Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Flavors of Youth: Anime Nostalgia in China

It is not often Japan and China cooperate, so any time it happens must be significant. Thanks to the animation house that produced the instant-classic Your Name., China never looked as good as it does in this anime anthology. Bittersweet memories resurface for the grown adult protagonists of Li Haoling, Yi Xiaoxing & Yoshitaka Takeuchi’s Flavors of Youth (trailer here), which premieres this Saturday on Netflix.

Mainland China is all about motion and migration, so it makes sense the brief wrap-arounds collect our main characters in an airport. It is a vastly different China than the quiet provincial town the protagonist of Yi’s “Sunny Breakfast” grew up in. He was largely raised by his loving grandmother, because his parents were working in the big city. Each day, she brought two bowls of San Xian noodles from the town’s beloved noodle shop for a hearty breakfast. As he matured, those noodles and those from the successor noodle store (not quite as good, but maybe even more inviting) took on special significance in his life.

“Sunny Breakfast” is a sweet little tale that elevates mood and nostalgia over drama and big pay-offs. It is quiet, but it resonates, especially for anyone who has walked through a neighborhood like the East Village, pointing out all the once-popular establishments that aren’t there anymore (Dojo, Mondo Kim’s, Mahmoud’s original location, the Japanese hotdog place, etc., etc.).

Probably, Takeuchi’s “A Small Fashion Show” packs the least punch of the trilogy. Set in Guangzhou, it follows the struggle of a supermodel at risk of losing her mojo as she ages into her mid-twenties or whatever and her younger sister, an aspiring designer, whose frocks could provide her the inspiration she needs. Obviously, this is a story we can all relate to. Still, it is nice to see a mature and endearing sisterly story unfold on screen. Takeuchi (a 3DCGI artist on Your Name) also makes the city of Guangzhou sparkle like a fantasy realm.

Easily the best constituent film and the closest in tone to Your Name is Li’s “Shanghai Love.” Conceived as an homage to Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second, it tells the story of how a high school romance went wrong and the remorseful Rimo’s desperate attempt to make amends years later. The twists of fate are heartbreaking, but it feels very true to life for anyone who grew up in the 1990s, no matter where that might have been.

Flavors is a wistful film about memory and regret, but Li (also serving as “overall director”) ties everything together in a way that actually feels upbeat and hopeful. The seventy-five-minute film is probably too slight of stature for a conventional theatrical release, but it should charm anime fans who chose the stream it. Recommended for viewers in the mood to savor the right kind of sadness, Flavors of Youth launches on Netflix this Saturday (8/4).