Modest Heroes Review

Modest Heroes Poster

AKA: Ponoc Short Films Theater Volume 1: Modest Heroes, Chiisana Eiyu: Kani to Tamago to Tomei Ningen, Little Heroes: The Crab, The Egg, and The Invisible Man
; Modest Heroes: The Crab, The Egg, and The Invisible Man
Genre: Fantasy/Drama/Slice-Of-Life
Year Released: 2018
Distributor: GIKDS/Universal

Origin: Japan
Running Time: Anthology, 3 short films, 17-20 minutes each

Rating/Recommended Audience: PG

Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Ghiblies, Arietty, Only Yesterday, Pixar’s short films, Haibane Renmei, Song of the Sea, Spirited Away, Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid, Lilo & Stitch, NieA_7, Golden Time [Takuya Inaba short film], Ernest & Celestine, Rain Town, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Fern Gully, Ponyo

Notes:
-The Japanese version was used for this review.
Fun Facts:
-Modest Heroes is the 2nd film and first anthology project from Studio Ponoc. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this newer studio, this is from the same company responsible for Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

-Outside of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, one animator who got to be in the director’s chair is Ahikiko Yamashita. This person was a character designer for Giant Robo, Tales from Earthsea, Princess Nine, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

-One of the composers was Yasutaka Nakata. He’s best known for being one half of electronic pop duo Capsule, but he has also collaborated with the likes of SMAP, Marina Inoue, and of all people OK Go. Yes, the same band famous for their treadmill-dancing video of “Here It Goes Again” got to work with this musician.

-Kanino in the first short is played by child actress Rio Suzuki. She’s portrayed the live-action remake version of Hinazuki Kayo in Erased and played the title character in the 2019 remake of Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo series.

-The mom in Life Ain’t Gonna Lose’s English dub is played by Maggie Q. She’s best known for her work in Mission Impossible III, Live Free or Die Hard, and the Divergent trilogy.

-Language Bonus/Fridge Brilliance: This may have been unintentional on the creator’s parts, but I did find the father of Kanini & Kanino’s name of “Tata” to be interesting because that can mean the word “father” in Lingala as well as it being a term for Congolese to address older men even if they’re not related to them.


Studio Ponoc is one of the newer animation studios on the block over the past few years. It certainly got attention since it was started by ex-Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi. While I’m not as familiar with his work within and out of the company compared to Hayao Miyazaki or the late Isao Takahata as far as their animators are concerned, I thought he did have some talent in animation. For those who may or may not remember, I’ve covered two of his works. I reviewed When Marnie Was There which was his final film as a Ghibli director and creator. While it wasn’t the best film from that studio, it was still very good and I’d say it’s my 2nd favorite 2010s Ghibli movie after The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The other film I covered was Ponoc’s debut work Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Sure, it had good animation, but I thought it was an average debut for Yonebayashi’s new studio and among other flaws, the film was riding on Miyazaki and Takahata’s (mostly the former) coattails so much that I thought this was a Ghibli movie. In that same review, I really hoped Ponoc would learn from their mistakes to carve their own identity instead of copying their art style or their animation aesthetics (having Mary pose like Totoro in the Ponoc title card in their inaugural film really didn’t do any favors). I did hear about their short film anthology and I felt that they deserved a second chance to see if they’re willing to branch out of the house that Totoro built.

Alright, Ponoc. How are you going to step up?

Modest Heroes is the debut short film anthology from Yonebayashi’s studio which features three separate animated stories. The first one is Kanini & Kanino. This takes place in a river where there are tiny people living underwater. The title characters are brother and sister respectively. They have a culture where they use crab pincer staves for hunting very small fish as well as for self-defense against predators. Their mother Kaka has been missing leaving just their father Tata to protect his children. He ends up stranded in a different part of the river, so the siblings have to do their best to find him. The second film is Life Ain’t Gonna Lose. This takes place in modern-day Tokyo where a boy named Shun suffers from a severe allergy to eggs. He spends lots of time in the hospital alongside other children with allergies. While he does try to have a normal life in school, has friends, and is talented at sports, Shun still feels like a stranger as the class has to accommodate his condition. Not only that, but his mom worries for his safety (rightfully so) since even him touching anything with eggs will be an emergency to give him an Epi-Pen and/or a trip to the hospital. How will Shun learn to live as normally as he can even as his mom has a tendency to overreact if he’s even near some kind of food that just might have eggs as an ingredient? The final short is Invisible. As the title would imply, this short film involves an invisible man. Despite wearing clothes, driving a moped, and sporting thick-rimmed glasses, people don’t even notice him at all. No matter how much he talks or tries to make gestures, he goes unnoticed. One day after his shift at a car dealership, he drives to a convenience store to pick up some things. The ATM doesn’t feel him punching the keypads and the clerk doesn’t see him attempting to buy things even though the various snacks and items are in full view. Things take a peculiar turn as it gets rainy and he temporarily loses some of his belongings which have a bigger effect on his life than people would realize.

Let’s start with our underwater fantasy story Kanini & Kanino. The animation and art style are pretty Ghibli-esque, but it’s still wonderful, creative, and doesn’t lean into Yonebayashi’s former employers as much as Mary and the Witch’s Flower. The water effects were spectacular and I couldn’t tell if it was high-quality CGI that’s well integrated with the backgrounds or if that was actually live-action footage of a stream. The animation was very colorful and quite magical, to say the least. The world-building was fascinating with the main characters’ being tiny humanoids or even dragonfly fairies that were briefly seen at the beginning of the film. The magic was mixed with the mundane because the wildlife consisted of real animals with different kinds of fish or a heron. It was a nice fusion of the fantastic and the realistic all at once. Granted, this isn’t the first time Yonebayashi has animated something with sprite-sized people (see: Arietty), but this was still quite unique. Some cynical fans of Western animation would write this off as a mix between Fern Gully, The Little Mermaid, Ponyo, and The Littles, but that’s really selling this short film short. I can see some of the comparisons, but I swear it never veers into rip-off territory. I enjoyed the soundtrack with the light instruments and even incorporating a steel drum in a couple of scenes which was highly inventive.

While the story itself is very straightforward and does have a satisfying ending that doesn’t come off as a cop-out as one would expect, I did have a few issues. The biggest one for me was the dialogue. A piece like this could work without too much talking which I agree with, but at least ninety-nine percent of the dialogue involved people saying each other’s names so much, that I wondered if the creators were listening to a certain Destiny’s Child or Florence and the Machine song respectively as a guide. This got to Pokemon levels or even certain memes involving Miaka shouting for Tamahome in Fushigi Yugi or (let’s be honest with ourselves about this example) the infamous “Kaneda!” and “Tetsuo!” shout-fests between the two major characters in Akira. Seriously, that got annoying, but I’m sure the voice actors got some easy money for saying very few words. I don’t know if this applies to the DVD or Blu-Ray release of Modest Heroes, but on the Netflix stream, there was a scene where Kanino says something other than a character’s name and it reads as “[Speaking Japanese]” as I’m watching the Japanese version. Are you serious, Netflix? That is lazy as well as intellectually insulting to me and it’s not just because I have some fluency in that language. There was also a plot hole when it came to Kaka as to why she left. Sure, the movie explains itself about her after the fact (spoiler alert: she’s not dead), but they could’ve expanded on why she went away. Is it in their culture for the mom to leave for a little bit before coming back? They never explain it. What about the other fantastic beings around like the dragonfly fairies? What did they have to do with the story? Kanini & Kanino was certainly a fun little short film, but I can’t lie and say I wasn’t annoyed by certain aspects.

Life Ain’t Gonna Lose is easily the most normal Ponoc film they’ve made so far. There’s no fantasy and no magic (must resist obvious reference from the finale of Mary and the Witch’s Flower!), but it’s no less interesting to watch. I know slice-of-life can get a bad rap in anime fan circles and some of that is warranted with some shallow or straight-up boring series. Rest assured, I can promise you there’s more depth in this short film than a million CGDCT (Cute Girls Doing Cute Things) shows out to date. The topic of a food allergy is something quite unique for animation even with the more family-friendly works. The only other times the concept of anaphylactic shock or severe food allergies came up in the context of animation that I’ve seen is an episode of Yakitate!! Japan and Meet the Robinsons of all things. The former involved a major character having a little sister having a severe reaction to an ingredient in a backstory as well as it being a serious moment in this otherwise comedic series while the latter was played for laughs with a potential adopting parent falling victim to the main character’s invention early on in that film. However, this Ponoc short does take it seriously as well as showing Shun to be a capable character allergy or not. He’s able to live as normal as he can despite that medical hindrance and it’s done in such a believable manner. While he had multiple times in his life when he became very sick, Shun isn’t defined by his allergy. His mom is overly cautious about her son’s well-being which is certainly great, but there are times when she overdoes it by literally running from her dance recital to make sure her son doesn’t even eat a cookie at a nearby table. She even begs him for forgiveness for being so strict with him. The voice acting was certainly great in this one with such believable dialogue. The animation was very creative. I’m realizing that I might be a sucker for watercolor animation styles (see: my reviews of Ernest & Celestine and Princess Kaguya) which balance the colorful nature with a sense of realism. The color palette really works and there are some nice animation shifts during the flashbacks which give it a creative touch.

Life Ain’t Gonna Lose does falter in a few places. I understand that the main focus is on Shun and his mom, but his dad seems absent despite being seen in some of the flashbacks. Are the parents divorced? Did he die? Is he still with the family, but just working a ton of hours? That never gets explained. While the watercolor animation is certainly brilliant, there was one scene that got too close to Ghibli thievery. The scene where Shun runs out of the apartment room while going into anaphylactic shock where the animation gets all distorted was way too similar to the iconic scene of Princess Kaguya where the title character runs away from the palace into the woods. While the style doesn’t get too abstract with the broad brush stroke effects, the animation design could’ve been changed to give a different effect while still achieving the same kind of emotions. I thought the music was just okay, but nothing as memorable as the first or final short in this particular anthology.

Invisible might be the most unique-looking short from Ponoc’s filmography so far. This is so much darker and grittier with the color palette. Any arguments about Ponoc piggybacking off of Ghibli are invalid when it comes to this part of Modest Heroes which I certainly appreciate. Typically with Yonebayashi’s work, the musicality involves lighter acoustic work, more understated numbers, and using atypical instruments such as harpsichords for example. This piece has none of it. I almost thought that Boards of Canada scored the soundtrack for Invisible and some of the background music sounded like something out of Texhnolyze or even Perfect Blue of all things. The story itself was certainly creative with how this invisible man is just doing his best to be noticed and not doing anything wrong to anyone. The animation effects really play up some of the more morose elements while still keeping it in a PG realm with some of the mature themes and intense scenes. I really liked the subtle effect of the rain temporarily forming a bit of an outline of his head without showing what he would look like is he was visible. That was very creative of them to do that. The twist in how he functions was something I didn’t see coming as well as it offers a greater sense of danger to the story. I also think there were subtle ties to the previous two short films despite not taking place in the same universe. You had the thunderstorms from Kanini & Kanino and you had the aspect of him being “lost” like the flashback with Shun in a festival in Life Ain’t Gonna Lose. That was a great usage of subtle connections. If that was intentional, then I have to give the creators even more props for doing so.

The final short in this little trilogy has its own issues though. There is one massive plot hole that needs to be addressed. How is he able to be hired even though no one can see him? Was he ever visible before landing that dealership job? That never made sense to me at all early on in this short. While I enjoyed the story, there are moments when it gets too dark. If I was a young child watching this, I would certainly get freaked out with the invisible man losing control of his gravity or the scene where he almost dies near the end. Okay, maybe the bigger fish from Kanini & Kanino would’ve scared a much younger me, too, but Invisible gets almost too intense for the target audience. Shoot, this reminds me of something from Yoshitoshi ABe, Satoshi Kon, or even something from Robot Communications compared to animators who used to work for Miyazaki and company.

Modest Heroes was a good step in the right direction for Studio Ponoc. While there were times when they couldn’t let themselves go from the Ghibli creative gravy train, I do appreciate them finally carving out an identity of their own and it’s not just because of them ditching that original Mary Ponoc title card from their debut work. These stories were all worth watching in their own right. The animation from both a quality and artistic standpoint is certainly an improvement from Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Outside of the individual errors from these three packaged films, I wasn’t a fan of the overly perky opening theme that just repeats the word “Ponoc” too much in the lyrics. However, if you have an hour to spare, then Modest Heroes would certainly be a good way to spend some time with some quality Japanese animation fun.


Adjustable Point Scores:

-Add 1-2 points if you’re a fan of Studio Ponoc, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, or new-school Ghibli works.
-Add 1 point if you like animated short films.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you want your animated stories to be consistently edgier.
-Subtract 1-3 points if you’re not a fan of animated anthologies

Pros:
-Ponoc is finally making their own identity
-Top caliber animation in all the shorts
-Great music in Kanini & Kanino and Invisible



Cons:

-The severely limited script in Kanini & Kanino

-Some Ghibli fanboying creeps in here and there
-Some plot holes in all three shorts.



Individual Scores:


Kanini & Kanino: 7/10 points
Life Ain’t Gonna Lose: 9/10 points

Invisible: 8/10 points

Final Score: 8/10 points



Content Advisory: Modest Heroes got a PG rating which does make sense. Like most Ghibli films, Ponoc is more family-friendly, but there are some reservations. There’s blood in Kanini & Kanino as well as Invisible. Some violence does happen like in the first film where the characters are fishing, being attacked by bigger fish, and how a heron is shown onscreen swallowing a fish whole. In Invisible, the main character does through very dangerous circumstances and almost gets hit by a large truck as well as saving a life in the process. Life Ain’t Gonna Lose has a serious subject matter with severe food allergies and you see multiple scenes of him becoming dangerously ill from consuming or touching foods with eggs in them. Even though there’s no swearing, Shun does say the word “sucks” when it comes to his disdain for doing homework and he’s certainly too young to being using that word in that context so easily. Not to mention there are scary scenes for younger children like the bigger fish looming in the first film or the invisible man being thrust into the sky during a thunderstorm.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Modest Heroes is property of GKIDS and Universal. The poster is from Blu-Ray and is property of GKIDS and Universal.

8 comments

  1. Great review, yeah, agree with all the high points and issues you raised – I nearly mentioned the dialogue in ‘Kanini & Kanino’ for my own review, and I must check to see if my disc does what Netflix does with the subtitles – that’s an odd choice to say the least. I definitely know what you mean re: ‘Invisible’ being a little bleak too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ashley! I remember you reviewing that movie. It’s certainly my favorite work from Ponoc so far. Yeah, I wondered if the subtitle issue was only for Netflix or if it happened in the home release, too. Invisible was pretty dark, but I still enjoyed it. Certainly different than anything that studio has done before.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Definitely! I would certainly like to see more from Ponoc. Yeah, that came to my mind when I realized the Olympics were postponed. That would still be something to see. Side note: The Olympics in Tokyo makes Akira even weirder in hindsight if you think about it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, it’s funny when you watch a movie that takes place in the future, that year happens, and it doesn’t look like the movie one watched. Haha! Although the random fact about the Tokyo Olympics and real life timing was surreal even though it’s delayed for next year.

        Like

  2. Really thorough review! Life Ain’t Gonna Lose was probably the most riveting out of the three, for me, because I’ve known people who have had really severe allergies. Really glad that Netflix is promoting more awareness for people with those ailments.

    Visually, I was really awed by Invisible. It really blew me away, no pun intended. 😅

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! I could see that working and even though I don’t know too many people with severe allergies, that story was still very believable. It hasn’t been on Netflix that long, but I’m happy it’s getting exposure there.

      Yeah, I certainly agree with the visuals. I see what you did there. Haha!

      Liked by 1 person

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