TL;DR – Three anime shorts that contain visual magic but need a strong story to support them.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Modest Heroes tells three short stories from anime production company Studio Ponoc.
The first is called “Kanini and Kanino”, a story about two water breathing siblings the size of gold fish, who live underwater in a forest stream. Their pregnant mother, Kaka, went to the surface (not really clear why) and hasn’t been back in some time. Their father, Tata, gets caught in a strong current and gets taken away, leaving Kanini and Kanino fending for themselves. The pair go searching for their father and eventually find him wounded. They face off against a fish that seeks to eat them and is only saved when an Egret bird traps the fish with its dagger-like beak. Demonstrating the many dangers that face these tiny water breathing humans. They make it home to discover Kaka has also returned with five new-born babies in tow. There is next to no dialogue other than when the characters call out to each other by their names.
The second is called “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose” which focuses on a a boy named Shun and his mother. Shun is faced with the challenges of growing up with a severe egg allergy that can cause anaphylaxis, hives and possibly death. He has to carry an epi-pen, and his mother is always having to check foods to see if it contains eggs. Flashbacks reveal previous incidents where Shun has had to be rushed to hospital for touching or consuming something that has eggs (e.g. a piece of cake that was used to celebrate a classmate’s birthday). One day, Shun is riding home on his bicycle after baseball practice and sees a dead pigeon lying on the ground. He arrives home and pulls out his vanilla ice-cream, which isn’t meant to have eggs, but he discovers to his horror that they’ve now added it. He manages to call his mother and gets the epi-pen and survives.
The third and final short is called “Invisible” and opens to an invisible man getting dressed and brushing his teeth. The invisible man works at a car dealership, and he is overlooked by his colleagues both literally and figuratively. He carries around with him a fire extinguisher, and wears clothing, glasses, and shoes but for some reason is like a ghost to everyone around him. At one point, he throws the fire extinguisher in anguish and freaks out at what he’s done. We discover the extinguisher ensures he stays grounded to earth, and without it, he becomes weightless causing him to be caught up in the air by a gust of wind and fearful of disappearing into the stratosphere. He manages to secure the weight of a pick axe and becomes grounded once more just as a storm unleashes its fury. As he sits in the rain, hungry and miserable, a blind man and his guide dog come up to him. The blind man apparently “sees” the invisible man and hands him a sandwich while asking him the question, “Are you going to stay, or are you…?” (I imagine he was going to finish the question with “float away”). The invisible man gratefully accepts the sandwich and without words, you can tell he is going to fight to exist. He then sees a baby pram rolling down a hill as a truck comes speeding by. The invisible man springs into action and manages to save the baby.
The animation is exquisite, and it is clear that Studio Ponoc aspires to be considered in the same category as Studio Ghibli. There is also a sense that these short stories are meant to conjure similar magic to Pixar shorts.
Short stories are a skill that needs to tell a tale that captures you in a limited number of words. Likewise, animated short stories have a restricted timeslot and the visual needs to do more than simply look good.
Out of the three short stories, I found “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose” to be the most effective. Having a son that has food allergies, I can relate to the challenges that Shun’s mother faces.
However, “Invisible” was probably the most captivating with the idea of an invisible man seeking to exist. If you watch the credits there is an end scene where the invisible man appears visible riding his scooter as you can now see his hair, which makes you wonder if the man was visible all along but to himself, he felt invisible.
The weakest of the three was “Kanini and Kanino”, which lacked any sense of actual tension. The story itself is straight forward and there were no twists. You don’t have to have a twist in a short story, but there was not enough emotional pull for me to empathise with the diminutive beings. I felt Studio Ponoc was relying on their visual wizardry to keep me captivated in this one without success.
An interesting experiment and from what I can tell the first volume in a series of short story volumes from Ponoc. There is definite potential for greatness after their debut feature length film Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but I daresay they still have a long way to go before reaching the dizzying heights of master storytelling that the likes of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have achieved.
6 out of 10