Since establishing themselves with the spectacular Mary and the Witch’s Flower last year, Studio Ponoc (an offshoot of Ghibli) have, along with Makoto Shinkai, become the ones to watch among fans of Japanese animation. As well as full feature films, Ponoc has begun to make shorts, and intend to produce themed anthologies on a regular basis. The first, entitled Modest Heroes, is a gorgeous, heartwarming set of three kid-friendly tales that has just received a dubbed Netflix release, and having had somewhat of a stressful time lately, I can’t recommend them highly enough if you need a mood boost.
The first, entitled Kanini & Kanino, tells the story of the titular duo, a pair of tiny water nymphs who live in a stream with their hard-wearing father and pregnant mother. When they become separated from their guardians, they must face the perils of the water, learning to protect themselves and each other in the process. As the most thematically simplistic of the three shorts, the film is definitely the most child-oriented, with a vague coming of age moral that isn’t quite as grand or significant as the visuals may suggest. But, to be fair, the visuals alone are a solid reason to watch this short – Mary director Hiromasa Yonebayashi helmed this story, and the natural landscapes are as dazzling as those in his first Ponoc film. As the weakest of the bunch, Kanini & Kanino is nonetheless a strong start.
The second, in much more grounded territory, is Life Ain’t Gonna Lose, a short about a boy called Shun and his fatal egg allergy. This may not sound too exciting on the surface, but animation has a knack for turning the mundane into the extraordinary, and the frequency of life or death situations in this short transform your perception of allergies from an inconvenience to a worldview shaping experience. The animation is in a loose, illustrative style that perfectly conveys fluidity with a childlike warmness, especially in sequences that show Shun’s mother dancing with beautiful, carefree motions. The difficulty in trying to balance responsibility with playful innocence is at the heart of Shun’s struggle, and if I had seen this film when I first received my M.E. diagnosis, I think it would have resonated with me even more than it already has.
The third and final short feels more like a timeless parable than a short from 2019: an invisible, weightless man tries to make his way in a world that doesn’t seem to care. If the opening film was easy for young children to understand, this one feels like a harder message to swallow. Sometimes, the world seems like a cruel, grey place, but if you can make it better for others, that joy might just rub off on you too. The visual details in the character design of the invisible man are mesmerizing; water droplets outline a silhouette of his face in the pouring rain, and when he floats in the wind he resembles a pile of airborne rags. As the least whimsical short, Invisible ends the anthology on a more serious note, but still on one of optimism and faith in humanity.
Sadly, a fourth short was planned for the film to bring it to feature-length – one by the legendary Ghibli director Isao Takahata, who passed away before production could begin. But for as fantastic as the series likely would have been with this addition, it still stands proudly without his legacy to support it. If you have a spare hour at home and you don’t mind watching media intended for a younger audience, I promise you’ll come away from Modest Heroes feeling a little better about facing the world again.