveness, and striking color palettes, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t possible to get completely lost in trying to follow every reversal and twist in the story. You could very well make the argument that maybe if this was a 13-26 episode TV anime series, then this section of the film could have been more fleshed out with smoother pacing overall.
With all that said, Promare is yet another triumph for the catalog of Studio Trigger. The film brings some of their most striking and unique production design yet through its bright neon colors and futuristic setting. The characters are every bit as fun and engaging as ever, delivering strong chemistry and gargantuan emotional flair at every turn, and the film is just a wild ride from beginning to end. Promare is, as suggested earlier, basically an entire Trigger TV series condensed into just shy of a 2 hour runtime. While the climax can be a bit much to handle on a first time viewing with how much spectacle and plot it tries to throw in, this isn’t enough to detract from the enjoyability of the film as a whole, which is absolutely sure to be the latest crowd-pleasing staple from one of modern anime’s most consistently exciting studios. I absolutely recommend seeing this film with as large an audience as possible as soon as it opens.
Promare is licensed by GKIDS and will receive limited screenings on September 17th and 19th with a wider rollout planned on September 20th.