It’s incredible to me that within the space of less than two years I’ve been given two animated movies that are very special to me. The first, of course, is Spider-Verse. The latter, and subject of this post, is Studio Trigger’s first feature length movie, Promare. Indeed its incredible for me to say this, but I actually have wound up loving Promare even more, albeit for disreputable reasons. Promare is schlocky in a manner that Spider-Verse is not, but rarely is schlock done with this degree of craftsmanship and wit. Moreover it’s my kind of schlock.
Promare’s director, Hiroyuki Imashi, helmed Gurren Lagann at Gainax Studios before breaking off to form Trigger, and the work serves as a sort of ur-text for Trigger’s MO. I’d describe it as a sort of “shounen anime punk” style, in that it takes a lot of hoary old anime tropes and simply does them harder and faster than anyone else, almost as a self-conscious response to the art rock progginess of something like Gainax’s Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Anyway, Trigger is probably best known now for Kill La Kill, which Imashi worked on, and is sort of the sister show to Gurren Lagann, and exactly the sort I’d like to point towards to illustrate the Chuck Jones-esque command of expressing character through cartoonish 2D animation that Trigger can have at its best, but the show’s unabashed horniness prevents it from being an easy recommendations.
Promare exists within the same aesthetic continuum of these shows (but, thankfully, with significantly reduced horny), and posits the question: is it possible to make the Trigger style function within a self-contained movie, and with a considerably more lavish budget?
Anyway, the premise of Promare is that a bunch of humans at one point spontaneously mutated into “Burnish”, gaining the power to make things spontaneously combust. These powers spiralling out of control led to worldwide catastrophe and political chaos. Thirty years later, civilization has recovered, but the burnish remain a feared and hated minority. Ultra-macho Kamina-expy Galo Thymos is a new recruit of Burning Rescue, a squad of firefighters that utilize giant robot tech. He quickly picks up a fierce rivalry with the rather more androgynous Lio Fotia, leader of the burnish terrorist group Mad Burnish, which fights for Burnish liberation. Of course, Galo’s desire to save lives and Lio’s desire to liberate the oppressed means that they will learn to put aside their differences to fight against the evil authoritarian foe who is interested in neither of these things.
The thing is, (aside from having evidently stolen character names from Final Fantasy XVI’s design doc) Promare just keeps stacking on high concepts onto this extremely high concept premise, and crams an entire anime season’s worth of plot developments into its 111 minute runtime. Normally this would be a problem (and indeed issues of pacing and scope are prevalent in a lot of anime movies), but here it’s part of the movie’s general thrust, which is one of being utterly overwhelming. Promare wants to overwhelm us, not just visually (we’ll get to that), but in terms of just how just kinda bludgeons you over the head with how many increasingly ridiculous developments the plot can throw at us, almost even turning plot exposition into a kind of action set piece. It’s too self-conscious to not be intentional. Like how the punk rock album Pink Flag crams 21 songs into 35 minutes, Promare is highly programmatic in how, upon immediately stating an idea, it just drops it for the next one and does not allow us to find our footing as it changes gears all over the place. This sort of take-no-prisoners approach could easily be alienating to someone who doesn’t get it, but it’s immensely gratifying if you can get on its wavelength, and rewards repeat viewings. It all resolves into being extremely stupid stuff you’ve seen in anime before, and specifically Imashi’s oeuvre (characters overcoming oppression through sheer optimism and their willingness to punch everything) just not at this high a temperature, and with a total commitment to its own increasing absurdism.
This is mirrored by how the movie looks. Animation which heavily combines 2D and 3D tends to have difficulty in conveying the sense that these two aspects share the same plane of existence with each other. Promare overcomes this by not bothering to, instead calling attention to the clash between the two styles and the essential artificiality of the medium. The CG is often untextured and extremely geometrical, and the 2D animation seems to want to be popping out of the world it inhabits. It’s hella weird, and something which probably would be too uncanny with a more realistic approach to character design. But it fits anime’s tendency towards simple, angular and iconic characters, and once your brain adjusts, it just works. It shouldn’t, but it does. All this abstraction should leave the action feeling weightless, but they manage to give all that colour and shape such weight and kinetic energy. Everything is done to excess, the choreography, the sheer amount of incident crammed into the frame, the bright, eye-searing colours. But it works. It’s like if Kandinsky became a manga artist instead of an abstract expressionist, and then that got adapted into a movie. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s absolutely beautiful. It may not be quite as groundbreaking as something like Spider-Verse, but it’s a work of beauty.
Since I know I can be “gay this, gay that” a lot these days, I suppose I’d be remiss to not mention Promare does kinda bang on the mutant-as-queer thing quite a bit, albeit in a manner which makes it uncertain whether this was intentional, or completely thought through. Burnish flames being depicted as pink triangles, and the Burnish themselves as literal flamers who try to keep a low profile are things which are too stupid and on the nose to be read as intentional subtext, but also by that token too obvious to feel like a happy coincidence. Both the subs and dubs refer to “Burnish pride”, which for all I know may be a liberty taken by the localizers, but does suggest at least that it isn’t just fans who want to give Promare a queer reading. To say nothing about how just dang campy all the proceedings are, with even Galo’s masculine swagger being a kind of sexy shirtless firefighter trope.
I also can’t help but note (to get into somewhat more spoilery territory) how the villain, Governor Kray, picks up increasingly Nazi-esque characteristics in the reveal of his willingness to sacrifice lives for his own purified vision of humanity, and how the moment he loses his conscience is when he kills his colleague, a character named Professor Deus. I’m almost entirely sure this guy’s name was chosen so they could get away with calling the giant robot he creates, “Deus Ex Machina”, but it adds a certain blatant poetry to the villain’s own God-wannabe status.
I suppose all this takes me back to my previous point about Promare’s densely packed, extremely silly plot. The more I think about Promare, the more ridiculous it seems, but also I keep pulling more weird layers out of it, wondering what makes it tick. I think about how in just trying to be a little bit of anime fun it seems to be more interested in pushing the formal boundaries of animation than Disney or Pixar has for some time. A lot of art tries to be smart and fails; Promare wants to be idiotic and seems to keep failing upwards.