Viewers are often drawn to anime for its inventive visuals and few anime directors working today can hold a candle to the visual inventiveness of Hiroyuki Imaishi. A longtime member of famed animation studio Studio GAINAX, Imaishi cut his teeth as an animator on projects like Neon Genesis Evangelion (which somewhat famously arrived on Netflix over this past summer), FLCL, and His and Her Circumstances. His directorial debut, the straight-to-video Dead Leaves in 2004, established his trademark frenetic pacing, exaggerated character movements, and unusual-yet-visually-arresting framing choices. He showed his range on his next two GAINAX projects, the mecha action series Gurren Lagann (2007) and the Adult Swim-ish comedy Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (2010). After that wrapped, Imaishi left the friendly confines of GAINAX, cofounding a new animation studio, Studio TRIGGER, and went on to direct its breakout hits, KILL la KILL (2013) and Little Witch Academia (2017). Following up on this string of success is Promare, the first theatrical film for both Imaishi and TRIGGER, which was released theatrically in Japan in May, with a limited theatrical engagement in America this week (see bottom of the article for details).
One day, all across the world, a sudden genetic mutation took place, causing people to spontaneously combust and half the world to be engulfed in flames. Thirty years later, these mutants, dubbed “Burnish,” are hated and feared by a misunderstanding populace. Whenever a Burnish makes use of their powers, the firefighting squad Burning Rescue is dispatched to take care of the problem.
After the bare minimum of world-building, we join Burning Rescue on a rescue mission for the ages, a 15-minute long firefight that builds up to a confrontation between spiky-haired Galo Thymos (Kenichi Matsuyama in the original Japanese, Billy Kametz in the English dub), Burning Rescue’s brashest recruit, and Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome/Johnny Yong Bosch), the leader of the Burnish terrorist group Mad Burnish. Far from a simple action setpiece, Imaishi uses the rescue to immerse the viewer in the action. As Burning Rescue burst onto the scene, the camera rides along for every movement, blasting along as vehicles zoom in and out of the burning building and spiraling around mecha as they transform. The final battle between Galo in his mech and Lio on a flaming, Ghost Rider-esque motorcycle that spins and zooms around the characters as they engage without ever the viewer ever losing perspective. This is what Michael Bay aims for in the Transformers movies, only here it actually works.
None of this would be possible without computer animation, yet Promare eschews the typical modern 3-D style made famous by Pixar for the cell-shaded look of classic anime. One neat trick is the Burnish flames, which are animated in 3-D-friendly geometric shapes, which emphasizes the otherness of the flames as our humanoid characters are engulfed in jagged purple triangles and quadrilaterals.
Galo defeats Lio in his initial firefight only to have the credit stolen by Freeze Force, the government sanctioned Burnish hunters. Galo distrusts the Freeze Force but has all the faith in the world in Kray Foresight (Masato Sakai/Crispin Freeman), the city’s governor whose political career jumpstarted when, as a young man, he rescued Galo from a burning building. Galo’s trust falters, however, when he sees Freeze Force arrest a Burnish whose only crime was using his flame powers to cook the perfect pizza. Lio, meanwhile, makes a jailbreak with countless Burnish in tow, setting up a showdown between the escaped Burnish, Freeze Force, and a firefighter whose soul burns for justice.
With its heavy emphasis on the unfairness on judging people solely by their genetic circumstances, Promare’s screenplay (penned by Kazuki Nakashima, Imaishi’s screenwriting partner in crime on both Gurren Lagann and KILL la KILL) borrows a page from all your favorite X-Men stories to create an allegory against racism and bigotry dressed up in sci-fi action trappings. It doesn’t do anything new with the allegory itself, but that’s okay, because the plot is generally there to hook on the action sequences, of which there are many, all of which are jaw-dropping in their execution. Designer Shigeto Koyama (another Imaishi/TRIGGER regular) took great pains to give inventive designs to even the most ancillary of characters; between their cool looks and Nakashima’s snappy dialogue, you’re left wanting a full-on TV series following the adventures of Burning Rescue even though you barely get to know any of them outside of Galo and Aina (Aane Sakura/Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld), a girl who serves as Galo’s conscience and whose scientist sister lives at the heart of the drama in the film’s second half. | Jason Green
Promare will have a limited two-night theatrical engagement on September 17 (dubbed in English) and September 19 (in Japanese with English subtitles), courtesy of Fathom Events. Showings are at 7:00PM at Ronnie’s Cine (5320 S. Lindbergh), Regal Gravois Bluffs Stadium 12 (754 Gravois Bluffs Rd.), and St. Charles Cine (1830 @. 1st Capitol Dr.). For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://www.fathomevents.com/events/promare.