You may not know Hiroyuki Imaishi’s name from a glance, but if you’ve paid attention to any mecha or action-oriented anime released in the past two decades, you most certainly know his work. The 47-year-old veteran behind 2016’s Space Patrol Luluco, 2013’s Kill La Kill and, most famously, 2007’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Imaishi has established himself over his nearly 25-year career as one of the preeminent directors of action anime alive today. Known for his anarchic art style, eccentric premises and hot-blooded heroes with way more courage than common sense—harkening to the “Super Robot” action series of the late ’70s and early ’80s—Imaishi is your man for gorgeous anime with big explosions and big emotions.
Promare, his first feature in over 15 years and the first film from his Studio Trigger, as well as his third collaboration with screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima, does little if anything to buck that trend. Galo Thymos, a brash, likable and frankly very stupid young man whose life motto is, and I quote, “balls to the wall,” is our protagonist. Galo is a rookie firefighter of the Burning Rescue squad, a high-tech team of mech suit-clad rescue workers tasked with fighting the Mad Burnish terrorist organization made up of humans with destructive pyrotelekinetic abilities. In the wake of capturing Lio Fotia, the leader of Mad Burnish, Galo sets out to discover the origins behind the Burnish terrorists’ abilities and the shadowy malefactors who seek to exploit those powers for their own ends.
If there’s one aspect of the film where Promare distinguishes itself, it’s with its art style. Rich in brilliant blue and fuschia tones, crisp CG-rendered action sequences and clever callback visual gags like bold-type, screen-eclipsing title cards (à la Kill La Kill), Promare is the best-looking anime to come out of Studio Trigger to date and quite honestly, could give 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse a run for its money in terms of the sheer density of visual stimuli displayed on screen.
On the whole, Promare is about as emotionally complex as the Saturday morning cartoons from which Imaishi owes much of his earliest inspiration, with comically elaborate vehicular transformation sequences and a manic sense of irreverent humor accompanying much of the dialogue between characters. Normally, if this were one of Imaishi’s television productions such as the aforementioned Gurren Lagann or Kill La Kill, this wouldn’t be a problem and might even yield a few surprises along the way. In Promare’s case, unfortunately, the film’s pacing begins to feel less like a feature-length film and more like a 26-episode anime series breathlessly crammed into two hours.
Imaishi and Nakashima’s past work together has yielded what many would describe as two of the best anime series of all time, but so much of the plot in Promare feels as though the pair have moved beyond pushing one another to greater heights and instead are resting on the laurels of those past accomplishments. It’s entertaining, for sure, but one can’t shake a slight twinge of disappointment as if they’ve seen this all before, albeit in a television format. Promare attempts to touch on themes of civil unrest, martial law, disaffected minority populations and the cruelty of indefinite detention, only then to promptly pack those ideas away in favor of moving on to the next explosion-laden set piece. Promare’s final act is a mess, albeit a pretty one, literally dropping the film’s protagonists into a proper noun-laden explanation of the plot’s central mysteries, delivered by a character who amounts to little more than a deus ex machina, all before giving the protagonists a giant mecha whose name is, I kid you not, “Deus X Machina,” and which bears more than a passing resemblance to another famous robot Imaishi is known for. (At one point, it even has a drill.) Promare unabashedly leans into this type of absurdity and owns it, but at this point it just feels like the first of many, many callback references intended to compensate for the film’s narrative shortcomings, trading originality for spectacle.
All of which is to say that Promare is a visually stunning, narratively anemic and predictable blockbuster. If this is your first brush with Imaishi and Trigger, maybe that won’t be a problem, and you’ll be dazzled by where and how far the film goes. But for anyone who’s followed both his and the studio’s work up until this point, it’s hard to not feel like you’re suppressing a nagging twinge of disappointment from watching what is ostensibly a rehash of Imaishi’s cumulative quirks and idiosyncrasies, no matter how gorgeous they happen to look this time around.
Director: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Writer: Kazuki Nakashima
Starring: Kenichi Matsuyama, Taichi Saotome, Masato Sakai, Ayane Sakura
Release Date: September 20, 2019
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications, including Kill Screen, Playboy, Mental Floss, and Paste. Give him a shout on Twitter.