Film

Breaking down the barriers of animation with Hiroyuki Imaishi

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

One does not tune into an anime directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi for subtlety.

For over a decade, Imaishi has been known as one of anime’s most raucous storytellers. In series like “Gurren Lagann” (2007), “Kill la Kill” (2013) and “Space Patrol Luluco” (2016), goofy super-robots, sentient schoolgirl uniforms and teenage space officers bounce across the screen in furious high-stakes battles while bellowing increasingly absurd declarations of dedication to justice and friendship. Just try to get through an episode without a grin on your face.

Imaishi’s latest over-the-top adventure is the film “Promare,” which hit theaters on May 24. Set in the near future, it centers on a group of humans who literally blow their tops when they get angry, releasing deadly bursts of flames, and a team of firefighters, Burning Rescue, that gets called in to do some high-tech dousing when the need arises.

Imaishi, 47, says he never seriously considered a career outside of anime. Like many young people of his generation, he was captivated by the original “Mobile Suit Gundam” (1979), which inspired him to join clubs dedicated to anime creation. By the time he was set to graduate high school, he says, “there was basically nothing else I was qualified to do.”

Arguably one of the most important moments in the director’s career was meeting screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima while working as an episode director on “Re: Cutie Honey” in 2004. The two hit it off creatively.

“Usually when I work with a writer, I end up pulling their script apart and putting it back together in my own way,” Imaishi says. “When I did that with Nakashima’s script, it ended up just the same as what he wrote to begin with. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this guy and I are trying to do the same thing … I definitely want to work with him.'”

And work together they did. Nakashima went on to write “Gurren Lagann,” which marked Imaishi’s debut as a series director, then “Kill la Kill,” his first series at Studio Trigger, the studio he co-founded in 2011, and now “Promare.”

The director and writer begin with a series of meetings that Imaishi describes as “half shooting the breeze.” Nakashima takes the results of those informal sessions and turns them into script pages, which the two then discuss again, and so on. This time around, the film began as a “straightforward coming-of-age story” before taking on more action-based elements.

But with their sensibilities so similar, is there anything the two disagree on?

“Well, Nakashima likes to write long exposition scenes. I get a bit bored, so I have the characters fall asleep during those scenes. I don’t think Nakashima likes that very much,” Imaishi says with a laugh.

“Promare” features one such scene, through which protagonist Galo Thymos, in true Imaishi style, takes a nap. But the majority of the film’s near two-hour runtime is packed with action.

And as Imaishi and Nakashima’s previous collaborations have been series of more than 20 episodes, the film format offered new challenges.

“We kept refining the storyboards over and over, trying not to waste any runtime,” says Imaishi. “That was quite a battle.”

The other challenge, he says, was that, with a TV series, he can take viewer feedback into account as the show progresses. With a film, he says, “it’s like producing the first and last episode at the same time.”

Another major difference between “Promare” and Imaishi’s previous works is the amount of CG animation used in the film. While the main characters are hand-drawn, the vast majority of the backgrounds and action are computer-rendered.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to try for a long time,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of hand-drawn action up to now, to the point where I’m satisfied, where I can’t think of much new to do. But with CG, I could find new things to try.”

Imaishi notes that CG is becoming more and more realistic, with higher resolution and density. “Building high-res models and using them as-is is probably the easier way to do things,” he says. “But I was more interested in reduction, in trimming. How far could I simplify the CG, flatten it out, make it feel like hand-drawn cel animation? The same went for putting the models in motion: We used the same frame rates as traditional anime. … We tried very hard to control those aspects.”

The result is a style that feels both fresh and recognizably Imaishi. With CG-based environments, the camera and characters are free to fly around the screen with more abandon than ever. With that freedom of movement comes a new challenge: how far to push the envelope, finding the line between visual incomprehensibility and pulse-pounding action.

“If you make it too easy to follow, the tempo feels slow,” Imaishi says. “It’s all about pushing it to the limit. I mean, even as it is now, there are some people who won’t be able to follow it! But I do like to push it to the point where you can understand what’s happening, but just barely. That’s when you get a nice sense of speed. I do pay a lot of attention to that.”

And speaking of things recognizably Imaishi, when I note the resemblance between the hot-headed, blue-haired character Kamina from “Gurren Lagann” and Galo from “Promare,” Imaishi laughs. It seems he’s heard the same comment more than once.

“I guess I like characters like that,” he says. “I always think it’d be nice to live like they do. It doesn’t really work that way in real life, though.”

When I ask Imaishi if he’s be interested in directing a quieter, more down-to-earth anime, he seems receptive. Still, it doesn’t sound like he’ll be giving up the mantle of craziest director in anime anytime soon. But what exactly is it that keeps drawing him to action-packed storytelling?

“My crew often asks me the same thing,” he says. “I’ve always liked stuff that’s screwy, exciting, just a little warped, a little excessive. Everyone laughs when they hear this, but I love (‘Transformers’ and ‘Armageddon’ director) Michael Bay.”

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