I just finished watching Modest Heroes, a collection of three short films by Studio Ponoc. It’s an excellent anthology for any age with gorgeous animation, whimsical imagery, and universal themes— I wasn’t expecting any less, as Studio Ponoc was founded by former lead producer of Studio Ghibli, Yoshiaki Nishimura, and the strong team of dedicated animators had already won my heart with their first feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Each of the the three stories making up Modest Heroes is crafted by a different director- Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Yoshiyuki Momose, and Akihiko Yamashita. Each is very different in style, situation, and tone, but they are unified by the larger theme of life- it’s precariousness, hardships, and beautiful moments.
I won’t spoil the charming stories of Modest Heroes— to do so would be a grave misstep for me— but I’ll give a taste of each to entice potential viewers of this family-friendly collection.
First, we have:
Kanini and Kanino
Mixing hand drawn animation with dazzling CGI, this story is a feast for the eyes, with lifelike realism in a lush natural world blended with stylized wide-eyed characters. The minimalist “crab language” spoken throughout, largely improvised ad-lib by the voice actors, is no hindrance to communication, as the expressive animation carries the story along.
Life Ain’t Gonna Lose
In Life Ain’t Gonna Lose, young Sota Shinohara makes his voice acting debut as Shuu, a boy who has a very severe allergy to eggs. This short film is based on a true story, and indeed feels very real. The everyday routines of people in Tokyo are painstakingly rendered in bright and detailed scenes, and the complexity of human instincts and emotions are lovingly portrayed.
The last film in this trio has a somewhat darker and grittier feel, but is still full of surprise and whimsy. It confronts what it means to be invisible, both literally and figuratively.
We should not live without recognizing or caring about others. There are many people who are sad, happy, suffering, or angry around us. If the world today doesn’t have anything to offer them, then we should deal with those invisible people in our film.
The bonus materials on the DVD are definitely worth a watch, and include features such as interviews, a press conference video, art galleries, and trailers. I found these extras to have a lot of depth compared to the fluff-filled bonus features that are often included with films. The creators of Modest Heroes, from the animators to the voice actors, music producers, and so on, share thoughtful, funny, and interesting insights from the making of the project. For example, Studio Ponoc’s founder Yoshiaki Nishimura expressed his strong belief in the validity of short film as a format with its own intrinsic value and no less capable than feature length films. He also explained the focus of Studio Ponoc being firstly and foremost to create quality films to entertain children with authenticity and depth, capturing their hearts and inevitably inspiring adults in the process.
It is happily evident that the true spirit of Studio Ghibli lives on with Studio Ponoc.