It's been a good few years for films that have next-level animation tied to a garbage screenplay, but even in the company of Loving Vincent or Klaus, Promare is on some other plane entirely. It is, I say without any excess of hyperbole, one of the most extraordinary triumphs of color, character design, camera movement, and action choreography that I have ever seen in a single animated feature. Ever. And it has used this style to breathe life into one of the most impenetrable, contrived screenplays I have ever encountered in anime. Ever.

That second one maybe involves some hyperbole. But seriously, the script that Nakashima Kazuki has provided for Promare is rotten in some fundamental ways. It starts out well enough, rattling through the apocalyptic-ish sci-fi backstory with a breathlessness typical of a certain breed of Japanese animation: thirty years ago, the world was devastated by the Great Blaze, in which a pandemic of spontaneous human combustion led to countless deaths. Since then, a mutant human race called the Burnish have emerged, individuals with pyrokinetic abilities that they're only partially able to control. As a direct result, a new paramilitary has been born: groups of firefighters using super-advanced technology and mechas to fight teams of Burnish terrorists in pitched battles. Some of this we are told. Some of this we are shown, in the course of a firefighter vs. Burnish action setpiece that is simply jaw-dropping in its kinetic energy. This movie starts fast: by the time we can start to work out the setting, we're already moving through it on the back of a virtual camera that's flying around and between buildings, sweeping from close-ups back to extreme wide shots as it tries to capture every molecule of the fighting from every angle all at the same time. And then comes a gesture that's charmingly absurd in the moment, but turns out to be the first sign of the story's eventual collapse: every time we meet any character, the movement slams to a halt so a giant text card can blast into frame, telling us who they are. I do mean every time we meet any character.

From this point until it's over, Promare is two irreconcilable experiences. There is the visual one, which doesn't take a breath for any one of the film's 111 minutes (I mean this literally - even the credits are boldly colored, though they're not doing anything else). It's not just the frantic movement, either: indeed, this could be just a series of still poses, and it would be only slightly less stylistically radical. The film uses huge swatches of eye-searing neon colors - hot purple for the flames and bright cyan for the ice the firefighters use to stop them, so the whole thing feels like a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper has been put into a robot suit and given life - in big chunky geometric shapes. The characters are angular and flat, with very little definition or detail, but with the extremes of color being used to give them visual personality despite this. It's obviously digital, with clarity and stability to the colors that does not in any way suggest this was done with anything other than a paint bucket tool, but there's also a strange textural quality to the color as well, almost like it was done in colored chalks that were somehow placed inside of a computer. On top of that, everything seems literally made up of geometric shapes: the fire most obviously, which exists as a flowing river of tiny triangles, but most surfaces seem to be covered in a fine net of lines.

This is, of course, very much not just a series of still poses. And the film has as firm a command of movement as anything else I can name - as great, maybe as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the most joyfully fluid of all 2010s animated features. Despite ranging in mere seconds from wide shots that show entire city blocks to close-ups of an adorable little mouse with clearly-defined happy expressions, and despite the way that just about every single object onscreen is in constant motion, every bit of the action in Promare is easy to follow. This isn't just useful to allow us to appreciate the spectacle: we learn how firefighting works in this world just by watching it, along with plenty of other spectacle besides. This is the first feature made by Studio Trigger, best known for the 2013 series Kill la Kill; I have no idea if this is typical of their work, but I do know that it's got me hot and bothered to follow wherever they go next.

Again, that's one of the two Promares. The other one is the story about who those firefighters are and what they learn of the world they think they're defending. Briefly: Galo Thymos (Matsuyama Kenichi) is a new recruit to Burning Rescue, led by Ignis Ex (Koyama Rikiya); he's also a a protégé of Kray Foresight (Sakai Masato), the popular and heroic governor of Promepolis, the world city where all of this takes place. At the film's start, Galo meets Lio Fotia (Saotome Taichi), the leader of the radical group Mad Burnish; he at first thinks nothing of this encounter, but in reasonably short order, he starts to wonder if Lio is the villain he seems to be. Soon enough, he and the members of his team have uncovered a very elaborate conspiracy about the true nature of the Burnish and the evil secrets hiding beneath Promepolis.

Pure anime boilerplate, not worth freaking out over; but the execution is simply disastrous. It's good that all of the reveals and sci-fi concepts are so utterly generic, because it would be very nearly impossible to follow what the hell is happening without relying on a firm knowledge of anime clichés. New locations and concepts are introduced at random and without set-up; the film keeps cycling through supporting characters without explaining who they are or why we care about them or what they have that the old supporting characters didn't. Other than Galo and Lio, every member of the cast feels plugged in to facilitate a single plot point, and when this runs into the film's desire to tell a human story with human emotions, it breaks. The film develops a romantic interest, only to discard her the moment she's been used to drag her scientist sister into the story; it creates a wonderfully garish villain for the first half and literally forgets about him for 30 straight minutes while it picks up a wholly different villain. And the pseudoscience used to explain what's going on is a complete slurry of overdone ideas involving parallel universes and human experimentation - again, if I didn't know the kind of storytelling shortcuts these kinds of films used, I don't know if I'd have been able to follow any of this except at the level of "when things turn pink, that is bad".

So what the hell do we do with Promare? It's an unbelievable feat of animated storytelling, in service to a story that utterly resists being told. The skillful labor used to bring life to the characters and their world does absolutely nothing to make those characters feel emotionally relatable, nor to make that world interesting. It looks like basically nothing else, which I'd say makes it worthwhile for anybody who shares my passion for stylistically ambitious animation; but it is a chore to make it through some of those middle sequences of delayed exposition. I'm glad the thing exists, by all means, but it is next to impossible to recommend it.