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Interview: Promare Director Hiroyuki Imaishi and Screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima

by Richard Eisenbeis,

At the Tokyo International Film Festival 2019, I was able to sit down and talk with director Hiroyuki Imaishi and screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima about their latest anime, the over-the-top fire-fighting action film Promare

Note: This interview contains major spoilers for Promare.

Promare is the story of Galo, a firefighter, and LIO, a man with pyro-kenetic abilities. Beginning as mortal enemies, the two slowly but surely learn to look past their preconceptions and see the world as it truly is. ...It also has a florescent-colored fight scene where a mecha modeled after traditional Japanese firefighters battles it out with an armored pyrokinetic riding a motorcycle made of solid fire.

In other words, it's exactly what you'd expect from the writing/directing duo behind such anime classics as Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill.

The origins of Promare come from back a few years ago when the pair were thinking about what their next anime would be. While the duo had made several original TV anime together in the past, they wanted to try something new. “The two of us thought we'd like to make a feature film as our next project,” Screenwriter Nakashima began. “As for what it would be about, we looked at the things we were both interested in and thought, 'what about flame lifeforms?'” 

Soon came the concept of Burning Rescue and the Mad Burnish--as well as the main characters, Galo and LIO. “It's about a group of people who can make fire facing off against those who put fire out,” Nakashima explained. “However, I thought that it was a little too cliché to have the flame powered people be ‘hot-blooded’ while the ones putting out the fires were 'cool-blooded,' so I swapped it.” This is why Galo is so fiery in his general temperament and LIO is so serious and collected in his.

But it's not just the characters that make Promare stand out: the anime's also eye candy to the ultimate degree. Much of this comes from the fluorescent color choices. Chosen by the film's character designer, Shigeto Koyama, the colors were inspired not by Gurren Lagann or Kill la Kill but by one of Imaishi's other, pre-Trigger works. “I was talking with [Koyama] and we were thinking about my past work, Panty & Stocking, which had a cartoon style. We thought that making something with a similar taste and using 3D animation might make for a good match. So we made a test image and I was surprised,” Imaishi laughed. “Even my eyes hurt.” 

However, the most striking color choice came not from Koyama but from Promare's image board artist: the idea to make the Burnish fire green and purple. “It was important to us that they didn't look like normal red and yellow flames,” Imaishi began. “The flames from before the flame lifeforms came to Earth and after would obviously be different.” Then he saw the green and purple fire test image. “I was like, 'That looks about right--this looks like what I imagine flames that come from another world would look like.'”

Of course, that only applies to Burnish-made fire as Imaishi noted: “Normal fire does still exist and you'll notice that it doesn't have the triangles when burning [like Burnish fire does].” This is a subtle hint to the alien nature of Burnish fire told visually, long before the actual reveal in the film.

Basic shapes, like the aforementioned triangles, are constantly used throughout the story to hint at both what's really going on and the moral of the story hidden beneath. “Two repelling forces becoming one is the overall flow of the story, so I wanted to bring that together in the visual design,” Imaishi expounded. “Visually, the Burnish side and the Promepolis side are represented by triangles and squares respectively. The Burnish are all about emotions--about seeking freedom. I thought that a triangle fit that. A square is related to control--like as in walls or boxes.” 

“Like, if you cut part of a square off, it becomes a triangle.” Nakashima said, adding his interpretation of the metaphors.

The shapes metaphor even ties into the closing shot of the film. “Professor Deus' lab was born from both [Burnish and Non-Burnish] so it has a circular-based design,” Imaishi further explained. “That's also why, in the end, the lens flare becomes circular again [instead of the triangular or square flares shown throughout the rest of the film].” Not only have the two sides worked together to make a lasting peace but humanity has been made whole again now that the Promare are gone for good.

Interestingly, Imaishi doesn't seem to mind if people missed his visual metaphors: “Whether the viewer realized this or not, I think they were a good thing for both the design and the story.”

Of course, beyond the colors and shapes, there is one more vital aspect to Promare's visual style: the heavy use of 3D animation. In fact, Promare uses far more 3D animation than any of the duo's previous works--especially in the action scenes. “Less than half [of the film] is 3D,” Imaishi joked, “but because of the impact, I think it feels about half and half.”

As such large amounts of 3D animation are not standard fare for Trigger, that work was outsourced to Trigger's sister studio, SANZIGEN. This meant Imaishi was overseeing work in two different studios--though most of his time was spent focusing on what SANZIGEN was up to. “I'm originally a Trigger person so I didn't really need to check their work. So I just checked over SANZIGEN's work,” Imaishi laughed before adding, “Of course, if the Director doesn't control the combination of the 2D and 3D, the film won't work.”

When it came down to it, however, he only had one special order for SANZIGEN's team of animators: “Reality is not allowed!”

While many outspoken fans dislike the growing prevalence of 3D animation, Imaishi believes it has its place in modern anime. “The good thing about 3D animation is it can do things you can't do in 2D animation--like creating flames like [those in the film]. I'm against using 3D for really simple things, but if it's something hard to do, it's something hard to do.” Giving an example of something that would be difficult in 2D animation, Imaishi added, “I think you can draw any single camera shot in 2D animation. [...] It's when the camera moves that it becomes impossible without 3D animation.”

But as for traditional 2D animation, there's one point where Imaishi feels it reigns supreme: “You can put more emotion--more character emotion--into 2D animation.” 

When asked which he'd use if he had an unlimited budget Imaishi laughed, “If I had an unlimited budget, I'd use both. I'd do the whole thing in 3D then draw over it [...] like in Spider-verse!”

But what good is eye candy without the appropriate soundtrack to go with it. Promare serves as the second collaboration between the duo and acclaimed anime composer Hiroyuki Sawano. Imaishi couldn't stop singing his praises. “The way the visuals combine with the music just feels great. [...] I think he's a professional who really makes music for what's on the screen. He's special.”

That said, Sawano wrote much of the score to the film long before any animation was done. “At first he just got the story outline and the setting.” Imaishi told me. “Later we gave him a few images and more info as the story was gradually completed.”

Beyond the film proper, two 10-minute prequel episodes, Episode Galo and Episode LIO were streamed online to those who saw the films in Japanese theaters. Rather than being content cut from the film, these two shorts came about organically. “After we put together the shape of the film's scenario, we started thinking about adding on short films,” Imaishi said. “Yeah, after the scenario was complete, we got the go ahead to make the short films, so we made the LIO and Galo prequels,” Nakashima agreed.

In closing, the pair talked a bit about the future of Promare. Do they want to make more Promare-related anime? Nakashima's answer was direct. “When it comes down to it, as it relates to me, I don't.” Imaishi's response was likewise in the negative: “We told all the story we intended to tell.”

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