Former Studio Ghibli Talent Create An Anthology

Founded on the ashes of Studio Ghibli, anime producer Yoshiaki Nishimura’s Studio Ponoc (Mary and The Witch’s Flower) experiments with new short films using talent that once worked for the venerable animation house.

Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre is an intriguing anthology of three original shorts written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Yoshiyuki Momose and Akihiko Yamashita. Studio Ghibli fans will find a lot to love about Modest Heroes’s unique short films that attempt new ideas in animation.

Long-time Hayao Miyazaki collaborator Isao Takahata was planned as the fourth director until his untimely passing in 2018. Each director produces different results in the anthology, working independently of each other. Smart storytelling and refined animation are components of all three shorts.

Modest Heroes clocks in at a relatively brief 53 minutes. Each short looks and feels completely different in tone, though all three share a positive and heart-felt sentiment. This is mostly feel-good material that all arrive there by different means.

Studio Ghibli fans will be most excited by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s charming Kanini & Kanino, the first short feature. The underwater fantasy sees a family of tiny crab people struggle for survival at the bottom of a river stream. It’s a delightful adventure with beautiful animation and perfectly crafted story beats for all ages. The animation is a real treat for fans of traditional 2-D animation and its character designs feel like lost Studio Ghibli creations.

Smart storytelling and refined animation are components of all three shorts

Life Ain’t Gonna Lose is about a child’s struggle coping with his deadly food allergy and the stress it places on his mother. Based on a real family, it’s a true-to-life tale of a heroic mother and her precocious son. The realistic and personal struggle is definitely an idiosyncratic story choice for animated fare. This is the kind of plot one might find on Japanese television. The animation stretches out mundane school and home settings using lively water colors. Actress Maggie Q voices the mother in the English dub.

The last short film is the quirky Invisible. The plot has an invisible man finding ordinary tasks very difficult as the world ignores him and his odd plight. The downbeat mood and limited color palette serves its nuanced storytelling. Grounded by grittier animation and more mature emotional themes, Invisible delivers a clever metaphor for viewers with its afflicted protagonist’s struggles to stay grounded.

All three short films showcase Studio Ponoc’s willingness to experiment in animation and storytelling, while paying tribute to Studio Ghibli’s revered brand of filmmaking. Hitting varying levels of success with each short film, Modest Heroes is an enjoyable and joyous celebration of new animation.

Video

All three animated short films provide very different visuals, coming from three different directors. While all of them resemble regular anime, Studio Ponoc uses Modest Heroes as an experimental testing ground for different animation techniques.

The most traditionally Studio Ghibli-looking short is Kanini & Kanino, an underwater fantasy adventure that wouldn’t look out of place in Ponyo. There are some dazzling water effects and even a bit of advanced 3-D digital ink & paint included that push the traditional animation into serious videophile fare. The bright, bold animation has tiny crab people beautifully animated.

Life Ain’t Gonna Lose is a polished slice-of-life anime set in the “real” world, so its animation is fairly regular and ordinary. The third short Invisible is set in a gloomier setting with grittier animation lacking the brighter colors of children’s animation.

The Blu-ray presentation by GKIDS faithfully reproduces the animation without flaw. All three shorts together run shy of 54 minutes, encoded in transparent AVC on a BD-50. It’s a superb video encode without artifacts or banding. The 1080P video at 1.78:1 consistently pops with vibrant colors and perfect black levels. This isn’t quite a demo showcase for video quality but certainly matches up well with typical theatrical anime on Blu-ray.

Audio

Both the original Japanese audio and a decent English dub are presented in excellent 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Since the first short Kanini & Kanino has no dialogue, its cinematic experience relies heavily on the discrete sound design and immersive surround mix of the soundtrack. Scored by composer Takatsugu Muramatsu (When Marnie Was There), fans will recognize the music’s Studio Ghibli pedigree.

Generally both audio options deliver clear sound with occasionally impressive depth and intelligible dialogue. Anime has never really pushed intense surround audio but Studio Ponoc has done a fine job for these shorts.

Optional English SDH subtitles are provided for the English dub, while a second set of English subtitles translate the actual Japanese audio. Spanish subtitles are also included. They display in a white font.

Extras

GKIDS and Shout Factory round up a few special features for this Blu-ray and DVD combo package. A glossy slipcover is available for first pressings.

The Modest Heroes of Studio Ponoc (21:35 in HD; Japanese audio w/ English subs) – Studio Ponoc’s founder and lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura gives this engaging and revealing interview on the anthology project. Voice actress Maggie Q also has a short interview segment in this featurette. Very much worth watching to better understand Studio Ponoc.

Film Completion Press Conference (09:43 in HD; Japanese audio w/ English subs) – A panel of the film’s director and Japanese voice cast discuss the film in front of an audience. From August 18, 2018.

Japanese Cast Interviews (08:23 in HD; Japanese audio w/ English subs) – The voice cast for all three short films discuss their respective short features.

Art Gallery (56 HD images)

Trailers & TV Spots (05:49 in HD)

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre
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Movie

An anthology of experimental animated shorts for Studio Ponoc by veteran Studio Ghibli animators done with taste and refinement.

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