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Review - Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre, Volume 1

Just got back in from the Fathom Events screening of Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre, Volume 1. Studio-produced animated shorts tend to be largely technical exercises (see: much of Pixar’s output), and this three-film compilation from the company behind Mary and the Witch’s Flower is no exception. The first tale (titled Kanini & Kanino), for example, utilizes computer-generated elements to create near-photorealistic scenery that rivals Makoto Shinkai’s, while the second (Life Ain’t Gonna Lose) experiments with watercolor-style shading and expressionistic fantasy sequences. It also represents something far more significant, however: an attempt by a group of artists that aspire to carry on the venerable Studio Ghibli’s legacy to establish their own narrative, aesthetic, and thematic identity.

If nothing else, they’ve proven that they’re versatile storytellers. Kanini & Kanino, which chronicles the efforts of a pair of diminutive, water-dwelling fairy children to reunite with their lost father (in many respects, it’s a spiritual successor to director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s own The Secret World of Arrietty), emphasizes fantastical action and adventure, capturing the sense of awe and wonder that won Hayao Miyazaki’s work such acclaim. Life Ain’t Gonna Lose, on the other hand, is a more grounded slice-of-life drama about a young boy struggling to live with a severe food allergy—and the sacrifices his mother must make in order to protect him. Invisible, the third (and, in my opinion, best) vignette, is a beautiful allegory about a man whose loneliness and lack of self-esteem manifest as literal transparency, intangibility, and weightlessness.

I think Ponoc still has a long way to go before it fills its predecessor’s gargantuan shoes (it is not, in its current form, “financially prosperous,” as founder Yoshiaki Nishimura so delicately phrases it in a behind-the-scenes interview), but Modest Heroes is a huge step in the right direction, delivering three delicious flavors of emotional catharsis for the price of one.

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