'Promare' Review: Anime With A Burning Soul

The only thing cooler than firefighters is firefighters in mechas.

Promare

When I was five, I wanted to be a firefighter. Firefighters are cool. They get to drive cool fire trucks, have cool dogs in their cool firehouse, and slide down a cool pole. There’s a sort of unambiguous goodness about people who put their lives on the line purely to save lives. Cops and soldiers are mired in political controversy, but the only one to blame in a fire incident is perhaps an arsonist, and that’s not even the firefighter’s job to deal with. Firefighters just save lives and kick ass.

Promare, the first feature from renowned animation studio Studio Trigger, is a heroic adventure with a firefighter hero. It’s a concept dreamed up by the five-year-old in all of us; the firefighters even have mechas, which might be the only way to make firefighters even more awesome. When I spoke with director Hiroyuki Imaishi at Anime Expo 2019, he notes: “I grew up on mecha anime; I’m familiar with it, and, well, I just like it. As an animator, I’ve been working on mecha anime for so long, that my skills are rooted in this genre.” He clarifies a couple of basic facts; that the team behind this film has been working together for years, and development on this project began in 2013, around the time that Studio Trigger was working on Kill La Kill.

Imaishi’s previous series’ Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt have garnered him international fame, and Trigger’s work, like Space Patrol Luluco and Little Witch Academia, cemented the bombastic animation style they are known for. Promare is a film that is bursting from the seams with energy, much like the burning soul of main character Galo Thymus, a rising star in the… celebrity firefighting world of Promepolis, where a terrorist group known as Mad Burnish regularly starts fires. Galo and his team, Burning Rescue, drive around the city in their cool fire truck (the “ladder” is a cannon that shoots the mechs for rapid deployment!!) to respond to arsonist attacks, and with their awesome mechas and teamwork, save lives and defeat the terrorists.

But all is not as it appears when Galo discovers that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and that that the Burnish people are actually an entire oppressed social caste of mutants who can’t control their fire powers. What follows is a colorful and action-packed ride that wastes absolutely zero time.

The film uses a unique blend of Trigger’s distinctive hand-drawn animation style and cel-shaded 3D to create brilliant action sequences that take up nearly half the movie’s entire runtime. While the 3D CG elements are kind of polygonal and simplistic — Imaishi notes that “Japanese CG animation technology is not as advanced, so the characters’ movement and expressions are more limited” — they are mostly limited to the environments and mechas, which Imaishi claims “[gives] the mechas more detail, and [gives us, the filmmakers] more freedom to move the camera around in that space.” The limits of the CG elements are also flexed to add stylization to the film’s art style, which has a sort of “triangley” modernism about it.

The hand-drawn stuff, meanwhile, is pure Trigger. The characters are given lighter outlines that soften the feel of the film as a whole, and bring out the eyeball-searing color. Action sequences are wild and well-choreographed, and, in classic Trigger fashion, the animators aren’t afraid to go off model and get really cartoony for comedy and expression of character. All the characters, even the minor ensemble background players, have unique personalities that come through their design, and the film both looks and moves gorgeously.

But just because Promare feels childish doesn’t make it so; the film isn’t afraid to dive into some heavy topics. As mentioned above, “terrorist” is a matter of perspective, and the film doesn’t shy away from that fact. Galo’s final battle is not with the rival character set up in the film’s opening scene, but rather with a corrupt executive/government official who is using the oppressed minority as subjects for human experimentation. But the film still reaffirms the value of heroes, and if the protagonists win it’ll be through the sheer power of idealistic will, and also by punching the planet into submission.

Yeah, it’s wild. And I love it. Promare is an animated movie for the child in all of us, the way classic Disney movies under Walt himself were. It’s a fitting masterwork for Imaishi’s first feature. Be sure to catch it if you can when it drops in the States on the 20th.

All I do all day is think about cartoons.