MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Promare. Consider this your one and final warning.
What isn’t Promare about? It’s an anti-assimilationist narrative of repressed queer people; a queer love story at the heart of it; a story with a colorful, deceivingly simple geometric symbolism guiding it, and that’s just where it starts. But what immediately struck me from my first of three watches of this movie is the commentary on racial issues and society’s rejection of not just queer people but all marginalized people.
From the moment Freeze Force descended onto the ruinous aftermath of the Mad Burnish elite immobilization, it was clear there was a message about the militarization of the police. But it wasn’t until the Freeze Force raid of the pizzeria where I was shaking in my seat and whispered to myself, oh my god it’s ICE. The moment the undocumented Burnish pizza maker — terrified and edging anywhere towards safety — unleashes his power in aggression because of his very real fear, only to be immediately apprehended, nearly reduced me to tears. We knew, just as Galo and his co-workers knew, there wouldn’t be due process for the pizza worker. He is clearly not a terrorist, but who cares, right? He’s a Burnish, an other, and anyone who is othered is a mark for an assimilationist society.
And for a movie that is very likely based in America, the messaging becomes even more starkly apparent. The world is paying attention to the racial atrocities occurring in America right this very moment, and a Japanese anime film isn’t simply using ICE raids as a trite story element — it’s a harsh criticism that illuminates how fucked the violence is here in America.
It didn’t escape my notice throughout the movie that many of the Burnish we see, from the pizza worker to the refugees in prison and the encampment, are by and large brown folk. The terrifying, chilling raid of the encampment that rounds up Burnish people like they’re cattle for slaughter, the government using their bodies for their own selfish survival. Privileged folk who nonchalantly ask, “why don’t the Burnish just hide their powers and live in a society like other normal people?” identically mirror the people who ask any marginalized person why they don’t simply try harder to be normative. How can someone live “normally” when even the pizza worker, who never unleashed his Burnish powers in rage because he lived true to himself, was apprehended for simply being a Burnish?
It’s barely concealed metaphor.
Regardless of the global burning 30 years prior to Promare’s story, the young Burnish who are looking for the liberation of their people are compassionate towards life, not seeking to kill any human, leaving escape routes if a building is burning, and want their own city to live in peace. They want what any person, any group wants — peace, comfort, and to live their lives without being entrenched in fear.
Promare offers marginalized people a fantasy in which they can burn the world to the ground and after those systemic foundations of the past are levelled, they can rebuild with their allies who see their humanity, and create a world where everyone can live freely. Just because the Burnish lose their powers doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten their history; normalized society won’t forget either, and we know as Galo knows that just because the threat of fire is gone, doesn’t mean they’ll be readily accepted by everyone. But it gives us hope that we will be seen as people who eat, breathe, love, mourn, and feel joy. We aren’t built from anger, perpetually prone to outbursts, or violent because of our decades and centuries of oppression.
We aren’t simply the color of our skin.
Promare’s universe mirrors the reality in which we live, and it shakes privileged bodies from a deep reverie that can only exist in a society that was built upon systemic racism, homophobia, misogyny, ableism. What is the real cost of honeyed freedom that forces people to live inside literal boxes? Promare’s society and our society demands that marginalized folk hide themselves away, bending to conform to “normality” and assimilate until you can barely recognize who they are inside. That repression is what causes the Burnish to let their hurt and rage set fire to the world. So many aspects of America’s dark history are brought into the light throughout Promare — but where American history failed so many of its people, Promare gives them the chance to feel catharsis from the chains that continue to keep oppressed people tethered to a bleak earth.
And even as I silently yelled in triumph in the theater when Lio said, “we Burnish are free” while breaking out of cube prison, the bleakness of their freedom set in as we saw the newly freed Burnish hiding out in a cave, one step away from being found and imprisoned again. Refugee children who were clearly separated from their parents; every person covered in bandages from the experimentation inflicted on them by Foresight Foundation; and the Burnish who are slowly succumbing to their injuries, leading one of the women to die after just tasting fleeting freedom again.
And even though they’re told that by assimilating and hiding themselves they’ll be accepted by society, it’s nothing but a veiled lie, designed to crush their hope and willpower to dust. A society built on systemic racism whispers that marginalized people turn on each other for their own chance at survival. But just like the sweet lies of indulgences, there are no guarantees or too-good-to-be-true routes to freedom, and the old man who sold out the Burnish encampment to their doom showcases that skinship isn’t kinship. His betrayal of his own people leads to his own punishment and subsequent betrayal by Freeze Force — freedom at the cost of kicking down other marginalized people isn’t true freedom. Which is altogether more heart-wrenching when we see that the Burnish primarily use their powers to protect each other from the forces that seek to destroy them — creating armor, shields, barriers, and even being able to heal each other with their fire. They may turn to ash when they die, but while they live they’re near immortal, constantly being reborn from their own powers to survive and honor themselves.
Did I cry when Lio asked the Burnish to lend him their power so he can destroy and heal the world? And when they all cheered in harmony to unleash a beautiful green fire? Absolutely. BIPOC, queer people, trans folk, non-ablebodied people, and all people relegated to the distant margins of society breathe beauty and light into the world. Living freely, allowing us to use our bodies and history for the betterment of society is beautiful and healing.
And fuck did it feel good to see IC- I mean, Freeze Force razed to the ground.