Promare, BNA, and the Outrage of the Oppressedby Jaylon Martin,
What could a movie about fire spewing mutants and a show about Beastmen playing baseball have in common? Well, they're both made by Studio Trigger, are a lot of fun to watch, and get a little messy with their metaphors. In 2019, Studio Trigger gave the world Promare, the studio's first feature length film and the world responded with love and adoration. Audiences being introduced to the Burnish, flame-powered people who appeared 30 years ago and have faced discrimination ever since due to fear of their immense power. 2020 saw Trigger follow up this theme with the release of BNA: Brand New Animal, a series about the lives and struggles of an all-beastman city as it fights against worldwide oppression.
Both works show some of Trigger's best qualities. We are treated to colorful, vibrant palettes as we go on an action-packed ride with over-the-top characters that are hard not to love. The comedy and writing are solid and the soundtracks? Phenomenal. But while I can definitely say that I enjoyed both of these works, the mishandling of their oppression based metaphor left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Promare is the worst offender of the two in regards to it's messiness. When the Burnish first appeared, they were discriminated against and feared and the world set up tools like segregation to oppress them, of course ignoring the voices of the oppressed people and others saying it was not the solution. Jump forward 30 years and the world has adapted to the presence of the Burnish. Fire hydrants are everywhere. Special rescue teams are dispatched to deal with Burnish-based fires. And anyone discovered to be a Burnish is arrested and carted away to a maximum security facility, far from the public. Everything's lovely.
While many loved Promare, I found myself frustrated the first time I watched it. This is not to say that I don't enjoy the movie. The enjoyment just had to be found beneath the frustration. Far, far beneath it. A significant cause is due to the fact it was lauded as this cute, fun, ride, and, while it is all those things, no one decided to mention that it was a movie that is primarily about state violence and discrimination and opens with a montage of oppression, riots, and violence. We are shown news clips of proposed Burnish segregation. We see Burnish getting attacked in the streets by crowds of people. The Burnish riot against their oppression and they are met with resistance from those who fear their flames. And it all feels eerily relevant in light of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests going on right now. The Burnish are fighting for their right to exist on equal footing in a world that sees them as little more than dangerous and deserving of their persecution. None of this is exactly what I expected when I got on this "cute, fun, ride."
Brand New Animal didn't carry such a sparkling clean image going in, though I was aware that it was an allegory for racism (though I was wary of any more racism allegories from Netflix after the disaster that was Bright) and that made the ride much smoother. Beastmen are hated and discriminated against, to the point of people advocating for the deaths of all Beastmen. Luckily, there's Anima City, a place full of nothing but beastmen, where they can live free of oppression and discrimination. Well, in theory.
BNA's world, and by proxy, its discrimination, is much more fleshed out than what is seen in Promare. There is a long history to the beastmen, including ancient cities and even a god and religion, and beastmen are diverse and multifaceted, filling a multitude of societal roles and having varying personalities, something we did not get to see in Promare with the Burnish. The discrimination against beastmen is just as developed, not reducing it to one form of heinous illegality, but rather the results of leaving an oppressed group unprotected. Humans can hunt beastmen down without fear of persecution. Beastmen children are trafficked for reasons I'd rather not think too deeply on. Migrant bird beastmen are shot out of the skies for border violations. As the show goes on, Michiru, a girl who turned into a beastman under mysterious circumstances, discovers several different aspects of Beastman discrimination and the effects it has on them.
Spoiler warning. I'm going to be talking about heavy spoilers for both Promare and BNA past this point, so heads up if you haven't seen them yet.
One of the aspects Michiru discovers happens to be a government conspiracy to eradicate all Beastmen. Alan Sylvasta, head of Sylvasta Pharmaceuticals, has been pulling the strings for ages. He has been manipulating Beastmen with the approval of the Japanese government to make the Beastmen in Anima City go through Nirvasyl Syndrome, a reaction to too many Beastmen being gathered in one place, causing them to transform and become incredibly violent. This would cause Anima City to be deemed a failure, beastmen to appear violent, and Sylvasta and the government to push a drug that would transform beastmen into humans, “solving” the beastman problem once and for all. It should be noted that these drugs will be delivered through the use of military grade robots. Well, when they're not in the middle of using live ammunition on everyone in the vicinity.
Promare has a similar plot point as we discover that the Earth is in danger. The molten core will soon overflow, leading to heavy devastation across the planet. Unlike BNA, surely Governor Kray, a powerful government official and likely billionaire, will choose to work with the many resources at his command to stave off this disaster and save humans, Burnish, and the planet as a whole, right?
Of course not. He makes a space Ark that can only fit 10,000 people that will take him and his giant terraforming robot to a new planet that won't explode. But the real kicker is, to power this spaceship, he uses a warp drive engine that will instantly transport them to this new planet. But a warp drive is going to need a power source. If only there was an energy-spewing- no, a fire-spewing fuel source nearby that he could use until it burned itself out! Kray uses captured Burnish to power his warp engine through a process that very rapidly kills them. Burnish are seen as a resource and a nuisance and little else. Though they are not even allowed to exist in peace, their very bodies are taken and are put to work for a world that does not love them.
And luckily, it's easy for Kray to get Burnish. Their very existence is deemed illegal. Any discovered Burnish are arrested by the Freeze Force, a not at all vague parallel for ICE. This is regardless of whether they harm anyone or are actively using their powers. And anyone who knowingly harbors them is arrested as well. After their arrest, they are immediately taken to a maximum security prison that is as cold as it is inhumane. As we enter the cell, we are met with freezing temperatures and bandaged Burnish, all wounded either from their encounters with the Freeze Force or from having their limbs frozen whenever they produce the smallest flame. And as two Burnish lay dying amongst all these injured people, not a single finger is lifted to provide aid to them.
Not that any aid would be expected from the Freeze Force. They don't care about the Burnish. They are simply the collectors. To capture the Burnish, they can do as they please. The means do not matter. They may beat them down. Destroy their homes. They can even crush them underfoot, though that is frowned upon. Not because the Freeze Force shouldn't have the right to kill another human being, but because that would be a waste of precious fuel for Kray. Speaking of Governor Kray, as his plan is on the cusp of failing, it is revealed that he is a Burnish, and a powerful one at that. It's already disgusting that the Burnish must bear witness to genocide and human experimentation, but for the orchestrator of it all to be a Burnish himself feels like a slap in the face. Brand New Animal does the same thing in revealing that Alan Sylvasta is actually a beastman, and a pure blooded one at that, spouting hate for the lesser beastmen. While these things don't negate the horrible bigotry perpetuated by humans in the respective works, it's insulting to portray members of these groups as grand orchestrators of so much oppression. One could easily argue that both of these characters could be metaphors for the self hate that is ingrained in oppressed groups after decades of discrimination, but making them the ringleaders obscures the fact that oppressors are the ones with the true power to oppress.
Another issue I have is with how these works handle resistance to oppression. Promare almost posits the Burnish discrimination as if it was their own fault. Their flames are dangerous and they are not using them properly. And, of course, the actions of Mad Burnish are seen as wrong. How dare they burn things down after they are attacked and discriminated against?
And how dare Lio still try and kill Kray, the orchestrator of his people's genocide? Lio is stopped and his own words are thrown back at him. "Burnish don't kill for no reason," he's told by Galo, even after Galo discovers the heinous acts committed against the Burnish and the plans laid out by Kray. Is the Burnish experimentation not reason enough? Does genocide not fill all the requirements for Galo, someone who's not directly affected by this Burnish oppression? It is reminiscent of James Baldwin's response when asked how to get Black people to cool it. “It is not the black people who have to cool it, because they won't… We are the ones who are dying fastest.”
BNA adds a justification to its discrimination with Nirvasyl Syndrome. Just like the Burnish, Beastmen are dangerous down to a biological level and in a way that makes them a danger to everyone around, including themselves. And just like with Lio, when it's discovered that Sylvasta is developing a drug that could wipe Beastmen from existence, Shirou is stopped and treated as if his rage is wrong and unwarranted.
Michiru, someone who has been a Beastman for less than a year and learns a new facet of the culture everytime the sun rises, can neither see what's wrong with a (seemingly) human man making a drug that could eradicate Beastmen across the globe nor can she see fully grasp why Shirou's rage is valid? Both works continue a long tradition of telling oppressed people what qualifies as good rebellion and how they should act against oppression through the mouths of people who actively uphold the systems that oppress them. I should also add that, as a Black person, hearing thoughts on resistance from a character who has been suddenly transformed into a beastman is more than a little weird when I live in a world of Rachel Dolezals, Shaun Kings, and blackfishing.
However, when it is all said and done, BNA does not go down the route of eradication. The evil plan is stopped and Nirvasyl Syndrome is treated without changing Beastmen to humans. Beastmen are still Beastmen, including Michiru, who decides to continue in her Beastman form. Anima City decides to open up, realizing that Beastmen being cooped up in a city does not actually address the problems at hand and leads to more issues. The ideas here aren't necessarily revolutionary but they're more of a step in the right direction. But how much longer until significant societal change comes? Are we doomed to an infinity of baby steps that do not solve the actual problems or directly respond to the outcry?
On the other hand, Promare's attempt to wrap everything in a bow reveals it's lack of revolutionary imagination. No, its solution is to completely erase the identity of the Burnish. Undercutting the entire idea that the discrimination against the Burnish is bad, it simply takes away the reason for the discrimination. There is no eradication of discriminatory practices or destruction of ghettos. We see nothing indicating that Kray will be held responsible for his crimes against humanity. No, Promare's solution to oppression is for the oppressed to homogenize. I love to see marginalized people with superpowers as stories of freedom, and not stories of erasure, so the eugenics in Promare's final moments don't sit right on my spirit. Both Promare and BNA use the struggles of real life people as a staging ground for a show on discrimination and, even in the midst of all this fantasy and fiction, they continue to give piecemeal attempts at positive change that lead to nothing and, in Promare's case, completely eradicate the oppressed's identity.
There are no worthwhile solutions to be found. Only half-answers and eradication.
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