Featured image from Netflix.
In the wake of the studio’s recent success with YOUR NAME, CoMix Wave’s release of FLAVORS OF YOUTH was hyped up on an international scale. Created in production with Chinese studio, Haoliners, the triptych anthology is unprecedented. But, contrary to popular belief, FLAVORS OF YOUTH is not quite the Makoto Shinkai film many were expecting. In fact, the esteemed director had very little to do with the anthology at all.
In 2016, Makoto Shinkai became a household name with YOUR NAME after almost a decade of experimenting with tales of star-crossed lovers (VOICES OF A DISTANT STAR and 5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND). Finally able to fine-tune his ideas to perfection, Shinkai released YOUR NAME, the romantic story of a girl in rural Japan and a boy in Tokyo getting to know each other after swapping bodies. The concept was so simple and yet, it felt like the logical culmination of Shinkai’s artistic development.
It’s obvious from the final product that the indie director had set himself up for quite the meteoric rise. But not even he could’ve expected YOUR NAME to cement itself in history as one of the highest ever grossing films in Japan. Or that it would quickly develop into a global phenomenon. Around the world, anime and non-anime fans alike raved about its lush background art and compelling narrative.
Shinkai was no longer the quirky filmmaker who exhibited obvious shortcomings, but the mainstream visionary talked about in the same breath as Hayao Miyazaki. YOUR NAME strongly resonated with diverse young audiences and thus proved there is a massive market for anime films in the post-Ghibli era. And with such a breakout hit from a relatively young creator, naturally, there’s one question on everyone’s lips: what’s next?
The Beginning of FLAVORS OF YOUTH
While that remains to be seen, trusted members of Shinkai’s studio staff at CoMix Wave were granted free reign to fill the production gap that had emerged after YOUR NAME. Luckily for them, Haoliners, a Chinese animation studio, showed up and proposed to finance and help assemble a project. Haoliners wanted to showcase their talents to the world and pay tribute to the director they admired so much. CoMix Wave accepted the offer, seeing this as a great opportunity to cement connections overseas. And thus, FLAVORS OF YOUTH was born, an unprecedented co-production between the Chinese and Japanese studios.
CoMix Wave producer Noritaka Kawaguchi in an interview with Anime News Network remarks that FLAVORS OF YOUTH was specifically targeted at a young Chinese audience. This seems genuine, considering YOUR NAME performed exceptionally well in China, becoming the nation’s highest grossing Japanese film ever. Furthermore, anime markets in China have been burgeoning in recent years despite government censorship practices thanks to the increasing influence of online streaming sites such as Bilibili. The project just made sense for all parties involved.
In August, Netflix began streaming FLAVORS OF YOUTH, misleadingly marketing it as a comeback from the creator of YOUR NAME. While the intent to capitalize on YOUR NAME’s success is understandable, Shinkai simply did not have any creative input whatsoever. FLAVORS OF YOUTH is the realization of the Haoliners’ staff vision more so than the promotional materials are letting on. That aside, can it still be considered a worthy follow-up to YOUR NAME?
Minor spoilers for FLAVORS OF YOUTH follow.
That Chinese Urban Life
FLAVORS OF YOUTH is an anthology drama comprised of three self-contained shorts. Each features a unique Chinese metropolis. Each uniquely tackles themes of love, nostalgia, and yi shu zhu xing, or the basic necessities one needs to live. Yi Xiaoxing makes his animation directorial debut with Sunny Breakfast, the first in the series. Yoshitaka Takeuchi, the 3DCG chief in several of Makoto Shinkai’s movies, helms the second short, A Small Fashion Show. And Haoliners president (and professed Shinkai fanboy), Li Haoling, handles Shanghai Love, the third and final short.
A Little Undercooked
Sunny Breakfast follows a jaded salaryman in Beijing who deeply misses his hometown in the Hunan countryside. He holds a particular fondness for San Xian noodles, as they evoke memories of his happy childhood and his grandmother before she became ill. For the protagonist, the Chinese dish represents a yearning for a much simpler, sentimental time when he was eating homemade meals or staring wistfully at his school crush.
As suggested by the title, the basic need expressed in this vignette is food. And its savory portrayal is the main takeaway. The part when the protagonist recalls his favorite childhood dish in vivid detail features the finest noodle animation I’ve seen. Everything from the golden broth to the fried egg blends smoothly to create a mouth-watering image. It’s food porn in essence, lending itself well to the protagonist’s perceived nostalgia for small, hole-in-the-wall noodle shops.
The whole time I was thinking about how hungry I was and… unfortunately, that’s it. The protagonist has the personality of a rock. His narration is very monotone, with little to suggest that what he is describing is a shared, lived experience. It’s an indictment on the protagonist that viewers will only likely remember him for his penchant for San Xian noodles.
Which is a shame because he clearly presents some very powerful, relevant ideas. The romanticization of bucolic life in the face of frighteningly rapid industrialization. The power of food to evoke deep, personal memories and bring people back to their roots. These are elements of a heartfelt memoir in theory. But they are executed so poorly that the final product ends up half-baked.
Coming Apart at the Seams
The second short, A Small Fashion Show, avoids the shortcomings of the first by having a clearly defined, linear narrative with human characters. Set against the backdrop of glittering Guangzhou, the story revolves around two sisters: Yi Lin, a tall and attractive woman working as a model, and Lulu, a student inspired by her older sister to become a fashion designer. Yi Lin wants to be a good sister and a prosperous model but struggles to grow into either because of the harsh realities of the fashion industry. It’s a tale of two sisters learning to reconnect with and support each other in a fast-paced world.
A Small Fashion Show is certainly more sincere and expressive in its storytelling compared to Sunny Breakfast and yet, it has its own noticeable faults. To start with, aesthetically there’s nothing to write home about. There is nothing that truly catches the eye such as the succulent San Xian noodles or the pastoral imagery present in Sunny Breakfast. Worse is the fact that it feels the least Chinese in its cityscapes and character designs. This comes as no surprise considering the short’s director was Japanese. Similar to Sunny Breakfast, A Small Fashion Show fails to leave a lasting impression.
The Most Shinkai of Them All
Lastly, Shanghai Love features star-crossed lovers in a homage to 5 CENTIMETERS PER SECOND. We are first introduced to an architect named Limo who is moving into a new Shanghai apartment. In the process, Limo comes across old cassette tapes containing messages from his childhood crush, Xiao Yu, who has long since faded away in his life. His deep-seated nostalgia has him rushing off to his grandparents’ house to listen to the tapes, digging up memories of how he and Xiao Yu gradually drifted apart.
People familiar with Shinkai’s quirks will easily recognize all the plot beats of Shanghai Love. However, in its earnest efforts to replicate the appeal of Shinkai’s early work, it replicates similar flaws. To start with, the main duo is very one-dimensional. Xiao Yu is depicted as a pure, cute girl who is abused by her parents. Not only is this somewhat emotionally manipulative, but also problematic in how it characterizes Xiao Yu as a damsel in distress. Limo, on the other hand, is your typical clueless male protagonist with a bland character design to boot. It also doesn’t help that he’s an aspiring architect like Taki from YOUR NAME, further diminishing his uniqueness.
Despite these misgivings, however, Shanghai Love is still comfortably the most captivating of the three shorts. I appreciated how vividly it portrayed Chinese familial structure and expectations, as well as Shanghai’s growth into a global capital. CoMix Wave veteran Tasuku Watanabe does some excellent background work too. In particular, the visual motif of Shanghai skyscrapers encroaching over more traditional shikumen houses is a treat. The story is tangibly set in a Chinese city and you can feel the urban setting woven into it.
One for the Future
FLAVORS OF YOUTH isn’t exactly the life-changing experience that some of us were hoping it would be. The characters lack the charm or texture to make them memorable. There is very little narrative cohesion. CoMix Wave producer Noritaka Kawaguchi even mentions that the original plan was to release each short individually. Altogether, it may feature the trademark Shinkai style, but the substance isn’t really there.
Everything seems to suggest that FLAVORS OF YOUTH pales in comparison to YOUR NAME. And ultimately it does. Yet, at the same time, I feel it’s a ridiculously unfair comparison to make. And in the end, I can’t help but view the anthology film favorably, especially as a passion project meant to open a lot of doors.
In fact, I think it represents a significant step forward, especially for the Chinese animation industry in its bid to gain credibility. I am all for the globalization of anime as it allows for more diverse stories in the spotlight. Chinese produced anime will only continue to become more prevalent in the upcoming years, inspiring young Chinese artists and storytellers to hone their craft further.
I encourage everyone to view FLAVORS OF YOUTH with its conception in mind. To appreciate the level of detail that went into emulating Shinkai’s style. To keep in mind the dreams and hopes of an entire nation’s animation industry. And to understand how truly remarkable it is for such an international collaboration to even exist, overcoming political, historical, and cultural barriers. Does FLAVORS OF YOUTH live up to YOUR NAME? No, not quite. But I’m ok with that.