Promare is a fantastic-looking and -feeling movie that suffers from the flaw of only being okay as a story. This flaw is not fatal; many movies with unbounded visual ambition can use that to make up for having less elsewhere to bring to the table. What irks me is that the people responsible — Studio Trigger, director Hiroyuki Imaishi, writer Kazuki Nakashima — did so well with both visuals and story before in their long-form TV productions like Kill La Kill. Here, with only 120 minutes or so to play with, it feels like they're cutting themselves off at the knees. But my recommendation is to see it anyway, especially in a theater where it can wallpaper the senses as it is designed to. It's also an original project, not a sequel or a theatrical spinoff of a franchise, something that afflicts the J-culture corner of the world as much as the mainstream. And when all else is said and done and debated, it is a heck of a lot of fun.
Imaishi's previous projects sported various central motifs: the spiral (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann), the thread (Kill La Kill). Here, it's fire. Decades ago the world was ravaged by spontaneous outbreaks of pyrokinesis, and the "Burnish" (as these new fire-wielders were called) very nearly destroyed everything. Since then, they've been contained by the tireless efforts of the "Burning Rescue" squads, firefighters who use robot exo-suits and oxygen-destroying beams to combat both the Burnish and the blazes they set.
The Burning Rescue squad's current rising star is a hotshot hothead named Galo Thymos (Kenichi Matsuyama / Billy Kametz). Subtlety and strategy are not his thing; he throws himself in headlong where both angels and devils alike fear to tread. His desire to save the innocent and his passion for stopping the Burnish in their tracks both get satisfied one day when a rescue mission on a burning city highrise to rescue some trapped scientists turns into a one-on-one face-off between him and Lio Fotia (Taichi Saotome / Johnny Yong Bosch), the young leader of the "Mad Burnish" terrorist cell.
Fotia is the opposite of Thymos in most every way: collected, focused, detached, disciplined. But he and his archenemy are at least as much similar as they are different in their devotion to a cause and in their dedication to protect others in the service of that cause. Fotia fights to set the Burnish free, to have them no longer seen as terrorists to be clapped into Burnish-power-suppressing restraints, but as beings with rights. Thymos wants nothing more than to keep others safe, in the same way his own master Kray Foresight (Masato Sakai / Crispin Freeman) risked his life to save him from a burning building.
After being captured, Fotia engineers a jailbreak, sending Thymos and the others after him again. But there are now hints of how both sides of the struggle are not what they seem — how the origins of the Burnish have been systematically suppressed, and how Foresight has plans of his own for the greater good that threaten to put both Fotia and Thymos in jeopardy. The two rivals now have to blend strengths that seem only conflicting, not complementary, and deal with new dangers both from without and within.
TV storytelling versus feature-film ambitions
At no time did I doubt the technical credits for Promare would let me down. Studio Trigger's work dazzles at TV length, and with a feature-film budget and several years' worth of work they straight-up threaten to melt the eyes out of the head with what's on display here. Imaishi and his cohorts also labored to develop a distinct look for the film, a pastel-neon retrowave color palette for both their hand-drawn character / feature animation and the low-poly digital backgrounds. Most every action scene is outstanding, but my favorite is one that expresses both character and physical behavior, when Fotia unleashes a dragon-like energy monster on a city. It's all as much its own thing as REDLINE was, and like that movie it gets even more propulsion from its music, here scored with seat-rattling energy by Hiroyuki Sawano (Kill La Kill). Seeing this in a theater is a must.
What's less effective is, curiously, something that has also long been a Studio Trigger strength: the story and character development. Not in the sense that it's shallow, although there's only so much depth that can be read into someone like Thymos.(Fotia has more to him, and ironically ends up having more justice done to him.) It's in how the development and progression of the story's revelations and surprises in Nakashima's screenplay are hustled past everyone, characters and audience, in a way that makes them feel like even the movie doesn't care about them. It comes off as a project originally made for TV — although Imaishi and Co. have gone on record saying it was always meant to be a film — then converted into a two-hour feature by cutting up the show and reshooting some exposition. One major plot revelation is hustled through by way of a info-dump lecture, and the filmmakers try to compensate for that by making a joke out of the contempt such a move shows for the protagonist. But such a move also shows at least as much contempt for the audience, and that's harder to laugh off.
None of this kills the movie; in fact, I suspect it won't hurt it all that much for most people, because of the sheer amount of energy and invention it has to spare. I admired the way the visuals stir in a whole slew of influences — not just low-poly video games or giant robots and armored suits, but old-school Edo-era fireman culture (also honored, via an entirely different manner of visual dazzle, in Katsuhiro Ōtomo's "Combustible"). And existing Imaishi / Trigger fans will find plenty to savor: Thymos is essentially a reincarnation of Gurren Lagann's Kamina (and who has to make choices at least as tough), and the way on-screen titles partake of the action directly is a wink at Kill La Kill. But the movie exists independently of those touches; they're bonuses, not the main feature.
With animation, and maybe movies in general, the temptation is always to ask, Did I see something I've never seen before? and leave it at that. But I'm finding another question goes with it: What didn't I see? With Promare I saw the kind of visual invention and heedless energy anime has as one of its greatest strengths. I also saw how Imaishi and Trigger need to craft their shorter projects to have stronger pacing and development in that form factor, the better to make a completely great movie instead of just a good-to-great one.