This Week in Anime
Is Flavors of Youth Worth Watching?

by Michelle Liu & Steve Jones,

Flavors of Youth blends Makoto Shinkai's aesthetic with the work of talented Chinese artists and storytellers. This week, Micchy and Steve offer their take on the Netflix debut of this film about change and nostalgia.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.





You can read our review of Flavors of Youth here!

Micchy, I may be too old now to know the flavor of youth, but after watching this movie I sure as hell want to find out the flavor of this rice noodle bowl.

Guess I'll have to take you to my hometown sometime. I'm not from Hunan, but I'm sure Shaanxi cuisine is close enough.

I want all of it in my stomach.

Anyway, this lovely food porn is brought to you by Jiaoshou Yi Xiaoxing, a popular internet creator, as part of the anthology project Flavors of Youth, which just went up on Netflix last week. The question with these Chinese/Japanese co-productions usually goes: is it actually worth watching? Is it more than a pile of cobbled-together tropes from a different culture than usual for anime? I'm tempted to say yes, but what say you, Steve?

I enjoyed it! But I think audiences should also know some of its background before going in. You probably saw it advertised as being from the same people who brought you Your Name. While that's true, it's kinda only half true. It's a collaboration between CoMix Wave Films and Haoliners, a Chinese animation studio, and it just so happens that all three stories in this anthology also take place in China. So while it's pretty shamelessly riding on the coattails of Your Name's success, it's also a cool project made by and for a country that we don't see depicted as often in anime.

Anime fandom is positively enormous in mainland China, despite limited TV airtime and occasional state censorship—views for Re:Zero on Bilibili, for instance, number in the billions. Coming at this from a Western perspective, it might seem odd that Chinese-funded projects are coming out of seemingly nowhere, but it's the logical next step in the globalization of anime. Hell, chief director Li Haoling's previous project, To Be Heroine, brought on dozens of animators from all over the globe, so this sort of project was bound to happen at some point.

And Haoliners have also been around a while, if I'm not mistaken.

They have! For a while they were producing anime for online release in China only, but lately they've started a Japanese branch, collaborated with other studios, and gotten some of their shows on Japanese TV. Flavors of Youth is their first big theatrical project.

As could expected from a debut theatrical project, it's ambitious and kind of messy, but nonetheless compelling. Probably the most powerful chord running through all three stories is how indebted they are to the works of Makoto Shinkai, whose influence can be felt at all times while watching it.

Shinkai? I had no idea.

Just a smidge.

All three vignettes definitely go for the same photorealism that characterizes Makoto Shinkai's oeuvre. Of course, the marketing latched onto this point hard, but I'd rather not discuss Flavors of Youth solely in terms of how it compares to Shinkai's work; while his influence is undeniable, I think it sets itself apart in some ways.

For sure, and Shinkai's work itself has a lot of ups and downs. But Flavors of Youth was at its strongest when it captured that feeling of fleeting, wistful nostalgia despite the constantly changing times.

And the first segment nailed that for me with some mouth-watering food porn.

I'd also like to call attention to that first segment for being perhaps the second internationally released anime ever to depict these awful tracksuits they call school uniforms in China (the first being Ani ni Tsukeru Kusuri wa Nai).

I'm glad you brought that up because they suck so bad. Why is this a thing? Literally nobody looks good in a tracksuit.

That's a feature, not a bug. The idea is that you can't pick on the ugly kids if everyone is ugly.

Anyway! Food is such a powerful concatenation of the senses, and we all have memories and emotions connected to certain foods in certain places. The way the first part kept carefully extolling (and animating) the virtues of these small local noodle shops felt like an episode of an Anthony Bourdain show. I made the mistake of starting this movie before breakfast and I had to pause to eat after a few minutes. I couldn't take it.

Not much happens in it, and the constantly monologuing narrator is kind of a drag, but I honestly don't mind when the food looks THIS GOOD. I also had to get up to make myself a bowl of noodles, it just killed me to look at this. I certainly can't begrudge the guy for holding fond memories of this stuff.

Yeah, the narration is overwrought and purple in a way that undermines the strengths of the short, but by the end you'll probably be too hungry to care.

I feel bad for talking so much about the food rather than the story, because it is a lovely little yarn about the passage of time and irreversible change, but man, I'm hungry.

The kid talking about his first love is pretty eye-rolling, but it's also just as much about decaying towns and industry, and since I'm from a former steel-town, background details like this hit home.

It's a detail that kinda gets lost when the guy waxes poetic about a middle school girl's ponytail, but you're right, the changes in his surroundings over time rang really true. In any case, the second and third vignettes offer less culinary distraction.

The second vignette also gave me something that anime rarely does: a character with my name

Steve is trying his best. All Steves are good.

Along those lines, I liked the characters from the second vignette a lot, but the story and aesthetic were probably the weakest of the three. Or at least, they struck me as the most conventional.

Yoshitaka Takeuchi's entry in the anthology isn't really something to write home about, but the relationship between the sisters is strongly written. Model Yi Lin takes it upon herself to raise her kid sister, while also being terrible at communicating. Meanwhile the sister's growing up in ways she never expected. Now this story strikes me as kinda funny considering most Chinese (and Japanese, for that matter) young adults are only children, but that's beside the point.

Yeah, it's a familiar look at the hardships going on behind the scenes of the fashion industry, wrapped up in the story of two sisters learning how to reconnect. It's nice, but that's about it.

Yi Lin is very relatable tho.

Oh shoot we got a little too real here, didn't we?

If anything, her story examines what it means to be a woman in a fast-paced modern world: everything feels like it's going too fast, and you start to feel like you're replaceable. But Yi Lin's reconciliation with her sister reaffirms that even if she might feel utterly disposable, she's still got a place to belong, even if it's not in the role she's used to playing.

And that place is watching cheesy horror films with your imouto. It's a tried and true bonding activity.

Tag urself, I'm the imouto too scared to look.

You know who I am.

The guy getting rekt in the movie?

ANYWAY, their story ends on a positive note, which is good, because the last vignette is about tragic star-crossed lovers whose story is full of pain and misunderstandings and lots and lots of cassette tapes.

This one veered a little too hard into purestrain Shinkai sap for my tastes, but I gotta admit the cassette tape gimmick was neat. When these two kids are communicating indirectly through cassette tape recordings, they're most honest with each other; the problems arise when dumbshit Li Mo stops using them.

When I say dumbshit, for the record, I really do mean dumbshit, like who the hell brings a tape recorder to class and expects not to get caught.

It's a great gimmick, as a nostalgic but believable way for these two kids to communicate, physically removed from each other but mentally and emotionally resonating. Basically very lo-fi texting. The wrench in the works, as you say, is the protagonist being dumb, insecure, and selfish in the way that the male leads of these stories often are. Of course the story needs conflict, but I'm tired of these conflicts arising from boys being too proud to consider thinking about others for a single second. We've got plenty of that in real life!

I kind of wish we'd gotten this story from the girl's perspective instead, but then again, that's what To Be Heroine was for.

I agree! It's almost like you continually plugging that show means that more people should watch it.

The thing that really struck me about Flavors of Youth is the specter of urban Shanghai encroaching on the characters' dumpy hometown.

Time moves on, people grow up, and the country modernizes at a truly terrifying pace, waiting for no one. I think the final nail in the coffin for me is when Li Mo returns to his old neighborhood and he's the only one with a CD player, while all his old friends are stuck with tape recorders. Life comes at you fast, and you either roll with it or get left behind.

The frustration of the central romance aside, it's a smartly-constructed narrative about people reckoning with the past in the face of a future that's going to arrive whether they like it or not. Limo becomes an architect so he can have a hand in shaping the city's future. Xiaoyu leaves for America. Limo's grandma stays in her old home as long as she can. Everyone reacts differently to the inevitable. As a proof-of-concept for a studio dipping its toes into the theatrical waters, it's a strong showing.

I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what these folks do in the future, Li Haoling (of the "Love in Shanghai" segment) especially. He may have worked on a number of real stinkers in the past, but between this, To Be Hero(ine), and that weirdly good second season of Spiritpact, he's been on a roll.

Nobody gets good at anime right away, but he's definitely a name to look out for.

For every Aquarion EVOL, there's probably an Earth Girl Arjuna in the artist's past, so to speak.

I wouldn't go into Flavors of Youth expecting the polish of Your Name, but as a debut film by a young studio telling their own kind of stories, it shows a lot of promise. And more importantly, it's going to make you want to fly to China to have some noodles.

(On that note, brb.)

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