A little over 15 years ago, Hiroyuki Imaishi stunned the (anime) world with Dead Leaves, a completely bonkers film that managed to stand out in what was already a landmark year for anime. Dead Leaves was different, a unique take on Japanese animation that was happy to divide the room. Sadly it also proved to be an anomaly. Imaishi would go on to direct a couple of well-respected series, but the prospect of a new feature film seemed slim. Until the trailer for Promare surfaced that is, a Studio Trigger project that promised to grant Imaishi all the creative freedom needed to make another masterpieces. And make no mistake, Imaishi made good on that promise.
The anime scene has changed a lot in the 15 years since Imaishi released Dead Leaves. While there are still very talented people making great films, overall the output has become a lot softer, more timid. There's been a big pull to lighter, more accessible films, as many studios are eager to fill the gap Ghibli left behind. I'm not claiming the work of directors like Hosoda or Shinkai is derivative, I'm not saying these directors lack creativity or a unique vision and I'm definitely not invalidating what they bring to the table. All I'm saying is that the edgier anime stuff of the 90s and 00s is mostly absent from the screen nowadays, which I think it a big loss. That makes a film like Promare all the more special.
Many reviews peg Promare as a typical Studio Trigger project, happily referencing series like Gurran Lagann and Kill la Kill. While understandable (both series were directed by Imaishi and scripted by Nakashima, the creative duo responsible for Promare), I think it's much closer in spirit to Imaishi's first film. I haven't seen Gurran Lagann and Kill la Kill in full, but both series were clearly held back by their TV roots. Here Imaishi can go full out and the difference is night and day. Imaishi doesn't crank it up to 11, he cranks it up to 111, going for near-constant sensory overload. No doubt it will be a bit much for some, but those people have a million other films to choose from.
The added playtime (Promare is twice as long as Dead Leaves) allows Imaishi to cram in a little extra plot and world building, but much like his previous projects, Imaishi loves to flaunt the fact that he doesn't really care too much about the intricacies of the story. Plot progression is jammed in between the action scenes and these moments are often accompanied by characters that are yawning or are generally looking bored. Plot is a necessary evil for Imaishi, so even though there's a bunch of stuff about firefighters, alien fire mutations and Earth on the brink of destruction, it's mostly there to support the insanity of the designs, the settings and the action.
Which brings me to the visuals and styling, no doubt the main attraction of Promare. Because sure enough, the color work here is absolutely spectacular. An onslaught of neon greens, blues and purples that explode all over the screen for 110 minutes straight. The art style is equally impressive, a superb blend of 2D and 3D animation that makes all the difference. It's chunky, blocky, dynamic, distorted and detailed all at once, creating something that feels 200% anime, but is like nothing you've ever seen before (unless you are familiar with the work of Imaishi). The editing you say? Lightning fast and razor sharp, bringing equal amounts of chaos and rhythm to the table.
But all of that still doesn't compare to the camera work, which is completely otherworldly. Because of the chaotic nature of the film it may not be immediately apparent, but the camera trajectories are absolutely mental. The distance covered, the pacing, angles and movement of the camera, it's really on another level. There is no film, live action or animated, that comes even close to the constant boldness and creativity of the camera work here. It's Bay meets Tsukamoto meets Naishuller on steroids, and then you're still not halfway there. That's not to say that everyone will enjoy this constant mental drain, but if you love adrenaline then you owe it to yourself to watch this film.
The soundtrack isn't quite on the same level though. It was one of the weaker points of Dead Leaves and it seems that Imaishi hasn't made much progress there. The sound itself is a little too poppy for my taste, but the biggest problem is that it lacks the oomph of the visuals. Imaishi still makes good use of the soundtrack, even if it's little more than stuffing every scene full of background noise to keep the adrenaline levels maxed out. It's effective, but just a little lazy, especially compared to the visual bravado. Luckily the dub is on point, as long as you make sure you have the Japanese one. It may put a little extra strain on watching as there's already so much to look at, but not having to listen to the flat and lifeless American voices over something so thoroughly Japanese is definitely worth it.
For a film that does its very best to be as action-focused as possible, I was quite surprised to find that several groups/communities have latched on to Promare and have found ways to praise the film for its content. Some appear to see a strong ecological message here (because Earth is at peril), others are over the moon by a CPR scene between the two (male) leads, immediately bombarding them as gay icons. Personally I find these approaches incredibly far-fetched, if not a little needy, but if it brings some extra attention to the film I guess I'm fine with it.
A running time of 110 minutes isn't all that uncommon, but it's extremely long for a film of this caliber. Films that thrive on adrenaline usually end up below the 90 minutes mark, the more extreme ones will aim for 45-60 minutes. Promare is extreme, but still goes all the way. There are some moments where the film does decide to slow down a little, but these scenes are few and far between and hardly take anything away from the overall experience. At these times it does become apparent that the characters are a little humdrum and that the story can't support the weight of the film by itself. Then again, if that's what you're after you're probably not the target audience of Promare.
It's hard to say whether Promare is as good as Dead Leaves, for that I'll probably need another viewing later on. What I can say though is that this film has everything I hoped for in a second Imaishi feature. Promare is bonkers, hyperactive, grotesque and madcap, a dream come true for those who chase adrenaline cinema, executed in such a way that it oozes unbridled quality and creativity. I'm a little afraid we won't see anything like it in years to come, although the somewhat surprising popularity of this film may put some gears in motion. Whatever happens next though, Imaishi made another masterpiece. I can't say I'm surprised, but I sure am relieved.