Modest Heroes (Ponoc Short Films Theatre: Volume 1)
(Check out my review of the previous Studio Ponoc film here: Mary and the Witch’s Flower)
When Studio Ponoc was founded after the initial dissolution of Studio Ghibli in 2014, it seemed that its head talent and lead director was Hiromasa Yonebayashi who had previously directed two films for Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There). Yonebayashi had well over two decades of experience in animation by this time as an in-between and key animator for Ghibli productions like Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales of Earthsea, Ponyo, and From Up on Poppy Hill as well as the Nasu films by fellow Ghibli alum Kitaro Kosaka (and director of the highly anticipated Studio Madhouse feature Okko’s Inn) and acclaimed anime series like Monster and Serial Experiments Lain.
However, with the arrival of Studio Ponoc’s first anthology film comprised of short films by three different directors, it seems the studio is working to recruit many talents (probably to avoid the successor problem that hounded Ghibli throughout its days). In an extensive interview (released as part of Modest Heroes’ U.S. theatrical run) with Studio Ponoc producer and former Ghibli producer (Howl’s Moving Castle, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, The Tale of Princess Kaguya) Yoshiaki Nishimura discussed the future direction of the Studio and revealed therein just how integral his vision is for that future.
Nishimura is not only the one who drums up support and funding for projects at the Studio, but he is also the one who brought Yonebayashi along with him to start the Studio. Nishimura was also the one who initially came up the idea to start a short films anthology series at the Studio to help develop new talent. The idea came to Nishimura while at Ghibli where tons of short films were produced throughout the years for commercial use at the Studio Ghibli Museum. Unfortunately for all of the talented young directors who worked their ways up in the ranks of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki cannibalized most opportunities to work in this way, and few beyond the old master ever got the opportunity to direct anything for Ghibli during their tenure there. Nishimura reasoned that this lack of opportunity for other directors beyond Miyazaki and Takahata to direct was the principal reason that Studio was unable to find a successor, and as such, Nishimura has no such plans to repeat their mistake.
The first short films anthology begins with ‘Kanini and Kanino’ directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and based on an original idea by Nishimura (as are all three short films in the anthology, once again establishing Nishimura’s role at Studio Ponoc as a bonafied auteur in his own right). When Yonebayashi released Mary and the Witch’s Flower, it was received with open arms by an anime community yearning for more works in the Ghibli tradition. However, many criticized the film for being unambiguously Ghibli and too similar to past Miyazaki films and plots, with characters all too similar to those we already know well. Mary was also Yonebayashi’s first film created with an original script not based on a classic British fantasy novel. If anything, that misstep merely reveals that he ought to stick to adaptations until a time comes when his abilities as a writer improve. Suffice it to say that ‘Kanini and Kanino’ suffers from much the same problem and is the least compelling of the three films in the anthology.
The second film is entitled, somewhat awkwardly, ‘Life Ain’t Gonna Lose.’ It is the tale of a young boy who is deathly allergic to eggs. The boy finds his life difficult because of the presence of eggs in almost any baked good and often avoids outings with other children to avoid potentially life-threatening accidental exposure. As a spiritual successor to the Ghibli helm however, the situation works out for the best as this little boy works to overcome his allergy by deciding to go to the hospital on a more regular basis where he can be treated through exposure therapy until he is one day able to eat eggs like other children.
This segment was directed by Yoshiyuki Momose who had previously only directed on two occasions (Ghiblies Episode 2 and Space Station No. 9) for the rare Studio Ghibli short films not helmed by Miyazaki-san himself. Momose is an animator whose career began all the back in 1971, or shortly thereafter Miyazaki himself entered the field of animation in the mid to late sixties, and therefore, it was imperative for Nishimura to hire Momose on to direct something as a test to see whether he was ready for feature film work down the road. Imperative, because Momose is currently 66 years old, and although he may have thirty more years of productivity ahead, the fates may also find it fit to yield less than ten to him (fickle as they are). Momose’s career hitherto has involved animation work for classics like Lensman, A Journey Through Fairyland, Grave of the Fireflies, Porco Rosso, whisper of the Heart, Spirited Away, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and the popular Ghibli inspired RPG series Ni no Kuni. Hopefully, we will see more work from him in the coming years through Studio Ponoc.
Finally, the third and final film in this short film anthology is ‘Invisible’ by director Akihiko Yamashita. The story is by far the most visually, aurally, and thematically arresting of the three tales as it depicts the bleak, grey life of a man doomed to live in the world as a spectre, invisible to all but those who suffer his same misfortune, though they too are few and far between. The heaven’s call toward him as some sort of suicidal impulse he can only assuage by carrying heavy objects that weigh him down using the earth’s gravity. But through a redemptive action wherein he saves the life of another, of an innocent child, the invisible man finds redemption and solace, and more importantly he finds himself once again.
Akihiko Yamashita is the least experience director of the three in this anthology as he has only previously directed the Studio Ghibli short film A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail. Yet, Yamashita can also be considered the most accomplished animator of the three as he has served in more capacities than merely an in-betweener or key animator. Thus far, his credits include highly prestigious production roles like Assistant Animation Director on The Cat Returns, Ponyo, When Marnie Was There, and Mary; Head animation Director on Howl’s Moving Castle and Arrietty; and Assistant Director on Tales From Earthsea. Moreover, his work outside of Ghibli and Ponoc includes more classic anime than any of his fellow Ponoc directors: e.g. Urusei Yatsura, Legend of the Overfiend, Nadia, Giant Robo, Serial Experiments Lain, Blue Submarine No. 6, and Big O.
Besides the hope for a future for Ghibli animation, this short film anthology signals the willingness of Studio Ponoc to experiment continually with the medium of animation, to foster a home for new animators and a testing ground for future directors, and as a future gateway for potential droves of new viewers to rediscover Ghibli in the future when the all too short-sighted masses begin to forget its impact. The most hopeful takeaway for me, however, toward this end was Nishimura’s stated promise that he enjoyed the process of producing films, was good at drumming up financial support, and that the Studio’s films have thus far been moderately profitable enough for him to continue the series. And not only to continue it for a while, but indefinitely as Nishimura plans to release Ponoc short film anthologies well past the tenth installment, and until the very day he dies.
A final rejoinder. This anthology was originally sleighted to be somewhat longer due to the initial plan for a fourth film by Studio Ghibli founder Isao Takahata. Unfortunately, Takahata passed away before such a plan could come to fruition. Modest Heroes is dedicated to his memory and to the influence of his films without which anime would be a completely different beast than the one we know it as today.