In 2017, Studio TRIGGER attended Kumoricon in Portland, Oregon. During their panel, Hiromi Wakabayashi and Shigeto Koyama showed off a sneak peek image for the studio’s first feature-length film, PROMARE (2019). They would not reveal any details about the feature and likely didn’t expect that anyone in the room full of Western nerds would have the experience to decode the shadowy key art.
As the son of a career firefighter, I was raised in and around fire departments and naturally gravitated towards fire stations during trips to Japan. In high school, I had the privilege to visit the Kumamoto Disaster Center, which holds a museum exhibit on traditional Japanese firefighters. In college, I conducted grant-funded field research at the Saitama City Fire Department. I even offered my friends who live in Japan a bounty for pictures of Japanese fire engines or emergency response vehicles (I wish I was kidding). So, when Wakabayashi revealed the smoky, ember filled image of a mysterious shirtless protagonist holding a large object over their shoulder, my mind immediately connected the dots. This was going to be an anime about a firefighter, and I was going to love it.
During that 2017 panel’s Q&A session, I had the opportunity to ask TRIGGER directly if PROMARE’s protagonist was a firefighter. “No,” Wakabayashi hastily proclaimed. This guy was just very passionate. Wakabayashi referred to him as a “festival boy,” though this weird phrase was likely a mix of searching for an answer and intent being lost in translation.
“Damn,” I thought, “how could I be wrong when all the signs were there?” The guy was holding a matoi banner used by rival firefighter groups during the Edo period to identify their affiliation, and he was wearing the turnout pants identical to those worn by Japanese firefighters today. Not to mention, he was surrounded by smoke and fire. After the panel, I apologized to Wakabayashi for asking such a silly question.
A year later, during Anime Expo 2018, I learned that my “silly question” wasn’t as silly as I had originally thought. As tweets recapped TRIGGER’s panel and their extended preview of PROMARE, I found myself reading one report after another that described the film as being about a rescue team fighting fiery foes. The mystery protagonist was a firefighter named Galo, who fights with a mech suit called “Matoi-Tech.”
I was able to watch the preview firsthand later that year, at Kumoricon. I could not believe my luck: one of my favorite anime studios was making a movie about one of my favorite subjects. When GKIDS brought PROMARE to North American theaters, I found myself watching it three times: twice in its initial run, and once during its “PROMARE Redux” re-release. Naturally, it now occupies a spot among my favorite anime films.
When TRIGGER was announced to be returning to Kumoricon in 2019, I jumped at the opportunity to meet with them to talk about the movie. My podcasting partner, Laven Voth of AniBros Podcast, and I were able to secure a private interview with Creative Producer Hiromi Wakabayashi, Character Designer Shigeto Koyama, and US Producer Will Feng with the assistance of Kumoricon’s Press staff (transcript available here). Paired with details revealed during TRIGGER’s PROMARE-centric panel that year, we walked away with new insights into how PROMARE came to be, as well as numerous secrets that were concealed below the picture’s flashy surface.
Section One: PROMARE’s production growth from an elite police force fighting smoke monsters into a film about Burning Rescue and the Burnish
Early design sketches suggest a very different movie
When TRIGGER sets out to produce a twenty-four episode series, they know that it will take them around four years to do so. Wakabayashi cited both Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007), which many of PROMARE’s staff worked on, and Kill la Kill (2013) as taking four years to complete, from inception to final episode. During our interview with Wakabayashi, Koyama, and Feng prior to their panel, Koyama observed that TRIGGER “has been coming to Kumoricon since 2013, [and] actually have been working on PROMARE since then.” During the panel, Wakabayashi placed the film’s pre-production planning as coinciding with a period when their tasks for Kill la Kill were wrapping up in 2013. As TRIGGER’s first original feature-length film, PROMARE far surpassed the studio’s normal time frame. Based on Wakabayashi’s estimation, it took six years of planning and production to reach the big screen. The extended development period allowed the team to evolve their initial ideas into the fully realized explosion that is PROMARE.
GKIDS’ initial United States theatrical run for PROMARE features a post-film interview with the product team, in which Director Hiroyuki Imaishi explains that the origin of PROMARE was a desire to make a movie centered on fire. Fire is constantly moving, which makes it both akin to the essence of animation and a challenge to animate. When asked by an audience member at their Kumoricon 2019 panel what inspired PROMARE’s concepts, Wakabayashi added that Writer Kazuki Nakashima found inspiration in a sci-fi novel featuring cross-dimensional communication (unfortunately, the novel wasn’t named at the time).
Nakashima began to muse about an alien race that was attempting to communicate with humanity, which found a way to speak through humans themselves using their anger. In the film, these concepts would be expressed as fire. This cornerstone of PROMARE’s conception can be most readily observed in the film’s opening, as the first Burnish manifest in moments of rage.
The rest of PROMARE’s first flames were more dramatically consumed as the blaze developed. Wakabayashi showed Imaishi’s original sketch to the audience: two chibi-like boys, drawn in rough pencil, both in suits, though one was holding a handgun. According to Wakabayashi, these boys were potentially yakuza or elite police. They were armed Blues Brothers, based on the rough sketch, and they would fight a smoke or fire monster. Imaishi focused mainly focused on this for the first key art draft, which Wakabayashi shared as well: a massive mecha loomed in the background, with a pink-haired female police officer standing behind more detailed versions of the two boys.
Wakabayashi and Koyama gently ribbed Imaishi’s simple style before revealing a more finished iteration of the key art, which was drawn by Koyama. The short-haired police officer was the original Aina Ardebit. The two boys, identified as middle school students, were Lio Fotia and Galo Thymos. Neither of the boys resemble their future selves, save for the light hair / dark hair dichotomy. Indeed, these proto designs featured Lio and Galo as a blonde and brunette, respectively.
PROMARE’s narrative originally intended to focus on Lio befriending a fire monster. Wakabayashi called this a “Human + Object” story and used Kill la Kill’s Life Fibers to illustrate the concept. In that series, characters utilize a living garment to gain power in battle. For PROMARE, Lio would ingest the fire monster and transform into the first Engine. Before being changed to “Burnish,” TRIGGER intended to play with a Japanese word for Fire (“EN”, 炎) and Person (“JIN”, 人), calling the Human + Fire Monster combo an “Engine” (“ENJIN” in Katakana, but written with the kanji as 炎人). The major twist in PROMARE’s story harkens back to this playful name, as Kray Foresight uses Burnish as the power source that drives his warp gate technology.
Changing from Boy Meets Fire into Boy Meets Boy
The TRIGGER team wasn’t completely satisfied with the Human + Object model they had intended for PROMARE. A “boy meets fire” story, Wakabayashi conveyed, wasn’t enough; the tales that TRIGGER are most proud of involve human contact, human connections. He touched back on Kill la Kill for another example, referring to the central conflict between Ryuko and Satsuki as a “girl meets girl” story, . Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, similarly, was “boy meets boy,” both in respects of the Simon-Kamina and Simon-Rossiu relationships. Therefore, Wakabayashi concluded, TRIGGER decided to shift the story so it could also be defined as “boy meets boy.” The impact of this change was that Lio and Galo couldn’t start out as friends or allies, as originally intended. Rather, the central conflict would be around their opposition to each other.
Wakabayashi and Koyama showed early character sketches that were drawn after the change. The boys were aged up. Lio’s initial redesign is hard to distinguish from the final film version. Galo’s, on the other hand, saw a series of alterations. Koyama gave Galo a mechanical arm. Will Feng asked Koyama if he was inspired by the classic Marvel characters of Cable or Winter Soldier, to which Koyama admitted he does love their mechanical arms and has always wanted to give one to a character. Koyama added that he wanted to give Galo such an arm, but Nakashima vetoed the idea. His reason was that it would make Galo too powerful. Koyama gave the arm to Kray instead and left Galo to fight with his bare hands.
The rest of Burning Rescue entered existence as adults to match. Wakabayashi ran through a set of concept pages that showed off Galo’s colleagues. Aina traded in her police grays for jean shorts and suspenders (a small fraction of a real uniform), and grew out her hair. Ignis Ex, Varys Truss, and Remi Puguna, meanwhile, were only given small tweaks. The last major character shifts fell on Dr. Deus Prometh and Vulcan. Wakabayashi pointed to a sketched boombox and explained that Dr. Deus started out as an AI smart speaker. While he didn’t have early art to illustrate the change to Vulcan, Koyama did share that Nakashima wrote Vulcan to be a skinny man. Imaishi, though, insisted on drawing him as a muscular giant.
The long creation period for PROMARE also showed several design challenges. As they flipped through concept sketches, Koyama pointed to a series of iterations on Kray’s Burnish form. Since early story ideas centered around fighting a monster made of smoke and fire. Kray would transform into a building-sized foe, surrounded by swirling plumes of smoke. Unfortunately, as Koyama gleefully observed, this made him look like a “Broccoli Man Child.” Koyama also hinted that, if they had pursued this design, it might end up being related to a certain green character from Space Patrol Luluco (2016). Ultimately the Broccoli Man Child was abandoned. Koyama joked that he could have been defeated by being dipped into dip. Wakabayashi pointed out that Imaishi and Koyama worked on character designs for four years… and would get bored, sometimes.
Pent up mecha energy
One of my personal favorite aspects of PROMARE is the sheer breadth of mecha / giant robot designs that appear throughout the film: powered rescue gear, the mid-fight power up Matoi-tech, Burnish exoskeletons, cybernetically-enhanced Freeze Force, the soft Deus Ex Machina, the sharp Lio de Galon (and planet-size Galo de Lion), and the terraforming transformer Krazer X. Wakabayashi explained that Imaishi had not been able to do a lot of mechanical designs since Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. He went from Gurren Lagann to Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (2010), then to Kill la Kill, and finally onto Space Patrol Luluco. PROMARE was his chance to release a lot of pent-up design ideas.
That said, not all of Imaishi’s and Koyama’s designs made it into the final film, such as Ignis’ Rescue Gear. During our private interview, I was eager to ask about Ignis’ muscle car. For a period of time, my father drove a spiritually similar vehicle (a Plymouth Fury, to be precise) to accompany fire engines to fires. According to Koyama, Ignis’ Icebreaker is a single-passenger vehicle built for speed. He explained, “There is no passenger seat in Ignis’ car. It is entirely nitro.” The passenger seat in the Icebreaker is replaced by a Nitro system, which is used to inject an accelerant into the engine. Furthermore (and much to my personal dismay), Koyama dropped a bigger secret about Icebreaker, coyly remarking that “there is a rescue gear in Ignis’ muscle car.” Like all members of Burning Rescue, Wakabayashi explained, Ignis has his own rescue gear. It is unit #1 and built for speed. Koyama showed us sketches on his phone. Icebreaker’s spoiler would form a key element of the rescue gear, which was designed to be light and agile. The gear was to make a surprise appearance during Ignis’ clash with Vulcan, but the scene was ultimately cut for time (more on this below).
Help with the distinct look
Wakabayashi and Koyama showed a series of different versions of Galo’s final design. They explained that TRIGGER spent a lot of time experimenting with colored line art, versus black line art, versus lineless art. This experimentation is what lead the team to hit on the unique line style used in PROMARE. An audience member followed up on this during the Q&A, asking where the bold color choices in the film came from. Koyama cited design work done by Pixar animator Grant Alexander. Alexander did concept designs for PROMARE, which featured the use of a gradient on the flames. Inspired by this, TRIGGER continued to riff on the gradient until they hit on the pink, purple, and green tones used throughout the film.
Section Two: Secret Details of PROMARE
Hidden depths in the ranks of Mad Burnish (Meis and Gueira)
Lio Fotia leads Mad Burnish with this support of his two lieutenants, Gueira and Meis. Much like their Burning Rescue counterparts, though, Gueira and Meis don’t get a lot of screen time. Prompted by an audience request to know more about these sidekicks, Wakabayashi and Koyama opened up about the team dynamics of Mad Burnish. They discussed the factors that inspired the design and approach to Gueira and Meis and gave extra details on their personalities.
While not explained outright in the film, there are visual cues to the hierarchy of Mad Burnish. When transformed, noted Wakabayashi, a Burnish’s power level is expressed through the number of horns they grow. Lio, as the strongest and the leader, sports three distinct horns on his helmet. Gueira has two horns that mark him as the second-in-command for Mad Burnish and above Meis, who only had one. Gueira isn’t significantly stronger than Meis, but he does call the shots if Lio isn’t around. Koyama added that Kray has three horns hidden in plain sight if one knows where to look for them.
Koyama offered a point of clarity on the visual design of Mad Burnish. While Lio’s Burnish motorcycle marks the group as a motorcycle gang, it is more accurate to describe Gueira’s and Meis’ aesthetic as motorcross. Gueira rides a four-wheeler and Meis a dirtbike. Likewise, both don telltale motocross helmets when transformed. Koyama joked that he gave them helmets because “any dumb guy can look cool in a helmet.”
While visually grounded in a Western style, Mad Burnish draws extra inspiration from Japanese folklore. As they were showing the concept sketches for Mad Burnish, Wakabayashi pointed out that both Gueira and Meis have tattoos. The characters “雷刃” (RAI-JIN) are tattooed on Gueira’s left collarbone, while “風刃” (FUU-JIN) is visible on Meis’ left arm. This is a play on the shinto deities of Raijin (雷神), the god of thunder, and Fuujin (風神), the god of wind. TRIGGER replaced the character for “god” (神) with that of “sword” (刃) and thus marked Gueira and Meis as the Sword of Storms and the Sword of Wind, respectively. Koyama then showed the audience a painting by 17th-century artist Tawaraya Sōtatsu, and explained that Raijin and Fuujin both act as protectors in various Shinto myths. Gueira and Meis, likewise, are marked as Lio’s protectors. Take note of the number of horns on these gods as well.
Homages to The Fast & The Furious (Ignis and Vulcan)
Wakabayashi revealed that Imaishi’s favorite character in the film was arguably the most unlikely: the head of Freeze Force, Vulcan Haestus.
Vulcan was Imaishi’s outlet for introducing violence into PROMARE. Throughout the film, Vulcan clashes with Burning Rescue and, in particular, Burning Rescue commander Ignis Ex. Their interactions suggest a history between the two muscle-bound leaders. This comes to a head in the penultimate battle between good and evil in the film, during which Vulcan and Ignis meet muscle car to monster truck. Waka explained that this scene spurred a conflict between Imaishi and his team, as they urged the director to cut it down. As Imaishi’s favorite, Vulcan already had more screen time than the supporting Burning Rescue crew, so Imaishi agreed to trim down the scene. He refused to cut it outright, though. To him, it was the most vital scene, and he would be unsettled if it wasn’t in the final cut.
Imaishi’s insistence on keeping the scene might have all been because it completed a subtle (well, as subtle as TRIGGER can be) meta joke involving Vulcan and Ignis. Will Feng coaxed the truth out of Koyama by pointedly asking him if Ignis’ character drew inspiration from action superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Ignis, for reference, drives the souped-up muscle car Icebreaker, spends his spare time working on cars and repairing engines, and drinks Corona beer. As it turns out, he sure does! More precisely, Ignis is inspired by Johnson’s character in The Fast & The Furious franchise. Imaishi, Koyama, and Wakabayashi all share a love of fast cars and The Fast & The Furious, which they poured into the character.
It’s no coincidence that Ignis was intentionally voiced in the Japanese track by veteran voice actor Rikiya Koyama. Koyama is the go-to actor to provide the Japanese voice in dubbed versions of Dwayne Johnson’s characters, which include Luke Hobbs, Johnson’s character in The Fast & The Furious. Likewise, Taiten Kusunoki, the Japanese dub voice for Fast & The Furious mainstay Vin Diesel (as Dominic “Dom” Toretto) was brought on to play opposite Koyama’s Ignis as Vulcan. One could argue, in this light, that TRIGGER orchestrated a spiritual reunion and rematch between Dom and Hobbs through the clash between Vulcan and Ignis.
Things that will remain secret
Wakabayashi was prepared when an excited audience member asked how old Lio and Galo are. Nakashima has forbidden anyone from answering this question, he explained. Nobody at TRIGGER is allowed to identify either of the characters’ ages, birth data, or height. The veil of secrecy was warranted, according to Nakashima, who explained that he and the team at TRIGGER don’t want their characters to be painted into categories. Wakabayashi then asked the questioner how old they thought the two leads were. They put Galo and Lio in their 20s, which Wakabayashi acknowledged as a potential answer. In his mind, he thinks of the two as “Business Man Level 1,” but they could really be as young as sixteen years old. The true answer, though, will remain a secret.
When Wakabayashi and Koyama were discussing the six years PROMARE took to make, they also acknowledged that their work still isn’t done. TRIGGER was still working on extra upgrades for the eventual home release, which speaks to the dedication the studio has for their hot new property. Each time I have had the chance to speak with Wakabayashi and Koyama about PROMARE, their passion for the project has been evident. It is infectious.
The 2019 panel ended with the TRIGGER team asking all cosplayers to gather at the front of the stage. A dozen-plus Galos and Lios embraced the two representatives, who looked thrilled at the outpouring of love for their opus. During our interview, we asked how it felt to have worked on such a popular film. Wakabayashi told us that they worked on PROMARE because it is the kind of project they like doing. “The fact that it is really popular worldwide and in Japan,” he continued, “makes us thankful from the bottom of our hearts.”