Promare, the first feature-length movie offering from Studio Trigger, is one of those things that I first heard of as a gradual tide of tweets I didn’t quite understand. Bits of fanart and references that went over my head; people lamenting the rather limited US release because they’d just driven three hours round-trip to see it and dammit they wanted to go back again. The visual style of the art snippets I saw looked intriguing, a beautiful palette of bright pastels, purple and turquoise playing off each other like the doodles in every one of my middle school notebooks. But… what was this movie, exactly? I’ve admittedly never watched any of Trigger’s shows, that particular flavor of mecha/action romp not being what I usually seek out. Skimming Promare’s Wikipedia page and a handful of reviews led me to feel safe in shrugging it off — full of easter egg references to Trigger’s previous work, they said (okay fine, but not for me); a post-apocalyptic mecha action spectacle about something-something flame mutants… okay, those are literally a dime a dozen in the blurbs for new anime any given season. Meh.
Yesterday I saw Promare in theaters for the fourth time. As we were leaving a girl’s voice floated down from the back row: “Okay when’s the next showtime?” (Her friends giggled.) “…No but seriously.” Yeah, I smiled knowingly, I’ve been there — as I sat stunned in the theater after my first viewing I very seriously contemplated sticking around for the next showtime. Only after securing a promise from my brother over text message that he’d go back with me the next day did I manage to wrench myself out of the theater.
So what is Promare? It’s… a post-apocalyptic mecha action spectacle, yes, it is that — and truly a spectacle, a masterfully orchestrated symphony of color and shape and movement, the kind of movie that you’ll surely watch (and rewatch, and rewatch) at home once the Blu-Ray (eventually) comes out, but that really demands the full sensory overload of the big screen. More importantly, Promare is a parable. It is a metaphor. It is a story that trusts you to hear the burning moral imperative ringing through its chaotic sci-fi plot. It is an allegory about oppression, about repression, about freedom and self-actualization and passion and connection. If you go into Promare looking for elaborate sci-fi worldbuilding that’s heavy on the sci, you’re just asking to be irritated. In fact the movie will make fun of you, personally, and any desire you have for plots to “make sense” or “not rely on extremely arbitrary coincidences.” Don’t do that to yourself. Embrace the allegory.
But Promare makes sense, every line of every frame of the movie makes sense, if you understand what it is and isn’t trying to be. Because it’s a parable and everything onscreen is a symbol, the metaphors flit seamlessly between different dimensions of oppression, never competing with each other for coherence but existing simultaneously, intersecting and reinforcing each other. Is it an, uh, extremely arbitrary coincidence that the militaristic arm of government that goes around raiding and imprisoning people on suspicion of being demographically linked to terrorists is called… Freeze Force? Surely it must be. (Narrator: It is not.) Is it a coincidence that the Burnish flames, which people are shunned and hated for manifesting, take the form of pink triangles? Of course not. Every moment of the movie takes on tremendous weight when endowed with the gravity of these (really extremely on-the-nose) symbols.
It’s the metaphors for queerness that feel particularly centered by the story, embodied most purely by Lio Fotia — proud wielder of Burnish flames against a society that tries to douse them — and his rhetoric about the Burnish flames as freedom, as a defining, inextinguishable core of his identity. Lio’s character design is the pinnacle of classic soft badass, taken to new heights by the shimmery color palette; I confess he was already my favorite just from the fanart that seeped into my Twitter feed before I even knew who he was. Galo, the effusively passionate firefighter protagonist, works perfectly in his role: Dopey and goofy enough to be an entertaining foil to Lio; earnest and thoughtful enough to avoid tropes of the over-muscled airhead comic relief hero. Both Galo and Lio are masterfully crafted out of archetypes to form vibrant, iconic characters that will stay with you long after the movie ends — enough recognizable symbolism in their roles that they work as players in a parable, enough aesthetic detail that their individual personalities still sizzle.
I cried, in the theater, the first time. It was a 4:35pm showing in a random suburban theater, and there were three of us in the audience: me and a lesbian couple. So unlike subsequent viewings, when I dragged friends and family with me, when we went to evening showings, when the crowd ooh’d and aaah’d and applauded at all the right moments, that first time was silent. I cried silently through the whole ending sequence, not with happiness or sadness (this is a spoiler-free review! Go watch the movie if you want to know shit about the ending!) but with the pure relief and validation at how thoroughly and unabashedly the movie committed to the symbolism I had noticed in the first thirty seconds. It’s invigorating to feel so understood by a work of art. It’s a rush to feel so much resonance with every layer of a story that you know exactly where it has to go and then it goes there. I’ve read a dozen reviews of Promare since seeing it and without fail they feel the need to lament the “predictable” plot elements, but let me tell you right now that that is bullshit. If you convince yourself that you’re watching a dime-a-dozen mecha action plot, maybe some elements are tropey (although even then, I personally have my doubts at how well these reviewers actually predicted everything). If you know that you’re watching a parable, predictability becomes a feature, not a bug. Knowing what has to happen, not knowing if it really will, seeing it all play out in such gorgeous color and light and shape and sound, is cathartic. There’s a reason I know very few (queer) people who have seen Promare exactly once.
So. If you’re reading this, and you haven’t made it out to whatever theater nearest you is still showing Promare, please go. Even if post-apocalyptic mecha anime isn’t typically your thing (or if it is!). In fact, I’m visiting friends this weekend and between the four of us I think we’ve seen Promare thirteen times so far, and yet literally as I type this they’re in group chat looking up showtimes. If that’s not a rave review I don’t know what is.