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Flavours of Youth is an anime anthology produced jointly by China and Japan which was released on Netflix earlier this month. It contains three stories set in three different cities united by the themes of growing up, the changing times, and reconciling childhood and adulthood.
The anime relies mainly on nostalgia to tug on your heartstrings but while it is beautifully animated, it is the writing that ultimately lets it down. I wanted to like what I was watching, especially since remembering the dreams and aspirations of your childhood and evaluating how they compare to your adult self is something I imagine most of us do. It's an easy shortcut to the audience’s heart. Unfortunately, there is only so much nostalgia can do. There is little substance to any of the segments, definitely not enough to warrant the often too dramatic and overly flowery narration.
The first story is more of an essay on the topic of ‘My Favourite Food’—or that's what it comes across as. A young man connects a number of good memories from his childhood to rice noodles—spending time with his grandmother, pining after his first crush. Nothing really happens, but I probably liked this one best because, if nothing else, it manages to build atmosphere. There’s also a hint of depth to it as it makes us consider the inevitability of change and how even when we’re older we always turn to familiar elements from our childhood for comfort.
Most of all… it made really, really crave noodles!
Indeed, I think this piece works much better as a noodles commercial than a short. All you need to do is shorten it a bit more and slap on a logo at the end and you will probably have people pouring into your noodles restaurant. The slogan will be “Random Brand Rice Noodles—the flavour of your youth”. Sadly, this doesn’t speak very well of its value as a film. We have a pretty bland main character who over-narrates what is, essentially, a non-story. The most interesting people in it are side characters of whom we learn very little and I really wish the plot had been about them.
The second segment is my least favourite as not a single moment of it feels original and it pretty much has nothing to offer. It is the story—or lack thereof—of a fashion model. She is at a point in her career when she is not the youngest girl around anymore and she is worried about losing her beauty while trying to take care of a her younger sister who is—conveniently—an aspiring fashion designer. It utilises every cliche in the book: being late for an event a loved one prepared because of work engagements, under-eating to the point of fainting at a fashion show, being threatened by younger and perkier models... The resolution is sickeningly sweet and somewhat unrealistic.
This segment doesn't work in the context of the anthology either as I couldn’t even figure out what I was meant to feel nostalgic about. The glimpse we see of the sisters as children seems shoehorned in and has little to do with anything. In my opinion, this one isn’t really worth your time. At best the story could serve as a lazy filler episode for some sort of series for young girls... maybe. If you replace the protagonists with already beloved and developed characters. And it would still be boring.
The final story has the most plot and point to it but it relies on a trope I have a personal hatred for—the unlikely tragic misunderstanding. Two kids who clearly have feelings for each other exchange messages recorded on cassette tapes. Then they have a falling out over something rather ridiculous and lose the ability to communicate to such an extent that it drastically changes both of their lives. And all because one of them failed to listen to the last recorded message. Clearly, the other people in the children’s lives also had zero communication with them or with each other because they couldn’t talk to both sides and clear up the misunderstanding either. On top of this, there is also some sudden domestic abuse thrown in there—completely out of nowhere—which I found it difficult to be moved by because it didn’t seem to have any relevance to anything and was never mentioned again.
Despite all this the final short is not completely without merit. Once again, the theme of the changing city and the developing world seeps through in the form of neighbourhoods being torn down and CD players replacing cassette recorders. The "before and after" images are powerful enough but I found myself wishing the focus wasn’t constantly being pulled from them to the overly dramatic story of star-crossed lovers passing each other like ships in the night.
Another thing worth mentioning is the dubbing. The film is dubbed well but I always find with anime that however good of a job the English-speaking actors do, too much is lost. I wonder if it is possible to find a version with subtitles instead. I suspect I might enjoy the original voices better.
So, if you are just in the mood for something prettily drawn and ultimately hopeful to spend 70 minutes on while, say, painting your nails, Flavours of Youth may serve you well. However, I personally wouldn’t use it as more than background noise.