There’s nothing better than leaving a film having had expectations blown away. That surprise and elation are fantastic feelings which frequently bring about a lasting smile. Chances are, if you’re even checking out this review, that’s what’s going to happen to you after you watch the latest film from Studio TRIGGER, Promare. Though it takes some getting used to as the animation is visually overwhelming at first, once the viewer is acclimated, Promare is a roller coaster ride of action, excitement, intentional hilarity, and moving storytelling. Frankly, director Hiroyuki Imaishi (Kill La Kill series) doesn’t just use the animation style as dressing, but as a significant aspect of the narrative. This technique hasn’t been as ingeniously integrated since 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Buckle yourselves in, folks. Once Promare gets started, there’s no leaving this ride until it’s over.
One day, 30 years ago, something miraculous and terrifying occurred as a seemingly random set of people around the world began to burst into flames. As more fires began to rage and no one could understand the meaning of it, a global panic began, exacerbated when fires spread so widely as to try to engulf the entire planet. Dubbed the Burnish, anyone believed to possess this ability was hunted down and locked away under the guise of public safety. In response to the widespread damage, a special fire fighting force called Burning Rescue is put together to combat the supernaturally strong fires the Burnish create. While on an average mission, BR rookie Galo Thymos (voiced by Kenichi Matsuyama) comes face-to-face with infamous Burnish leader Lio Fotia (voiced by Taichi Saotome). This is the first time the two meet and neither could know that this chance meeting decides the fate of the entire human race.
It’s a bold statement to compare Promare to the 2019 Academy Award-winning Into the Spider-Verse, but it’s a statement worth making. If you watch the trailer, the animation is the first thing you’ll notice. It’s almost a distraction from the content as colors flash across the screen in hyperkinetic fashion. Truth is, it’s quite overwhelming in the beginning, but as you get used to the visual style, camera speed, and movement of the characters, what you witness is almost like ballet. After the opening, which quickly moves the audience through the foundational elements of the Burnish and the global response, the story shifts to present day as BR mobilizes to address a fire on a high rise. In this sequence, each member of the team is introduced, as well as their respective roles on the team. In typical anime fashion, as each character is intro’d, the screen freezes on them and their name is plastered beneath. This occurs for every new character and any significant moment forward so that the audience can get a toehold on what’s happening. The toehold’s required because information comes at you as quickly as the visual elements swirl around to frequent dizzying effect. This is highlighted in the opening as BR member Lucia (voiced by Mayumi Shintani) projects teammates Remi (voiced by Hiroyuki Yoshino) and Varys (voiced by Tetsu Inada) out of the fire truck through the air so that they can land, already packed in mech units, at the fire site ahead of the rest of the team. The camera moves without regard for a locked perspective. Instead, it slides to whichever position the action requires (up, left, down, right, close, away) as it swings on an invisible sling. Doing this escalates the feeling of action that a more locked perspective would diminish, choosing to put the audience inside any conflict instead of just watching from a distance. This does instill a bit of disorientation, but the opening sequence does such a wonderful job of keeping the POV clear wherever the camera is pointed, that the confused sensation is easily shaken off, which is great because each action sequence just gets better and better as the film goes on.
As strong as the direction is, the story itself is somehow harder to grasp than tracking the action. It’s not that it’s overly complicated, it’s that the explanations take such enormous lengths to explain that even Galo can’t seem to maintain his focus during an exposition dump. (It’s a hilarious sequence to behold, but also adds a layer of distraction the already stimulus-overloaded Promare doesn’t need. But I digress.) What we *need* to know, the Kazuki Nakashima’s (Batman Ninja) script lays in disproportionate chunks. This works in some areas and less so in others. In the opening, the audience is given the full history of the last 30 years in summation, which does a great job of laying the groundwork for the first action sequence post-intro. However, the interactions during the sequence are so fast-paced that it’s sometimes difficult to track who is doing what and what the roles are. The biggest tip to take away before seeing Promare is that some aspects are difficult to follow due to rapid movement and incredible use of color, specifically during the fight sequences. In those moments, it’s better to just let the details wash over you. Focusing on the context over details will enable you to enjoy the ride, especially when the fighting gets particularly intense. What Nakashima’s script does do exceptionally well, however, is play into the expectations of anime. The aforementioned title cards that appear? They don’t always go away. In one fight sequence, a building is transformed into compost and the name of the weapon is given its own splash card over the remains. As the camera pulls back to show the combatants, the splash card is still visible in the distance at the damage site. Or, a personal favorite, when the heroes receive a piece of equipment titled Deus X Machina. If you look up the term, you’d see a photo of this newly presented equipment right there. In the same way the color-bleeding and Ben-Day dots in Spider-Verse are references to the source material, these are just two examples of how both Imaishi and Nakashima are aware of the tropes of anime and utilize them to hilariously engaging extents.
The biggest shock of Promare comes when you strip away the futuristic tech and the scientific talk, and focus solely on the human element. Even as Promare ramps up to its brain-rattling climax, it never loses its humanity. Galo might be a rookie driven by a past trauma, but he’s got a hero’s heart. Like the audience’s, his journey requires a change in perspective and its one that feels earned and rewarding. It’s easy in a film with giant robots and flame dragons to forget that the purported bad guys are just humans with a condition they didn’t ask for, who are persecuted in the name of public safety. It’s fear and a desire for control which pushes the narrative, creating the perception Galo grows up with, putting him in immediate opposition to Lio. As Promare progresses, not only is the audience allowed to peek into what it means to be a Burnish, but they get an injection of skepticism about the information they’ve been given. Suddenly there are real questions being poised about which side of the 30-year skirmish is valid and what position the audience would take. Granted, it’s an aspect that’s easily projected after the opening sequence, but it’s no less effective in eliciting an emotional response.
There’s nothing in Promare that isn’t thoughtful or specific in its action or intent. The visuals are stunning, the performances are engaging (even if a bit on the nose with the anime tropes), Hiroyuki Sawano’s (Kill La Kill) score mixed with a few pop songs compliments the needs of the scenes wonderfully, and the narrative is compassionate, even when throwing fists. Promare is definitely a bit of sensory-overload, which creates a few problems with tracking and engagement, but if you can stay locked in, you’re in for a really good time. Heck, some parts may make you feel like you should wear fire-retardant clothes.
For locations and times of locations screenings, head to the official Promare website. Be advised that dubbed screenings appear to be taking place on September 17th, while the subtitled screenings are on September 19th.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.