Flavours Of Youth (Si shi qing chun/Shikioriori)

China/Japan (2018) Dirs. Li Haoling, Jiaoshou Yi Xiaoxing & Yoshitaka Takeuchi 

I suppose we should blame Proust. If it wasn’t for the seminal Madeline cake chapter in his classic masterwork À la recherché du temps perdu the idea of food or other everyday objects being stirring mnemonics to our halcyon days has become a favoured plot device for writers ever since. Anime is no different.

This Japanese-Chinese co-production takes Proust’s idea as the central premise for a tripartite anthology from two Chinese and one Japanese director and produced by Makoto Shinkai’s CoMix Wave Films and Shanghai based Haoliners Animation League. Shinkai himself isn’t involved in this but his influence looms heavy over each segment, visually and thematically.

Flavours Of Youth opens with Hidamari no Choshoku (The Rice Noodles) from Jiaoshou Yi Xiaoxing. Currently in Beijing, Xiao Ming has a love for San Xian noodles but they never taste the same as the ones he used to enjoy as a child in his home of Hunan Province. Xiao Ming recalls the steaming bowls his grandmother used to bring him for breakfast every day, come rain or shine from the local family run shop which they’d eat together.

He would also be transported back in time to vividly relive some of the various sights and happenings based around the noodle shop and his meal times, from the story of the shop owners moving away to try their hand at something else, to Xiao Ming’s high school days where he’d eat his noodles at particular spot to catch his dream girl a she rode by on her bicycle.  

In following Proust’s template, this is the closest to the three in that food is the primary trigger for revisiting the past. As the shortest story, it doesn’t waste a second in creating a wistful and evocative atmosphere we can all relate to, but the undisputable highlight is the astonishing artwork of the food. I defy anyone to find a more lovingly accurate and glistening animated rendering of the ingredients and the preparation of the meals than the ones shown here, and equally admire them without feeling hungry! 

Up next is Chiisana Fashion Show (A Little Fashion Show) from Shinkai’s 3D animator Yoshitaka Takeuchi. Set in Guangzhou, it revolves around sisters Yi Lin and Lulu, the former a top fashion model, the latter a student in fashion design. In the wake of their parent’s passing, it was Yi Lin’s success that afforded Lulu’s education but now Yi Lin is being usurped in the modelling world by the younger Shui Jing.

As Yi Lin struggles to compete against Shui Jing, she not only incurs ill health by over-exercising to stay trim but her relationship with Lulu, whom she has let down too often whilst being absorbed in her own issues. The only story to feature female leads, this is the weakest of the three from lacking any introspection on the part of the sisters towards resolving to their issues, and sufficient retrospection to flesh out their relationship, which is limited to just one flashback.

This is not to say it is a bad segment because it isn’t, and coming from a Shinkai collaborator, the visuals are naturally exquisite. However, it simply runs a little long for the story it is telling of siblings needing to reconnect as they only have each other. Even though the catalyst for them making up is found in the past, the majority of the story is in the present thus the absence of the nostalgia angle makes the happy ending more saccharine than sentimental.

Finally, Shanghai Koi (Love in Shanghai) from Li Haoling is the most Shinkai-esque of the three shorts, bearing a passing resemblance to his sublime film 5 Centimetres per Second with a nod to his debut short, Voices of a Distant Star. Spanning two decades from 1999 to the present day, this is the tale begins with Li Mo returning to Shanghai after some time away and discovers a cassette from his old love Xiao Yu in a box left in storage.

Whilst Li Mo hurries to find a cassette player so he can hear what is on the tape, we return to 1999 where Li Mo and Xiao Yu are close but platonic friends at school. When Xiao Yu is injured and can’t attend school, she asks Li Mo to record to the lessons onto a cassette for her. They begin to converse via the cassettes and slowly open up to each other, until they are forced to study for their high school entrance exams.

The cassette Li Mo never played back in 1999 contained Xiao Yu’s most personal and crucial confessions that would have changed their lives completely had he heard them at the time. From the plot summary, it is obvious to anyone who has seen 5 Centimetres that this is a respectful homage whilst the indirect cassette conversations that bring Li Mo and Xiao Yu closer echoes the time delayed E-mails of Distant Star.

Yet this shouldn’t be treated as a cheeky plagiarism as Li Haloing adds sufficient twists of his own to make this stand out as a quality piece of work on its own merits. Like the first segment, this one delves a little deeper into Chinese culture and Shanghai in particular, exploring the expected filial piety within the family unit that leads to people being force do take different paths in life, no matter how close they are.

It’s a mixed collection of stories and hopefully something for everyone but the utterly gorgeous production values will win everyone over – every drop of rain, gentle breeze, flicker of light or sizzle of roasting meat is lovingly rendered to the high standard we’ve come to expect from CoMix Wave. That the setting is China makes for a pleasant change although the dialogue is in Japanese (or English if you prefer).

Flavours Of Youth might be Shinkai-lite for some but a worthwhile watch if you enjoy heart warming and stunning looking nostalgia trips. Currently available on Netflix.