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‘Ponoc Short Films Theatre, Vol. 1: Modest Heroes’: An anime studio’s modest break with norms

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

“Modest Heroes” studio Ponoc was founded by producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, formerly of Ghibli, just as that legendary anime studio decided to cool its jets back in 2014. Ponoc’s debut feature, last year’s “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” established it as a kind of Ghibli 2, a place where Ghibli alums could continue to create family-friendly fantasy films.

A Totoro-size wrench was thrown into the works late last year, though, when it was announced Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki would be un-retiring for one last feature film. For now, Ghibli 1 is back in business — and ostensibly using some of the talent Ponoc assumed it would have at its disposal.

Ponoc Short Films Theatre, Vol. 1: Modest Heroes (Chiisana Eiyu —Kani to Tamago to Tomei Ningen—)
Rating
Run Time 54 mins
Language JAPANESE

That may be one factor in why, for its second major release, Ponoc has decided to go with a more modest effort: a series of three shorts that together make up this 54-minute film.

The first of these shorts, “Kanini & Kanino,” takes place underwater, and concerns a pair of pint-sized, human-shaped river crab siblings who have become separated from their father. The largely dialogue-free short, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“Mary and the Witch’s Flower”), features visuals and sound design that impressively portray what life is like when you’re a few centimeters tall. Fish loom menacingly, raindrops hit like bombs and a few errant air bubbles are enough to propel a loved one down the river. The short has only the thinnest of plots, but almost feels like a pilot for another Ghibli-esque film.

The second short, “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose,” shifts the action from fantasy to reality with the tale of Shun (Sota Shinohara), a young boy in Tokyo who has strong allergic reactions to eggs. Directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, a longtime Ghibli animator, the short has the distinction of being, quite possibly, the first anime to revolve around allergies. The real heart of the story, though, is the relationship between Shun and his mother (Machiko Ono), a dance instructor who’s trying to balance her career with caring for a child who needs extra attention. This short also feels like it could easily be expanded into a film — but in any case, it’s interesting to see a very real issue for many modern children and parents portrayed in animation.

Centered around a day in the life of an invisible man (Joe Odagiri), the third short, “Invisible,” wisely doesn’t bother explaining why its hero has become transparent — though it does offer a few tantalizing hints — but instead depicts one day in the life of a man in a rather unique situation. With a pounding soundtrack by Capsule frontman and Perfume producer Yasutaka Nakata and some darn impressive animation — the raindrops outlining the contours of his invisible face are ace — this short by veteran animator and character designer Akihiko Yamashita is the best of the three, and the one that best utilizes the short format.

Ponoc founder Nishimura argues that with an ever-expanding number of animation titles and studios, there’s a need to break out of old ways of thinking. Fair enough. We’re in an environment where new distribution methods mean your movie doesn’t necessarily have to be 30 (or 90, or 120) minutes. But I wonder if, as consumers of filmed entertainment, those runtimes are kind of baked into our DNA. The film’s first two shorts, in particular, left me wanting more — which, I suppose, is better than leaving me wanting less.