Modest Heroes is a three-part anthology film from Studio Ponoc, featuring stories directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Yoshiyuki Momose, and Akihiko Yamashita. The first short, Kanini and Kanino, follows two young siblings and their father as they try to survive in a river stream as their mother goes off to give birth. The second short film, Life Ain’t Gonna Lose, shows a young child’s resilience against a lethal egg allergy. The last short, Invisible, follows an unnamed man invisible to the world, until a crucial moment forces him to become a hero.
Plot and Story
Modest Heroes is the first short film anthology by Studio Ponoc, done in a similar style to Katsuhiro Otomo’s short film series (most notably Neo Tokyo, Metropolis, Robot Carnival, Memories, and Short Peace). Similar to how Robot Carnival introduced its own short films, there are a few neat intros before each short that capture the feeling of going to an amusement park or a loud festival. The end credits sequence is a nice nod to all three films and its characters. The anthology series comes off Studio Ponoc’s debut feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower and displays a variety of storytelling styles from ex-Ghibli staff members.
For this review, I’ll give some thoughts on each of the three shorts:
Kanini and Kanino
Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Kanini and Kanino leaves a great impression of a vast underwater world that’s both beautiful and dangerous. The short is a typical adventure story with a satisfying narrative arc, starting with a light beginning that culminates into an exciting climax. The titular Kanini, along with his sister Kanino, are portrayed as fun, easygoing kids who are forced to mature somewhat quickly and be courageous in a time of conflict. The story strongly reminds me of The Borrowers and Finding Nemo and I recommend it if you liked Ghibli’s Arriety or Ponyo.
The choice of minimal dialogue used in this short is interesting and effective, with the exception of the occasional saying of ‘Kanini’ or ‘Kanino.’ The excellent animation from Studio Ponoc’s team makes it easy to follow movement and visual cues, so that you can infer the context and emotion from a certain scene. You don’t necessarily need subtitles to enjoy this short. The animation also makes ordinary things look huge from the point-of-view of its characters. They manage this thanks to the CGI visuals that make the water look so fluid, vibrant, and alive. It also makes the fish Kanini and Kanino face off against look much more terrifying up close.
Life Ain’t Gonna Lose
Yoshiyuki Momose’s contribution to the anthology shifts us away from the adventurous tone of the first short and into the real world. There’s an interesting conflict tying Life Ain’t Gonna Lose together, with its title suggesting a strong resilience from its main character, Shun. He’s determined to one day conquer his lethal egg allergy. This worries his Mom who balances a career as a professional dancer while constantly monitoring her son. Some quick flashbacks to Shun’s previous allergic attacks demonstrate how stressful the situation is for her.
I appreciate the short film’s approach to realism, especially when Shun has lunch at his school. His allergy doesn’t make him a target of bullying and his classmates seem to support him as much as they can whenever they have lunch together – a very considerate gesture if I say so myself. The short hits close to home for me because my sister dealt with a similar allergy with mangoes and my parents felt much the same way as Shun’s Mom did. Life Ain’t Gonna Lose is overall a wonderful middle act of the Modest Heroes anthology.
Akihiko Yamashita’s Invisible definitely feels like the more adult-oriented story in this series. In terms of tone and color, Kanini and Kanino draws upon an aquamarine blue setting while Life Ain’t Gonna Lose is full of bright, sunshine optimism. The world of Invisible is mundane, grey, and devoid of color, except for maybe the very end of the short. There’s much more at stake for the protagonist in this one. The unnamed character wakes up to find that he’s turned invisible and no one, not even machines, acknowledge his existence. Soon after, he drifts aimlessly around town, frustrated with his insignificance and not being seen by anyone. It’s a clever visual metaphor for our main character, whose quiet and lonesome personality makes him non-existent in front of his co-workers and everyone around him.
The short ends abruptly, strongly hinting that he does gain his physical body back. A selfless act validates him as a hero of sorts and adds a nice touch to the story’s finale. He ultimately learns that the only person whose opinion matters is himself.
This first collection is a step in the right direction for Studio Ponoc. The anthology series showcases not only Yonebayashi’s skills, but other creators flourishing in the studio. I expect a great amount of storytelling and innovative animation in the next installment and see how they further step out of Studio Ghibli’s shadow.
Modest Heroes is available to watch now from GKIDS.