Formed out of the ashes of Studio Ghibli (the critically acclaimed Japanese animation house), Modest Heroes is the second release from Studio Ponoc. It follows on from their successful debut feature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Modest Heroes is a 50 minute anthology with three separate short films released together. There was originally to be four but sadly iconic Ghibli director Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Grave Of The Fireflies) passed away before being able to produce his planned segment.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ex-Ghibli alumni director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There) delivers the most ‘Ghibli-esque’ entry. Yonebayashi returns to another story of tiny people no bigger than an acorn who are trying to survive in a hostile world. The mostly dialogue-less short, entitled Kanini & Kanino, follows a father and his two children who behave like underwater hunter-gatherers.
The gurgle of water and bubbling air pockets create a wonderful sense of the world, but during a bad storm, the father is swept away downstream. This entry expertly grabs your attention even if the blended traditional animation and CGI inserts don’t always mesh, especially when a huge pike-like fish decides that our characters might make a good lunch.
Second is Life Ain’t Gonna Lose from director Yoshiyuki Momose. Momose hasn’t directed a feature-length before but his experience in the short story format shows. Shun is a young boy born with a severe egg allergy. The short shows the struggle that Shun and his mother have in avoiding contact with eggs, to the point where his mother desperately slaps a cookie out of Shun’s distracted hand.
This culminates in a genuinely moving scene in which he accidentally triggers his allergy whilst his mother is away and has to desperately get his epi-pen to a neighbour. The animation is sparser than the short that preceded it but the very real subject matter makes for a much more engaging story.
Last in the anthology is a more experimental short: ‘Invisible’. Our modest hero is typical Japanese ‘salary man’ (i.e. drone office worker) who just happens to be entirely invisible. He goes about his life being utterly ignored by everyone, and struggles with the fact he floats uncontrollably into the sky unless he ties himself down.
The segment thematically covers depression and isolation in a big city but does sacrifice any narrative as a result. It’s a mood piece that is excellently accentuated by the harsher and darker animation. Thick lines make for a harder edge, whether our protagonist be failing to get served in a convenience store, or rocketing down the road on his scooter to try and catch an errant baby buggy. The ambiguous ending also adds a nice twist.
As a whole Modest Heroes is a great success. Unlike other anthology attempts (see Flavors Of Youth) it has a coherent message that gives licence to the variances in style. There are also hints of Studio Ponoc trying to step out of the very large shadow of Studio Ghibli; an important task after the fun but ‘Ghibli-by-numbers’ debut of Mary and the Witches Flower.
At a lean 50 minutes, Modest Heroes is definitely worth your time if you are looking for something that doesn’t require the usual 10 hour Netflix binge.
Words by Michael Record