Alright, it’s time to try my hands at creating another new series of posts on this blog since the regular anime reviews can’t sustain its lifespan on their own. Not when my only review options are either anime that are either not really complete, work well as genre pieces but otherwise offers nothing else, or that SAO spinoff which I only managed to get a thousand words out of before realizing I was better off playing video games that actually look fun rather than write about the world’s most boring PUBG-advertisement. I’ve thought about what else I wanted to write about whilst still being in the realm of anime since that’s what you guys want me to talk about, and while I really would have preferred video games, I find that unless it’s an essay or something similar, video games are better discussed on Youtube. Obviously I’m not planning to become a Youtuber anytime soon, so instead I’m going to try focusing on my other passion: movies. Mostly anime ones, but in practice, anything is on the table as long as I feel like it’s worth talking about and I can download it off Anime Tosho. Sorry, but I need to take images somehow, and legal streams are terrible platforms to do so.
I’m still in the process of figuring out how exactly I want to write these posts, but I can tell you right now that it’s going to work a little differently from my normal anime reviews. For one, there is no cutoff date or length limit (although I still aim to make these posts as long as I possibly can). Second, I’m aiming to
take a less opinionated attitude towards these posts similar to my mini-essays back when I did them more frequently highlight the good points more with what I look at on these posts since I really haven’t had many opportunities to give the “anime review” treatment to something I enjoy, as some people have pointed out to me.
I’m still going to give my opinion of the film and call it out if it’s bad of course, but I find with anime movies it’s easier to talk about positive contributions regardless of actual quality because with the obvious exception of most franchise stuff and Fireworks, they’re generally made by people who are passionate about the medium and aren’t just shelling out these films in theaters for a quick buck or to cash in on a trend. Now this doesn’t always translate to something good. Hell, there’s a reason why before Your Name and A Silent Voice came around, anime movies were very under-watched even if you were a big-name director that wasn’t a part of Studio Ghibli. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Oh, and one really important difference between my anime reviews and these newly-christened “Movie Madness” posts that you need to be aware of is that they’re very spoiler-heavy, because I’m going to be summarizing the entire plot of the film in much more detail than I do for my usual reviews in order to directly commentate on what it contributes. I hope you’ve gotten to watching Flavors of Youth before reading this because while there’s not too much to really spoil about this particular film, it’s still an experience that I don’t want to deprive people of unless they just don’t care.
With all of that introduction out of the way, let us now focus on my first subject for this series, as well as the latest “original anime” to Netflix’s library.
Flavors of Youth is an anthology film that I was pretty excited to see upon hearing of its existence. I don’t really remember when or how I learned of it, but when I saw that Comix Wave, also known as Makoto Shinkai’s main production company, were involved, I thought it could function as an interesting experiment whilst we wait for his next movie. It was only until later that I learned Haoliners, who you may remember as the producers behind those godawful “Chinese-made anime” that have thankfully been easier to ignore over time, was collaborating as well. And the last time I saw an anime that resulted from a talented animation studio teaming up with a godawful one…
…it didn’t turn out well for me.
Still, I was willing to give it a chance. Just because a production company has a horrible resume and horrible business practices doesn’t mean they can’t produce the occasional good product. And what I saw of the trailer looked more like early Shinkai rather than Bloodivores, which made me wonder what exactly was Haoliners contributing to this project anyways? Well a quick search on the Internet revealed that almost the entire production team was made up of Chinese people, and the stories were going to be focused on a Chinese cast as well. So basically Haoliners is the main driving force behind this project whilst Comix Wave provides some of their signature style on the side? I’m sure it’s a bit more complicated than that, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter, right? What’s the final product like?
Well Flavors of Youth is basically three short stories that become loosely connected to each other in the end, but otherwise are in the same vein as films like Memories, Genius Party, Short Peace, and Robot Carnival. The main theme connecting these individual tales is that they all focus on the simple things in life and our longing for them as we grow older and life becomes more complicated. Some people might notice how similar these themes are to Shinkai’s obsession with distance and how it can grow over time, and the fact that the animation looks like his early stuff only makes these comparisons harder to avoid. I’m not sure how much of this is due to Comix Wave’s influence or if this is a style of storytelling that the Chinese really love, but I’ve seen Kim Morrissy’s review get attacked for comparing the movie to its predecessors, so I’ll do my best to limit my own comparisons.
The first short is called “The Rice Noodles” and it’s basically a “stream of consciousness” tale centered on a young man as he recalls things like falling in love and looking after his family as he ages from a schoolboy to a working adult, with all of said events being inexplicably tied to his habit of eating a particular brand of noodles that he can’t recreate. If you’ve got a thing for nostalgia like 99% of the Internet, then you’ll definitely relate to this story. It’s a very familiar tale to relate childhood memories with food, especially in Asian tales, but it’s familiar because it works. You ever heard the saying that the best way through a man’s heart is through his stomach? Well a lot of Asia agrees, especially given how much culture is contained within their edibles as is.
I watched the film in its English version and was surprised to hear that they got Crispin Freeman to voice the lead. The guy was one of my favorite dub voice actors in the old days and I haven’t heard from him in ages apart from when seeing him announce voice-acting classes on his Twitter feed that may or may not have been a scam to get money whilst ensuring the young talent will never matured. Having said that, he’s also the source of my biggest problem with this short, and that’s the narration. It is constant throughout the seventeen or so minutes this short goes on and it gets really annoying when it’s just explaining things we can clearly see.
Narration can be tolerable in some cases, but generally that’s because the character doing the narration is interesting and his ramblings are a good way to delve into his complicated psyche. It’s definitely not helpful when you’re a blank slate character or an omnipotent god like the lead in “The Rice Noodles” is, and it’s definitely not a style you want to apply to what’s basically an Eastern version of a Disney short. Have any of you guys watched Bao? That Pixar short about the Chinese mother growing more lonely with age that was attached to the new Incredibles movie? It’s gotten a reputation for being confusing to Westerners, but one thing I think we can all agree on is that having her constantly talk about her loneliness and the dumpling she imagines to be her real son would have taken away a lot of emotional impact. And that goes true for the rest of the Disney/Pixar shorts as well, from Paperman to that one about the singing volcano.
The other noteworthy flaw about this segment is that it really didn’t need to be as long as it ended up being. Going back to the Disney short comparison again, there’s a reason that the Frozen one that was attached to Coco became so widely panned compared to the studio’s other pre-movie animation showcases. Most of what makes these sorts of emotional shorts work is that the creators realize there’s not much actual plot to them and thus only puts in what needs to be there. But “The Rice Noodles” feels like it had an obligatory length to fulfill in order to be green-lit and thus we get way more details about the restaurant the narrator loves than was ever necessary. This might have been more tolerable if there was some sort of character arc attached to the lead’s reminiscing like how the old woman in Bao had to learn to let go of the past, but this short is just about a guy waxing nostalgia and that’s all there is to it. I don’t think he goes through any change as significant as the noodles he holds so dear.
If you can get past those two issues, “The Rice Noodles” is a very good-looking piece of sentimentalism with nice attention put towards the food and the scenery. I can’t say I recall the character designs from it, but that might just be more of a personal thing. Overall, it’s serviceable, but if you’ve been watching a lot of Disney/Pixar shorts like I have, and that’s not even counting the numerous foreign animated shorts out there from Japan and France, you’re not getting anything new.
Next short is called “A Little Fashion Show” and from what I heard, this one was actually helmed by a Japanese director, which would explain the lack of Chinese culture compared to the rest of the film. The story is centered on an older sister trying to make it as a model, but has to deal with taking care of her younger sister on top of some of the issues that come with modeling like how disposable the idols can be, younger talent swooping in after your peak has passed, and pretty much everything you’ve heard about an industry where looks are really important. Long story short, the older sister grows closer to her younger sibling and continues to press on as a model.
There’s a little more substance to this story than “The Rice Noodles”, as it’s about the two sisters reconnecting through the older sister’s failures. However, you might find that positive point to be hampered through some uneven execution. A large chunk of the story is pretty predictable if you’ve ever seen any piece of fiction about a veteran idol getting upstaged by life, and a lot of the screentime is eaten up with the older sister dealing with her idol life rather than her younger sister aka the heart of this short. When the interactions between the two do occur, they’re pretty sweet, especially when the older sister realizes just how important her career is to her, and not just as a way to help her family out. When they’re not occurring though, the plot can get a little token.
Also, in addition to “A Little Fashion Show” not having any Chinese culture in its tale, I don’t get a sense of any culture through the visuals or the narrative at all. You could have literally told this story in any country that has modeling as a profession and nothing would have changed. Not every anime has to be steeped in Asian culture, but a little individuality goes a long way. On a final note, while this story also deals with sentimentalizing the mundanity of life, it’s not executed with any sort of creativity here due to all of the idol/model story cliches the short leans on. Probably could have used a flashback to the sisters when they were kids and didn’t have much to worry to about.
While I acknowledge that this segment could have been better, it’s still perfectly fine for what it is. The animation is good, although it looks more cartoon-ish than I’d prefer and I can’t think of too many visual stand-outs in it. And the story doesn’t really outstay its welcome, so if you’re fine with it coming across as “been-there, done-that”, you’ll probably eat it up alright.
The final short is called “Love in Shanghai” and it’s widely considered the best of the lot in all of the reviews I’ve read of Flavors of Youth for a good reason. I personally agree with that opinion too, especially since unlike the other two stories, this one is actually paced pretty well for what it is. It’s a simple yet emotional tale about a boy who has a crush on his childhood friend (the female one in case anyone is curious. There are two childhood friends of differing sex in this tale and the lead character is definitely straight) to the point that he wants to go to an elite school that she’s applying for, not taking into account that there’s no guarantee that either of them will pass the entrance exams. What ends up happening is that the boy manages to get in, but the girl fails her exams, which leads to them living apart, but they eventually get together thanks to the girl visiting him. Kinda reminds me of the finale to Tsuki ga Kirei except with the genders reversed.
There’s a bit more to this short than my description and the twist, such as how a cassette tape factors into things along with the consequences the girl goes through when she ends up failing her entrance exams, but I’m not going to highlight them because there’s a difference between a spoiler-filled review and one that just focuses too much on the minutiae. All you really need to know is that “Love in Shanghai” ends happily, but the road to get there is mildly challenging and honestly the answer can come off as a little too easy. However it’s still executed well enough in terms of structure and emotions regarding this tale about how life doesn’t always go your way and you must treasure the small moments that you initially take for granted while they last.
This segment also contains my favorite visual highlights from this project, particularly when the characters are confronting each other in the sunset or struggling with their choices in the rain or at night. It can look a little too much like early Shinkai for my liking, especially in regards to the character designs who come off as flat compared to the scenery at times. But these are still beautiful backgrounds. This is some impressive lighting. The composition is just great. On its own terms, this is still eye candy in the way animation should be.
Just don’t watch this in English if you want to take it completely seriously. The dub work in this segment is easily the weakest of the bunch, especially the male lead’s, who sounds like he’s trying out for the high school version of Much Ado About Nothing every time he talks. I’m aware that only some of the dub is done by actually trained voice actors while the rest of it is done by live actors like Ross Butler from 13 Reasons Why, so that may explain the inconsistency.
After all three main segments of the movie are finished, there’s a bonus segment where the cast of all three stories end up going to the same airport in order to follow-up on the conclusions they reached in their own tales. They don’t actually meet each other, but it’s a non-intrusive physical way to tie Flavor of Youth’s stories together, so I see no harm in using it as a sort of post-credits stinger.
So is Flavors of Youth worth watching after all is said and done? I’d say yes if you’re a fan of animation and what it can accomplish in terms of visual storytelling. It’s definitely not a must-watch according to the Internet, and like most anthology projects, it’s more of an excuse to foster talent and flex creative muscles rather than create a true passion project the likes of Kinema Citrus’s recent anime. Still, I’d say Flavors of Youth is one of the better ones in recent times. The only other one I can recall is Short Peace, and while my opinion might have changed given how long it’s been, I do recall some pretty atrocious shorts within that pile. Yeah it really doesn’t say good things when I can state with zero hesitation that I’d rather watch a Haoliners anthology than one helmed by the director of Akira, is it?
All three of these shorts are beautifully animated in their own way. They’re each made by different people so you can clearly see the visual differences and varying quality between them – and incidentally I find it ironic that the Chinese directors had the better shorts – but there are no real visual weaknesses in this lot. As someone who champions animation as one of the best tools for emotional storytelling, Flavors of Youth is definitely something I can at least crown as one of baby’s first anime as long as they’re aware that most anime characters don’t have Chinese names.
One thing I also really appreciate with Flavors of Youth is that it was made for the right reasons. I recently read an article that this project is actually meant to be one of several collaborations between China and Japan through a recently established organization called the Japan-China Cultural Industry Exchange Association (JCCIEA) in order to strengthen the bond between the two countries (at least where entertainment is concerned), and they acknowledged that the low user ratings and box-office return doesn’t really bother them because Flavors of Youth wasn’t made solely for commercial gains. While you’re obviously going to have to make money some time in order to have long-terms success and satisfied employees, I’m really glad that we still have people out there who make animation because they have vision and aren’t swallowed up by the ever-increasing commercialization of otaku culture. There are also apparently some other live-action collaborations that have come from this association and I’d definitely be interested in checking them out someday, assuming I can.
Ultimately though, Flavors of Youth’s actual storytelling is too thin and overly long for it to ever grace itself amongst the best animated anthology films out there, let alone any of Makoto Shinkai’s works. Hell, I’d even watch Children Who Chase Lost Voices over this. So while there’s a lot to like for the reasons I stated above, I don’t see myself ever revisiting Flavors of Youth on my own time unless I’m introducing it to someone. That also means I most likely won’t know how the Chinese, Japanese, or any of the other audio languages sound like, but I think I’m safe in assuming that they’ll all sound better than Ross Butler’s flat performance.
Check it out if you’ve got Netflix and an hour to kill. Keep your expectations reasonable, unlike the many people I’ve seen who were hyped for this film because it was made by the studio who gave us Your Name. And if you’ve already seen it, let me know in the comments section and hopefully I can continue working on and evolving these “Movie Madness” posts so that you can continue to enjoy reading them.