Anime, Film, Studio Ponoc

Studio Ponoc’s “Modest Heroes” is modest and mediocre in its presentation.

(This review was originally posted Jan. 20, 2019)

I hope you all are keeping safe -whether you’re protesting or staying quarantined – and taking social media breaks. These are unprecedented and interesting times we’re in, so we should all be taking extra steps in terms of our mental health.

And that’s why rather than rushing through and pushing out a piece about Black animators, Black cartoon characters and Black shows -I’ve decided to re-visit and edit a review. And because the movie just got released on Netflix. So…you know. Gotta get those views up.

The cast of Modest Heroes

Studio Ponoc’s “Modest Heroes,” wasn’t something I was particularly intrigued by but I figured it might have an interesting segment. Each of the film’s three shorts focuses on different characters and has a distinct art style -the only thing that connects the stories is the theme of heroism and bravery. 

I’m not sure how I feel about the term “modest” being used; I guess I was expecting stories that were a little more down to Earth as opposed to the more fantasy driven premises of two of the stories.

It’s easy to have a hero in a fantasy or fantasy-like setting. It’s an expectation of the genre. We don’t normally see a little boy dealing with a life-threatening food allergy get to be a hero. But we have seen stories of little kids -who are actually crab spirits in this case -go out in search of their missing parent.

It’s not necessarily bad -I just wish they had gone with a broader, less-expected meaning of what it means to be a hero. That’s what they were going for –but I don’t think they totally succeeded.

As a whole, the film was good due to the variety of styles, themes, ideas and set pieces. The voice acting was good and I liked how they started with the simplest story and ended with the most complex one.

Kanini and Kanino

The first short, Kanini and Kanino, the titular siblings who seem to be crab spirits. Or anthropomorphic crabs.They’re human like, but they live underwater, and they’re super tiny.The fact that they carry around crab claws and both have the Japanese word for “crab” in their name, makes it a little clearer.

They live with their parents in a stream; all is well. Then one day, their extremely pregnant mother disappears. Originally, I thought she died but I’m not sure if the kids also thought she died or knew she had just gone to give birth.

When a storm sweeps their father away, it’s up to Kanini and Kanino to find and rescue him. This one, though the most simplistic in dialogue and story telling technique – it also has the most horrifying scene in the entire movie.

It reminded me a lot of Finding Nemo, except that the kids and dad swap places.The way the mother’s disappearance is shown and the fact that there’s a giant sharp-toothed fish, is very reminiscent of the Pixar movie.

There’s not a lot of dialogue. When characters do speak, it’s usually a name or one-word phrase like “Mama,” “Dada,” “Kanini” and “Kanino.” Considering that the theater I went to didn’t originally have the correct version of the film and had to switch it out part way through for the dubbed version, this was a good thing.

I don’t think there was even a dubbed version of this short; when the English version played, it sounded exactly the same. I thought they had messed up again. Apparently, this is a common occurrence with dubbed and subbed films at this location.

I thought the animation for this was really cool since they actually animated the characters as being underwater most of the time. Unlike in Spongebob, the short actually used underwater physics and characters were able to easily glide or float and you could see bubbles as they moved. I thought that was a nice touch.

Originally, I didn’t love the ending -but it’s still a solid little episode.

Life Ain’t Gonna Lose

The second short, Life Ain’t Gonna Lose, was my favorite. The story focuses on a boy named Shun, and how he deals with his lethal allergy to eggs. His family is a bit protective of him and rightfully, so. The poor boy even needs to stay in the hall when his classmates prepare something with eggs for lunch.

It’s a very justified fear.

We also get to see how the allergy affects his life; his school doesn’t want the responsibility of dealing with the allergy on an overnight field trip – the school recommends going home for meals and then coming back. Shun considers not going because he doesn’t want to stand out. His mom isn’t exactly happy about that.

The climax comes when Shun is home alone after baseball practice and finds out that his favorite brand of ice cream changed their recipe and has to deal with his reaction when neither of his parents are home. It’s frightening and I’m sure it’s even scarier for people who either have allergies or have loved ones that do.

You get to see the reaction in “real time” as hives pop up on his skin and he struggles for breath.

In the aftermath, Shun makes the decision to be part of a study to build up an immunity to his allergen. Which is pretty cool, if I must say.

I liked it because I really think it works with the main theme; being a kid with a scary allergy is all about being a modest hero. He’s doing something really brave by deciding to go to the hospital at the end.

And I like how they went with an egg allergy rather than peanuts and how being allergic to something doesn’t affect his physical abilities. 

The animation was pretty too. I think this one could have succeeded more by being a bit longer, and with some of the scenes rearranged, but it’s still my favorite.

Invisible

The final short Invisible is about an unnamed man who is as the title implies literally invisible. I believe this is supposed to be a metaphor but it’s treated very literally in the short -he can’t even get automatic doors to open for him.

People don’t hear him. He doesn’t get acknowledged in any way at work and people walk right through him. But then, somebody does notice him… a blind man. They chat, share some food and it’s then our protagonist has his heroic moment.

I know that the invisibility is most likely a metaphor but I’m still not sure what it’s a metaphor for: disability, social anxiety or some other kind of mental health issue…I’m just not sure.

It was weird, but satisfying. Yet, it still could have been better.

I did like the art style here -it’s more realistic than the others, it’s kind of dark in a rainy-day kind of way. It wasn’t something I necessarily expected from Ponoc. So it was nice.

As a whole, the film was fine. I wish the shorts could have been tied together more cohesively, and I feel like another short would have made this whole anthology feel more complete (according to Wikipedia, there was supposed to be another short; one by Isao Takahata, but he passed away, so that makes sense.)

It’ll be interesting to see if they follow this trend of anthology films or make a sequel of sorts to the Modest Heroes cinematic universe.

I think Studio Ponoc is still trying to find its feet; it’s very new and all the workers are trying to establish their own post-Ghibli identities. Obviously, anything they put out in the future, I’ll see because I want to see this studio grow into the powerhouse I know it can be.

And that’s the scoop!

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Kanini and Kanino 

Year of Release: 2018

Score: 5/10

Director:  Yoshiaki Nishimura

Voice Actors: Fumino Kimura and Rio Suzuki (Japanese)

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Life Ain’t Gonna Lose

Year of Release: 2018

Score: 7/10

Director: Yoshiyuki Momose

Voice Actors:  Machiko Ono (Japanese) Sōta Shinohara, Kentaro Sakaguchi, Kentaro Sakaguchi (Japanese)

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Invisible

Year of Release: 2018

Score: 6/10

Director: Akihiko Yamashita

Voice Actors: Joe Odigiri and Min Tanaka (Japanese)

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Total Score: 6/10

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3 thoughts on “Studio Ponoc’s “Modest Heroes” is modest and mediocre in its presentation.”

  1. I do agree that Life Ain’t Gonna Lose was the best of the three shorts. It’s good that Ponoc is slowly getting their own identity, but I do hope they improve with future movies.

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