As he was considering different ways to connect the three shorts he had commissioned for an anthology film, Yoshiaki Nishimura was at a children’s film festival when the image came to mind that he could build upon. Studio Ponoc, the animation studio he just founded, had recently established itself with its first feature, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” a bold adventure that carried the torch of Studio Ghibli, the venerated studio where most of Ponoc had gotten their start, and Nishimura wanted to add to that reputation, introducing each of the shorts in the way Alfred Hitchcock would build anticipation for each of his films.
“I want to keep it a bit of a secret,” Nishimura says with a slight laugh, as he describes the notion that led to the wraparound image of a projector that took the form of an amusement park, a beam of light emanating from it as day changes into night. “But I saw something that became a hint to this Ponoc Island where kids come and there are flying vehicles, so between the shorts, it’d be like, “Hey kids, the next short is going to be fun,” [as part of] that theatrical experience.”
The mere fact that Studio Ponoc is releasing an anthology of shorts theatrically in this day and age seems audacious enough, but it looks to push the envelope in other ways with “Modest Heroes,” which Nishimura envisioned as a showcase for some of the studio’s best and brightest emerging talent. The three films are wildly different from one another, first plunging audiences deep into the sea with “Kanini and Kanino,” directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, where a brother and sister river crab are scraping by on the ocean floor after being separated from their father following the earlier loss of their mother. The second, Yoshiyuki Momose’s “Life Ain’t Going to Lose” is distinctly more earthbound yet still is likely to take most to a place they’ve never been before, getting inside the experience of a young boy with potentially fatal food allergies, while the third, “Invisible” from Yasutaka Nakata is a stylish new riff on “The Invisible Man,” told largely through the perspective of the central character, essentially slipping his goggles over the entirety of the screen as he’s caught in the thick of a chase.
It is indicative of Studio Ponoc’s grander ambitions that each of the films ultimately revolve around time-old family dynamics, but express them in entirely fresh ways where every “Modest Heroes” entry becomes a sensory experience unto itself as “Kanini and Kanino” pricks up the ears as few words are spoken between the siblings, letting the sound of the sea surround you, “Life Ain’t Going to Lose” hits you firmly in the gut when the young boy at its center feels isolated by his allergies, his reactions to different foods illustrated vibrantly with color, and “Invisible” offers a unique visual immersion, cleverly magnifying the physical obstacles in its protagonist’s way while illuminating how he may overlook less obvious and abstract concerns in his life. Taken together, the trio of films suggest an exciting future ahead for Studio Ponoc as well as portend an enjoyable evening for anyone who can attend the film’s two event screenings on January 10th (subtitled) and January 12th (dubbed) projected throughout the U.S. and while Nishimura was in Los Angeles for the Animation is Film Festival last fall, he spoke about how “Modest Heroes” came together, giving a platform for the diverse artists he’s brought under the Ponoc label, and using the short form to experiment.
How did this project come about?
When we were making “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” and even now, there’s a lot of animation out there in Europe, Asia, and the U.S., so we found ourselves wondering what kind of anime do we make in this landscape? People are familiar with the Japanese style of hand-drawn 2d animation, so we really wanted to push that and show how much further we can go with it, so the intent behind the shorts was first to expand on new ways of expressing through animation and [using] new technologies and the second was to take a risk on what kind of stories we wanted to tell, and the third was to explore new talent, like working with new musicians we hadn’t worked with and new creators.
All of these films thematically have a connection in terms of family, was that something to build around or could everyone go off in their own direction?
Instead of approaching the shorts with a bird’s eye view, [thinking] “Okay, this will be the theme,” everything was very specific to the director. In the case of “Kanini to Kanino,” director Yonebayashi’s family gave birth to their second son at the time, so he said, “Okay, why don’t we have birth be a theme?” And in the case of “Life Ain’t Going to Lose,” the main character is [based on] someone in real life that I know and I approached director Momose, saying there’s a story, “What do you think about it?” When it comes to “Invisible,” director Yamashita’s a brilliant animator, especially in movement, but I wanted to challenge him and my challenge to him was what if I asked him to move the unmoveable.
In “Invisible,” the effect of the lens and perspective and magnification seemed like a real breakthrough. What was it like to figure that out?
With “Invisible,” the expression through the lens, some of it was actually inspired by Christopher Nolan’s style [where] instead of having a wider frame so you can get what’s going on in the entire world, it was a little bit more closer for more intimacy, but also to bring the audience into the shoes of the invisible man, so then to take a step into that world with the glasses, there’s a bit of distortion. That was always reflective of how our invisible man sees the world. So by combining that distortion with the intimacy of more close-ups, it was the hope that the audience would really be able to walk in his shoes and see the world through his perspective and instead of the audience being outsiders looking in, it was more about being inside the story.
As someone who has food allergies, I also was quite touched with how director Momose is able to bring one into the experience of having a bad reaction in “Life Ain’t Going to Lose” – what was it like expressing that?
The little boy is someone I actually know and once I got to understand what he and his mother have to go through, I had a lot of respect. Everyday people who don’t have these severe anaphylactic allergies might just think “Oh, he can’t eat eggs” and that’s it. But in the case of him and many children like him, you can’t touch [the egg] and if he eats it and his mom’s not there, he literally has to fend for himself and he’s a couple minutes away from death. This wasn’t in the movie, but when I spoke to the little boy, he said, “People are mean [about it], so I can be kind to others.” And that just floored me. I thought “Wow, he’s a true hero.”
So I’ve been working with director Momose for the past 10 years, talking about “Hey, we should work together, so he really understood me, and just downloaded this story [to him] and the intent that I wanted. He really understood it and we were definitely on the same page about doing this story justice. Also, for an animator, it takes a little bit of courage because it is grounded in reality, so this also was a bit of a documentary approach to it and there is a lot of technicalities to it.
Do you actually see this anthology as a preview of coming attractions for the future of Studio Ponoc?
In this day and age, there’s going to be new technologies and more and more innovations, but there’s also a lot of content out there — there’s already twice as much as there has been in the past. I feel there might be a time where the audience might get bored. There’s a possibility that even in music, we have played all the notes possible – every single combination. So for the studio, we really want to strive to create new concepts and tackle new themes that [will lead] people back to us. In return, we always want to give our audiences a reflection of stories that are needed now, so whether it be in the form of short films or feature films, that’s what we strive for in the future.
“Modest Heroes” is screening nationally through Fathom Events on January 10th and 12th. A full list of theaters is here.