138: Flavors of Youth Review

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In general, a problem I keep seeing within the animation scene is that twitch reaction to when something like a film or show hits it big, and then everyone and their long dead grandma wants to jump in on the hype. It leads to a profitable, but artistically limited batch of shows or films that want to be like that one popular thing, but only go so far. Sure, some films or shows break out and form their own bit of popularity and greatness, and this is nothing new, but you would think studios would make sure to play the long game, and keep doing what makes them great. For example, due to the success of Your Name, we are getting a slew of teen romance films with fantastical quirks. We already had A Silent Voice, which was pretty good, Fireworks, which was not, and now we have a studio that pretty much asked the studio that made Your Name to make a movie that is essentially a Makoto Shinkai film, Flavors of Youth. This is a Chinese/Japanese collaboration with the Japanese animation studio, CoMix Wave Films. It was put together by Li Haoling, who was inspired by Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters Per Second. It was then distributed by Netflix here in the states recently, but, thanks to Netflix, I don’t really hear anyone talk about it. Let’s see if this anthology rises above as its own thing, or falls flat as it tries to be like Makoto Shinkai’s other work.

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The first short is called Rice Noodles, and is directed by Jiaoshou Yi Xiaoxing. It’s about a young man named Xiao Ming, dubbed by Crispin Freeman, who reminisces about his love for a rice noodle dish he would get in his childhood. It brings back loving memories of him and his grandmother, a girl he had a crush on, and his youth.

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The second short is called A Little Fashion Show, and is directed by the lone Japanese director of the group, Yoshitaka Takeuchi. It’s about a fashion model named Yi Lin, dubbed by Evan Rachel Wood. She lives with her younger sister, and is going through the typical trials of being a fashion model, like age, personal life ordeals, and the ever-growing competition for younger models.

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The final short is directed by Li Haoling, the creator of the overall project, and the story is called Shanghai Love. It follows a young man named Limo, dubbed by Ross Butler. He is moving into a new downtown apartment that is near a couple of old buildings that hold nostalgic memories of his childhood friendship, his crush, and the changing landscape of Shanghai. He does this by listening to some old cassette tapes.

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So, what does this anthology get right? Well, I found two out of the three stories to be very interesting. The Rice Noodles story was probably my favorite out of the three, because I think everyone can connect a piece of their childhood to a dish, and how the unfortunate constant movement of time will cause things to change. Sure, not being able to regain that feeling of the past can feel soul crushing, but it’s never truly gone from you. The three stories revolve around a Chinese idiom, that translates to “clothing, food, housing, and transport”. I can definitely see how some of that idiom is used, as in the Rice Noodles short. There are also themes of dealing with regrets, as the second and third short have more plot elements dealing with actions from the past, and somehow making amends with said actions to make a better future. I think there will definitely be something for everyone to connect to within these three stories.

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Animation-wise, it looks pretty good from what you can expect from a Chinese/Japanese co-production. I have my issues with certain elements of its appearance, but only because I hold the animation studio, CoMix Waves to a high standard, due to their more recent work being downright beautiful. It still looks good, and has more polish than most anime films. I also enjoyed the music for the three shorts. It was mostly very calming, and set more in the background, but it fit the mood that the three shorts were going for. The dub is a mixed bag, but overall, it’s more good than bad. I liked Crispin Freeman in the first short, and how he captured the somber, but uplifting tone found in the main character during the Rice Noodles short.

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I think the biggest problem with Flavors of Youth is that while it can definitely be called its own thing in a lot of areas, like the story and setting, it never got rid of that feeling that this did feel like another Makoto Shinkai film. I get that the chief director/person in charge of this project was inspired by one of Shinkai’s first films, but I didn’t see unique visions. I saw directors trying to copy what Makoto Shinkai does. I know I can dish out some tough criticisms towards Shinkai, but at least when I was watching a film of his, I knew that it was his work. The art also isn’t as good as Shinkai’s other films. Sure, they look prettier than most series, but you get the feeling that they missed out on Shinkai’s little touches and bits of flair. I found the animation to also be stiffer. While the studio’s usual designs were not always the most interesting or memorable, they moved beautifully. The overall feel of the stories felt like they needed some more time to be fleshed out. The middle one with the fashion model feels the longest, due to how bored I got. It was a story with no real twists or turns with some rather generic story bits that come with the storyline. The first short also relies too much on the narration. It makes you wonder if the short would have been better if you didn’t have it, and expressed everything through music and the visuals. I also know that the voice actor, Ross Butler’s first role was in this film in the third story, but I found it to be the worst part of the English dub. He sounds so bored and disinterested. Even in the most emotional moments, he sounded wooden. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and maybe he will improve, but either he wasn’t putting in his all, or the director didn’t tell him that we weren’t in the 90s anime dub scene, and people need to start, well, emoting.

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Your enjoyment of Flavors of Youth will probably vary depending on your standards and hype for this animation studio. As a whole, I think it worked, but the hang-ups for me were really distracting. I definitely recommend checking it out, because unless you can catch the smaller animation releases, this will have to do until Small Foot comes out near the end of September. I respect this production, and I hope more projects come from this collaboration, and we get more anthologies with beautiful animation and interesting stories. Speaking of limited releases, I think it’s time to review one of two Mamoru Hosoda films I have yet to do with Summer Wars. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go See It!