Modest Heroes

Two young brothers have to rescue their father in "Kanini and Kanino."

Studio Ponoc, the Japanese animation studio behind 2017’s acclaimed “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” thought small for its latest venture, “Modest Heroes.”

Not only are the films small — a collection of three short films running a total of 47 minutes — but each one features a different hero who is unassuming and modest in some way. None of the three films would work as a full-length feature, but are just right for the short-film format.

“Modest Heroes” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday and 12:55 p.m. Saturday at Marcus Point, 7825 Big Sky Drive. The Thursday screening is in Japanese with English subtitles, while the Saturday screening is dubbed in English.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” contributed “Kanini & Kanino,” which seems like it could be a sequel to the 2012 Studio Ghibli feature “The Secret World of Arrietty,” in which a race of tiny people live among us.

In “Kanini & Kanino,” a miniscule family lives under the surface of a remote river teeming with life. When the father is swept downstream by a powerful current, two young brothers must gather their courage and rescue him.

Vibrant and lush, the traditional hand-drawn animation in the film is enhanced by careful use of computer-generated animation to create the rippling of the water’s surface, or the slimy body of a predatory fish hunting the father. The graceful mix of animation styles illustrates a fully realized animated world. The 15-minute short is without dialogue, relying on visual storytelling to tell its tale.

As fantastic and fanciful as “Kanini & Kanino” is, the next film, Yoshiyuki Momose’s “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose” is a realistic drama that will resonate, in particular, with families where a child is dealing with a chronic ailment. Shun is a young boy who has a potentially fatal allergy to eggs, and the film shows his struggle to avoid contact with eggs, as well as the constant worry of his single mother to keep him safe.

The animation style here focuses on the facial expressions and emotions of the mother and son, and the backgrounds are roughly drawn to keep the focus on the characters and their drama. “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose” is upbeat but honest about the day-to-day realities of life for many families.

The final film, Akihiko Yamashita’s “Invisible,” goes back to fantasy, although it does so to make a realistic allegory about alienation. The main character is an invisible man, only seen by the clothes he wears or the occasional drops of rain spattering his face. In fact, he may be made of air, and has to carry an anchor around for fear of being blown away in a windstorm.

As the invisible man is overlooked (literally) by the people at work or passersby on the street, Yamashita expertly conveys the character’s loneliness, without the benefit of being able to use facial expressions.

The subject matter of all three films is suitable for kids, although the relatively short running time of 47 minutes makes the $12.50 admission price seem a little expensive for a family outing. Still, as a chance to see some of Japan’s finest up-and-coming animators at work, good things come in small packages.


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