Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Yoshiyuki Momose, Akihiko Yamashita
Cast: Maggie Q, Liam O’Brien, Henry Kaufman
Watch Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre online in the UK: Netflix UK
In a short documentary available on Netflix, titled The Modest Heroes of Studio Ponoc, producer Yoshiaki Nishimura says that makers of short animation films are often asked: “Why do you make short films?” But he wonders why they never ask the question, “Why do you make feature films?” He suggests that short films are often viewed as a stepping-stone of sorts for people who can’t yet make feature films, but that this does a disservice to the form. As he says, short animation films have their own form of expression: “If the creator fully understands the idea, they can create great work… we create short films because we believe they have a value in and of themselves”
Nishimura is right to point out this unfair view towards shorts films. And it is admirable that Studio Ponoc’s second release, which clocks in at under an hour, should be an anthology collection of short films, rather than a traditional narrative feature, such as their 2017 debut, Mary and the Witch’s Flower. The good news is that this three-film collection does a strong job at illustrating the range of the studio’s talents, helping them emerge from the shadow of Studio Ghibli, for whom many of their staff used to work.
The somewhat bad news is that putting these shorts together in an anthology means viewer mindset is going to lean towards something like, say, Fantasia. Present a few short films as part of a bigger package and one will inevitably think of the bigger package as one entity before they think of the individual shorts separately. As such, if the hit-rate isn’t spectacular, the weaker shorts aren’t going to do the rest any favours in being remembered as separate works of art.
In the case of Modest Heroes, the first short, Kanino & Kanini, about a family of miniature merfolk, is by far the weakest. And that’s not to say that the film, from Mary and the Witch’s Flower director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is particularly bad, but it’s very safe. It gears very close to the house style of Studio Ghibli’s more fantastical offerings, and Yonebayashi’s previous film, both in style and character types, but without much distinctive about the plot in its short runtime.
Thankfully, things pick up with the next two, both of which have considerably different animation styles to Kanino & Kanini as well as each other. They’re the first real taste of the studio’s ventures into fresh territory, breaking away from the team’s legacy with Ghibli.
Yoshiyuki Momose’s Life Ain’t Gonna Lose is a delicately-told tale of a child with a potentially fatal allergy to eggs, from which his mother struggles to keep him safe. Akihiko Yamashita’s Invisible, meanwhile, follows an invisible man in what’s the most narratively and formally experimental of the three shorts.
That last one’s sombre stylings also bode well for Ponoc as an emerging animation house in terms of being difficult to pigeonhole. The tones of the three shorts in Modest Heroes are varied, as are the age ranges for which each are arguably aimed at. That may make Modest Heroes a disjointed affair when viewed in one go, but the collection absolutely backs up Yoshiaki Nishimura’s belief in short films having value in and of themselves.
Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.