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Modest Heroes (2019)

You don't need to have super powers to be a hero.

Modest Heroes is the first volume of Studio Ponoc's Short Film Theater anthology. It contains three short films directed by Hiromasa YonebayashiYoshiyuki Momose, and Akihiko Yamashita respectively. Each telling a stand alone story set around the theme of bravery in spite of life's adversities.

After Mary and the Witch's Flower, it was hard to say how Studio Ponoc was planning to establish themselves. Separate from the studio that gave many of these talented artists the wings to soar. I was excited to hear when it was announced that Ponoc would be taking the short film route and releasing these shorts as a big screen anthology. It is a prime opportunity to see what these directors are capable of on their own and give their animation teams time to really shine. Creating a solid identity for the studio and the people within it.

But what separates these shorts from the works of Studio Ghibli or even Mary and the Witch's Flower?

Let's go short by short to find out!

"Kanini & Kanino" - Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Of all the short films, this is the one that got the most billing. Being featured in the theatrical poster and a great deal of the teaser trailers. It is difficult not to see why either.

The film is set in a small stream in the countryside that is populated by fish, crabs and tiny magical creatures (some resembling fairies). The short focuses on a small family of tiny people, who take on the characteristics of crabs, as they live their lives in this stream. Things become dangerous however when the two children Kanini and Kanino are separated from their father. The two leave on a journey downstream to rescue him, all the while avoiding the monstrous fish who lurk in the murky waters.

One thing I love about this short film is its scope and the environment it creates. This isn't Yonebayashi's first time bringing to life the challenges of being a few inches tall and you can tell he had a lot of fun with this idea. Most of the story is told through the visuals, since the characters speak a made up language, which allows the viewer to appreciate the character design and be pulled deeper into the visuals. Including the well done computer generated animation, which was used in one of my favorite sequences of the short.

I will admit the adventure was fun but I honestly had a lot more questions that I knew the film wasn't going to have time to answer all the way. But that is partially due to how well designed the characters are. I wanted to learn more about them, how they lived, why their children leave after they grow to a certain age, do they ever try to go deeper into the rivers or on land?

It is a good sign that your onto something good when your audience wants to see more.

"Life Ain't Gonna Lose" - Directed by Yoshiyuki Momose

Shun, a young boy in elementary school, is deadly allergic to eggs so he is constantly under the watchful eye of his mother. With a school field trip coming up, Shun's mother is hoping to find a way for Shun to go in spite of the dietary challenges. The short covers this time in Shun's life as he grapples with his condition and whether or not it should hold him back from going.

Advertised as a mother and son drama, Life Ain't Gonna Lose is very vague on its premise other than this aspect. So when I sat down and found out the story was set around the challenged of raising a child with a severe food allergy, I was stunned. It is not something many people think about but it is a constant challenge for many in this world. One of which I know personally, and have been good friends since high school.

While I can't say how accurate this short is in its depiction, it felt like the people involved at the very least have an understanding of how terrifying it can be to watch what you eat or risk dying from anaphylactic shock.

Aside from the endearing characters, particularly the relationship between Shun and his mother is adorable, my favorite aspect of this short is its style. It has a sort of storybook illustration look to it which is really effective when the drama of the short is at it's highest point. Morphing and distorting to depict the intensity of a character's emotions. Some scenes look a little overly exaggerated, specifically during the dancing sequence but this is a minor gripe in what I think is the best looking short of the three. I would very much like to see Studio Ponoc to create more films in this style going forward.

"Invisible" - Directed by Akihiko Yamashita

No matter where he goes, he is invisible. A young Salary man goes through his day to day with no one seeing him or caring about his existence. He is so detached from the world around him that he needs to hold on to a physical object to keep himself from floating away. It isn't until he is shown a little bit of kindness that he decides to return it.

Invisible is easily the most somber of the three films. It goes to great lengths to show just how invisible the unnamed protagonist is. The metaphor of being so invisible that there is almost nothing holding him to this world is a clever visual idea, there wasn't really anything else drawing me in outside of the well executed concept.

Still, there is some pretty creative animation on display here. Some of my favorite shots showing the protagonist eating a sandwich, which is interesting how much detail is captured despite the protagonists face not being seen. There is some great camera work as well, with a well timed slow motion shot that captures the slow anticipation of our hero.

Wasn't my favorite by a long stretch but I'm glad I saw it.


While you can still definitely see the influence of Ghibli in these shorts, it is veritably less so than Ponoc's previous film. I can definitely feel more of the directors and animator's unique talents shining through. Even the overall style of Ponoc's films seems to be evolving as the character (while sill having the trademark Ghibli soft features) seems to be changing with each subsequent film.

For a follow up to their debut film, I really enjoyed the opportunity to see the creative minds behind Studio Ponoc flex their creative muscles to tell some really compelling stories. With the promise of more anthology films like this in the future, I hope I'm not the only one who is enthusiastically waiting so see what Ponoc has next up their sleeve.