Does Promare Live Up to the Hype?
From its founding in 2011, premier Japanese animation house Studio Trigger has created hit after hit, from their debut anime Kill La Kill to more recent hits like Little Witch Academia and Darling in the Franxx. Up until recently, Studio Trigger only produced TV anime, with the exception of a few Little Witch Academia short films. However, in May 2019, the company released their first full-length film, Promare, which is reaching immense popularity stateside. I hadn't heard of Promare until about a month ago (and originally confused it with the similarly-named magical girl series Precure), but it has quickly become a staple of anime fan circles. Yet it has two major things to live up to--the prestige of the studio that made it, and the hype it has created among international audiences.
As a newcomer to Studio Trigger, the hype piqued my curiosity, and while I can't judge it based on studio standards, I can judge it on its own merit. As a standalone film, Promare provides a great introduction to an ambitious animation studio and a stellar first film.
What is Promare About?
Promare is an interesting blend of several popular genres, including post-apocalyptic science fiction and mecha anime. Thirty years before the story begins, a disaster known as the Great World Blaze killed half of Earth's population. This worldwide inferno was caused by the sudden appearance of Burnish, a mutated race of humans who generate fire from their bodies. Humanity has progressed into relative normalcy since then, but Burnish terrorist attacks are still somewhat common, with specialized police and fire departments dedicating their lives to stopping them and catching the culprits.
Galo, a rookie firefighter, apprehends Lio, the leader of the Mad Burnish terrorist group, in a particularly rough battle between humans and Burnish. However, as he gets to know the young rebel, he comes to realize truths about his society that have been kept from him and learns of a threat even greater than the Burnish themselves.
At first glance, nothing about Promare looks particularly new. When the film was released, it elicited controversy among some anime fans for its similarity to Fire Force, another story about firefighters and supernatural fires. Similarly, its characters, from the impulsive showboat Galo to the mysterious and morally ambiguous Lio, seem familiar from other sources. The first half hour makes it seem as though it will be a simple action movie with simple action movie tropes. Studio Trigger nevertheless excels at making Promare a surprisingly complex film.
Much of this stems from the Burnish subplot, which humanizes the so-called "villains" and takes us on a journey much like the one Galo experiences. Throughout the movie, they're portrayed as a group who aren't entirely peaceful, but still have an honor code and refuse to use their powers to kill humans. (At least directly, seeing as the blazes they start do cause significant collateral damage. But since the plot implies that they're magically compelled to start fires, it's still a noble attempt.) Those who can control their powers tend to use them for mundane purposes, such as using their fire to cook pizza on a brick oven. Seeing the innocent Burnish pizza chef being arrested is a particularly striking scene, making us wonder if this seemingly innocent arrangement is more of a police state than anything else. The more we watch, the more we're forced to question this world alone with Galo as the movie turns into a frenetic sci-fi extravaganza.
Aside from the symbolism behind the Burnish (who stand in for real-life injustices much like X-Men mutants), the chemistry between Galo and Lio is what really moves the plot forward in my opinion. Compared to his fellow citizens, Galo is almost a little too naive, taking Lio at his word rather than questioning his motivations. This somewhat hampers the plot and makes Galo's change of heart seem rushed, but develops him far beyond the hothead he first appears to be. Similarly, Lio's willingness to see Galo as an ally shows that his anger is with the system humans have created, not humans themselves. While Lio initially came across as the more sympathetic character to me, I grew to love both of them and wholeheartedly cheered them on.
We can't talk about their chemistry, however, without talking about the fans' responses to it. While Promare prioritizes action over romance, Lio and Galo's admittedly excellent dynamic led them to become one of anime's favorite new couples practically overnight. Though I don't engage much in the shipping community, I admit to being one of many people who see romantic subtext in their interactions. One scene in particular with them plays off classic fairy tale vibes, and arguably skirts straight over subtext as much as it can without a direct love confession.
Unfortunately, Promare's vast ensemble of characters tend not to shine as much as its two heroes. Galo's firefighter coworkers are endearing enough, but seem relatively undeveloped, with only one receiving anything close to significant development. Its attempts to humanize the real villains of the story fall much flatter than its humanization of the Burnish. However, Lio and Galo alone are just fascinating enough to command the entire movie, even without a particularly interesting background cast.
Promare stands out from other anime with its detailed, yet stylized animation. Rather, it seems to be far more akin to Into the Spider-Verse, with its intensely bright coloring and neon depictions of city skylines. Both strike me as having an almost "retro" feel to them, embracing the aesthetics of comic books (in Spider-Verse's case) or Saturday morning cartoons (in Promare's case). Seeing firefighters climb into giant robots for the first time almost made me feel like I was watching a higher-budget version of the cartoons I enjoyed as a child, both in the concept and the frenetic pace Promare takes. This sort of stylization, to me at least, is immensely nostalgic, and I enjoyed seeing it just as much as I did when I was young.
What makes the color scheme especially interesting to me is that, in Promare, fire is always pink. Not only does this emphasize the almost supernatural beauty humans see in fire, but it also helps the animators successfully portray it without needing to worry about making it seem realistic. (Fully realistic fire is a common complaint of animators for the amount of shading it requires, and I appreciate Studio Trigger's attempt to give its animators a little less trouble. Plus, neon pink fire is a surprisingly cool aesthetic, to the point where a city on fire instead made me think, "That'd make a neat wallpaper.")
All in all, Promare is equally action-packed and thought-provoking, never letting the audience dwell on one dilemma for too long. Whether it's the animation, characterization, or plot, at least one thing from this movie will capture you and refuse to let you go.