I just finished watching Modest Heroes, a collection of three short films by Studio Ponoc. It’s an excellent anthology for any age with gorgeous animation, whimsical imagery, and universal themes— I wasn’t expecting any less, as Studio Ponoc was founded by former lead producer of Studio Ghibli, Yoshiaki Nishimura, and the strong team of dedicated animators had already won my heart with their first feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Each of the the three stories making up Modest Heroes is crafted by a different director- Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Yoshiyuki Momose, and Akihiko Yamashita. Each is very different in style, situation, and tone, but they are unified by the larger theme of life- it’s precariousness, hardships, and beautiful moments.
I won’t spoil the charming stories of Modest Heroes— to do so would be a grave misstep for me— but I’ll give a taste of each to entice potential viewers of this family-friendly collection.
First, we have:
Kanini and Kanino
Mixing hand drawn animation with dazzling CGI, this story is a feast for the eyes, with lifelike realism in a lush natural world blended with stylized wide-eyed characters. The minimalist “crab language” spoken throughout, largely improvised ad-lib by the voice actors, is no hindrance to communication, as the expressive animation carries the story along.
Life Ain’t Gonna Lose
In Life Ain’t Gonna Lose, young Sota Shinohara makes his voice acting debut as Shuu, a boy who has a very severe allergy to eggs. This short film is based on a true story, and indeed feels very real. The everyday routines of people in Tokyo are painstakingly rendered in bright and detailed scenes, and the complexity of human instincts and emotions are lovingly portrayed.
The last film in this trio has a somewhat darker and grittier feel, but is still full of surprise and whimsy. It confronts what it means to be invisible, both literally and figuratively.
We should not live without recognizing or caring about others. There are many people who are sad, happy, suffering, or angry around us. If the world today doesn’t have anything to offer them, then we should deal with those invisible people in our film.
The bonus materials on the DVD are definitely worth a watch, and include features such as interviews, a press conference video, art galleries, and trailers. I found these extras to have a lot of depth compared to the fluff-filled bonus features that are often included with films. The creators of Modest Heroes, from the animators to the voice actors, music producers, and so on, share thoughtful, funny, and interesting insights from the making of the project. For example, Studio Ponoc’s founder Yoshiaki Nishimura expressed his strong belief in the validity of short film as a format with its own intrinsic value and no less capable than feature length films. He also explained the focus of Studio Ponoc being firstly and foremost to create quality films to entertain children with authenticity and depth, capturing their hearts and inevitably inspiring adults in the process.
It is happily evident that the true spirit of Studio Ghibli lives on with Studio Ponoc.
This is day 20 of revisiting my journal from our trip to Japan last year! If you’d like to start at the beginning, here is day 1.
So, day 20, here we go!
From Shauna’s Journal
Day 20, October 20th, 2017
Today was a magical day. We finally went to the Ghibli museum in Mitaka<3
What a special place. Being huge Studio Ghibli fans, it was one of the “must go” places for our trip, and since the regular tickets for the month sold out the DAY they were released online, we had to book a tour package. We paid a lot of extra money for a bus ride to the museum from a hotel in Shinjuku and a “tour guide” who gave us some tips and info while on the bus. Still, worth every penny! Our guide took our picture at the entrance to the museum but the “tour” ended there- the creators of Ghibli Museum want it to be a place of exploration and discovery.
Ghibli Museum has a rule of no cameras or phones to be used inside for photo taking (outside is ok). I’m very glad, because knowing me I would have been trying to take pictures of all of the wonderful things inside, seeing them through the screen of a device rather than my own eyes. It was lovely to just enjoy every moment without the urge to snap pictures everywhere. I did purchase a couple of photo books from the Reading Room shop to help me relive the special memories of Ghibli Museum.
The museum is so wonderful, certainly the most memorable and awe-inspiring “museum” I’ve ever visited. Some rooms were open and airy, with frescoes of Ghibli inspiration and stained glass windows. Others were crammed full of so many interesting things- antiques, relics, storyboards, paintings, sketches, film strips, art and sculpture, shadowboxes, eye-trick illusions, hidden messages- that you could spend all day examining the details.
One favorite exhibit of mine was a special limited-time interactive display room with focus on food in Ghibli films- humble, everyday meals that are rendered in realistic, mouth-watering detail and even carry significance in the plot.
I was also transfixed by the giant zoetrope, a spinning lightbox, which had Ghibli figures inside in various transitioning poses so that, when spinning, it creates moving images (Totoro hopping, a bat flying, etc.)
We visited the takeout cafe window outside and had hotdogs, springrolls, ice cream, beer (me), and applejuice (Dustin).
Visitors to the Ghibli museum are given the special opportunity to watch an original animated short film in the Saturn Theater. These films are not available anywhere else, as Ghibli museum wants them to be another special part of the magic for visitors. The films are rotated regularly, and the one that was playing this October was Koro’s Big Day Out, a film about a dog who escapes while looking for the little girl who left for school and gets lost in the streets of Tokyo- it had a happy ending but I cried during most of the last half. I hadn’t cried in FOREVER! In fact, I had started worrying that my anxiety medications were stifling my ability to cry, so it was a bit of a release for me. I felt thankful to Studio Ghibli for showing me I can still cry!
Dustin took my picture on the rooftop with the robot from Castle in the Sky.
We visited the main gift shop, Mama Aiuto, which the bus tour guide had told us is both a reference to characters from Porco Rosso as well as a cheeky moniker that pokes fun at how kids will plead “Please, Mama, Help!!!” when they see the exciting goodies inside. The shop was cram packed. I bought a Koro stuffie to ease my heart (I was still sniffling from the film) and I couldn’t help but pick up a bunch of other little things- postcards, pins, bookmarks, and plushies to remember this special place by.
We departed on a very cramped yellow Ghibli bus back to the station and on to the Ryokan. I’m very exhausted now, both from a very stimulating day and from the last few late nights, so I am just catching up on journal writing and plan to have a bath, relax, and get a good night’s sleep!
Similarly, anime is a format capable of telling any kind of story.
I’m heading out to Animethon tomorrow, and as such I’ve had several conversations with friends and coworkers recently about anime. One such friend was reminiscing with me today about favorites from childhood, and we discussed how sometimes anime surprised us with its content.
Anime: Building Solid Foundations For Childhood
When I was very young, before I even got into Sailor Moon or Pokemon, I was prone to watching and re-watching my favorite VHS tapes over and over and over again. I’d watch them so fervently that I could speak every word of dialogue along with the tape. One of my favorites was a particular version of Heidi which had beautiful music and charming style. Another was a lively and unique version of Snow White. Yet another was a tape of the first 3 episodes of the action-packed extra-terrestrial fantasy cartoon, Thundercats.
Little did I know that in the might of these three VHS tapes, probably plucked from the bargain bins of convenience stores by my family, anime would begin to sink its hooks into my impressionable young mind!
By scouring the internet some years later on a hunch, I confirmed that my Heidi movie (which was dubbed in English) had ties to one of the most well known and celebrated anime studios both in Japan and internationally, Studio Ghibli. My Heidi was a condensed version of a full Japanese anime series created by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the two founding directors of Studio Ghibli.
This was back when Studio Ghibli was not yet established- Alps No Shoujo Heidi was released under Zuiyo Eizo which later became Nippon Animation. Nippon, I also learned with some digging, created the Grimms Fairy Tale Classics series, including my aforementioned favorite version of Snow White!
Oh, and Thundercats? It was animated by a Japanese studio called Pacific Animation Corporation.
I Didn’t See That Coming (and Neither Did He)
I have a vivid memory from when I was quite young of sitting in the living-room with my Dad watching an anime that he randomly found while browsing tv channels. Two people are battling in some sort of combat ring, the sort of setting where a competition like martial arts would take place. The fighting is bloody and intense, and keeps amping up in its recklessness.
Suddenly one of the fighters takes the pointer and middle fingers of both of his hands and thrusts them into the temples of the competitor, making a calculated strike-and-pull. A close up is shown of the victim’s retinal arteries (?) being ripped open, and blood gushes out of both sides of his head.
Everything goes black. Now he can’t see and must continue the fight completely blind.
My Mom’s spidey sense must have tingled in worry about her pre-pubescent daughter because she walked into the room at the peak of the action, raised her eyebrows to the roof with a sidelong glance, and said something like:
“Doug, what in the hell are you two watching?!”
Dad was just as shocked as I was –
“Well, it’s a cartoon! I didn’t…”
We sat transfixed and watched the rest of the show. I have no idea what the name of it was, and to this day I can’t remember anything about it besides that scene, but this experience was my first big glimpse of anime’s capabilities beyond friendly magical girls and elemental monster battles, and certainly far beyond any western animation I’d ever laid eyes on.
Please Sir, I want Some More (Ghibli)
Outside of my heavily edited VHS version of Heidi, the first Ghibli movie I remember watching was Princess Mononoke. I was still quite young, and, once again, this was something my Dad stumbled upon while browsing channels. We both realized it was a bit more bloody than we were expecting (which is funny, because it’s to my knowledge the only Ghibli movie with that level of gory imagery- not that there’s anything wrong with that!) and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Years later, Dad finally decided it was time to invest in a BluRay player and brought home a PS3, along with our first ever BluRay: a copy of Ghibli’s award winning Spirited Away.
While he seemed to have bought it mainly as a means of testing out the assuredly Beautifully Clear HD Quality Image and Unsurpassed Sound of a BluRay on his TV, I was immediately smitten with the intricate backdrops, the strange characters, and otherworldly happenings in the movie.
I waited until the newness of the BluRay fever had died off a bit and asked if I could keep the film and add it to my small but growing anime collection. Dad acquiesced with a fake sigh and a “should have known you’d like this one, kiddo”.
Ghibli movies have continued to blow me away with their devotion to truly understanding and amusing children and childlike minds, their attention to even the minutest and most seemingly insignificant details, and insightful depictions of the true good and bad faces of humanity. Their works are often fantastical, sometimes sentimental, occasionally tragic (don’t watch Grave of the Fireflies without some tissues handy) but always beautiful.
Last year I had the opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream of visiting the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka with my husband while on our trip to Japan. It was an experience I’ll never forget and will hold in my heart forever.
Again for the People in the Back: Anime is a Format,
Not A Genre
In my early teens, when I first began working part-time, I began to purchase anime of my own accord. There was no rhyme or reason to what I bought- usually it was whatever overpriced “Volume 2, Part 1” randomness my local CD Plus had in stock. Some were wonderful, and some were underwhelming, but as I learned more and more about anime and manga, I fell more and more in love with both.
In time I began to understand the vastness of the possibilities of this uniquely Japanese format. To anyone who looks at an anime and immediately thinks “I’m not into that stuff”, I challenge you to do a little investigating online or talk to staff at your local library and see what’s out there that might be relevant to your interests.
Curiously, it seems that there aren’t many non-fiction anime produced from what I can tell- I’ve come across a few, but biographical and NF anime (and manga) seem to be rare. I’m not sure why that is, as it’s just as valid a format as any. If anyone has any insight on this I’d love a comment or DM!
Aside from an apparent dearth of non-fiction anime, here are just a few anime that pop into my head as some examples of the versatility of the format, but they are only a few drops in an ocean of worthwhile anime.