Anime maniacs have been waiting for this day: Eight years ago, Hiroyuki Imaishi co-founded Studio Trigger with the goal of one day hatching a feature as wild and innovative as his TV series “Gurren Lagann” and “Kill la Kill.” Now he has. Every bit as loud and ambitious as one might expect from a visual artist with such a hyperactive imagination, sci-fi action-adventure “Promare” checks all the conventional anime boxes — post-apocalyptic setting, mecha suits and plenty of fan service — but it’s still an exciting watch.
With “Promare,” which has already earned $10 million in its native Japan, the payoff is the seamless mix of 2D elements in 3D environments with a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack that seeps in at the right times. Best seen with a rowdy audience — like those who came out for dubbed and subtitled versions shown via nationwide Fathom Events screenings on Sept. 17 and 19 — this cult-ready GKIDS release will get a more traditional rollout in larger U.S. markets starting Sept. 20.
“Promare” opens as the people of Promepolis are taken over by a strange entity causing them to combust into flames spontaneously. While the onset of this event is unknown, the effect seems clear, leaving these random individuals with the power of pyrokinesis, a mutation that causes an extinction-level event called the “the great world blaze.” Thirty years after the phenomenon scorches much of the planet, the government implements separation policies, pushing the fire benders (now called “the Burnish”) to the edges of society. The now-oppressed group and their leader, Lio Fortia, stage a series of fires around the city to protest the cruel treatment against them.
The city is under the rule of mayor Kray Foresight, who put provisions in place to combat Burnish terrorism. Special operations teams Fire Rescue extinguishes Burnish flames, while the Freeze Force moves like the Gestapo, rounding up the Burnish and throwing them in prison. Galo Thymos, a Fire Rescue rookie, is caught in the middle, and his allegiance to the mayor is tested as he learns more about the Burnish. As Galo dives deeper into the rabbit hole, civil war ensues, and he realizes this marginalized community is not the real enemy.
Anime is often dismissed as cartoons for children, which many are, but not “Promare.” Beneath a veneer of stylized visual effects, the theme of classism reverberates throughout the story, in which catastrophe looms over humanity and only an elite, chosen few will reap the benefits of a new world. However, just as this aspect begins to materialize fully, new information is presented late in the film that throws the plot off balance. Exposition and filler bring the pace to a halt and seem more like an attempt to pad out the runtime to an unnecessary 110 minutes than to explain the purpose of these new details.
Galo, Lito and Kray all exist as typical hero/villain archetypes, and every move they make is rife with predictable characteristics and dialogue. What will hold the attention of the audience is the bright, eye-popping graphics. Sweeping shots of the electric neon landscape make this fictional setting appear grand in scale. Contrary to classical anime, where the action feels fixed and the frame seldom moves, in “Promare,” 3DCG rendering technology makes it possible for a virtual camera to swoop and circle while hand-drawn characters do battle in three-dimensional space. Purists may scoff at this new aesthetic, but the approach has evolved considerably since Shinji Aramaki’s 2004 anime feature “Appleseed,” which attempted the same process with more uneven results.
Composer Hiroyuki Sawano’s score keeps the hype elevated during the rapid-fire action scenes between man, fire and machine, and original songs are tailored for the action — such as Benjamin Anderson’s “Inferno,” an ideal theme song to accompany these flaming protagonists as they cause maximum damage. The film offers no shortage of action sequences set in a visually stunning space, but all that energy feels like overcompensation for the lack of narrative development. While the results are entertaining, there’s a nagging feeling of a missed opportunity to be much more than a generic action film, had Imaishi only chosen to explore more of the experimental aspects the film introduces. As presented with “Promare,” it’s best not to think too deeply and appreciate the view.