Three different tales of youth told across China. A young man working in Beijing misses the food he used to grow up with as a child. Sisters living in Guangzhou struggle to connect with each other when one of them pushes themselves too far in her modelling career. Two childhood friends in Shanghai reunite after separating long ago, and reminisce with the help of old cassette tapes they made.
Flavors of Youth is an original Netflix film, co-produced by Comix Wave Films (your name, Voices of a Distant Star, 5 Centimeters Per Second) and Chinese animation studio Haoliners Animation League. Co-directed by Haoling Li, Xiaoxing Li and Yoshitaka Takeuchi, Flavors of Youth received its international premiere at Anime Expo in Los Angeles in July of this year, receiving a warm reception. When you hear that the studio behind the iconic your name was partly responsible for this, you would understand how big the shoes this anthology film has to fill. And so, does Flavors of Youth live up to any expectations we may have?…
…No, not really. It doesn’t really start off very well, and because of this, our opinion of the entire anthology is affected. The first one of three stories, The Rice Noodles, has one young man living in Beijing who reminisces of the noodle shop he lived near to as a young child, and of how his grandmother always made the trip to get him a bowl. And while we see all sorts of trials and tribulations happen to the shop, the young man doesn’t really have much in the way of emotion or passion. Time moves on, he gets older and leaves the town for the big city, but all he can think about is the food he grew up on. This is the shortest story, which is a bit of a relief as it has the least amount of story, character design, or passion for that matter.
While this one had characters with the least passion, the one at the end, Love in Shanghai, appears to have the most, and while it’s sort of welcome to see, it isn’t always a good thing, especially as we grow to get frustrated with the characters in it.
Li Mo has a crush on a girl at school, Xiao Yu, who also lives in his neighbourhood. She doesn’t really have the best household but she is able to soldier on in life. Li Mo, on the other hand, is childish, selfish and so annoying that you sometimes want to just slap him in the face. And this behaviour of his carries on as he grows up and becomes an urban development planner in Shanghai. As he moves into a new apartment, he discovers a cassette tape Xiao Yu made. The two of them used to record and exchange cassette tapes so they could communicate with each other even when they weren’t in class. As he races to find a cassette player, we watch a variety of flashbacks that range from when they were in middle school to when they applied to top high schools. With a nostalgic love story like this, it would be common to see a story told in flashbacks, but the execution here can sometimes feel out of sorts and, at points, make you want this story to just end (regardless of whether it is a happy ending or not).
This being the kind of anime it is, of course, we expect to see happy endings.
The best story out of the three, though, is the one in the middle: A Little Fashion Show.
Two adult sisters live together in a high-rise apartment in Guangzhou. While the elder sister, Yi Lin, works hard to be a top model, the younger sister, Lu Lu, divides her time between staying home and going to school. We view this story from Yi Lin’s perspective though, and as we see her slowly get frustrated at the thought of being replaced by models younger and prettier than her, we notice how much of a crossroads she is at in life. While Lu Lu is happy and content in studying and making clothes, Yi Lin hasn’t really thought about what she wants to do when her modelling career is over. It is only when she collapses of exhaustion at a fashion show that she suddenly has to make up her mind on what to do. A Little Fashion Show has the best story out of all of them, with character designs that we grow to like and feel a real connection with. I also see it as the most positive out of them all; Love in Shanghai is trying to emulate something that wouldn’t feel out of place in some other Makoto Shinkai film, while The Rice Noodles is just so incredibly dull to watch.
I especially liked one line that Yi Lin says in this story:
“I always realise the value of things after I lose them.”
This is a mantra that can apply to all three stories in Flavors of Youth. Xiao Min (in The Rice Noodles) only thinks about his favourite noodle dish when he can no longer have it, Li Mo (in Love in Shanghai) regrets the life choices he made that meant he had to be apart from the girl he liked the most, and Yi Lin only gets to fully appreciate how lucky she is as a model when she can’t do it anymore.
So with all these positive words, why does Flavors of Youth feel so…soulless?
Each story tells very different tales of youth and nostalgia, and the artwork is pretty enough to see (it certainly makes China look like a lovely place to live), but it has a mixture of character designs that you either really like or really don’t like. The voice actors don’t really have much of an impact though, although I may end up contradicting myself when I say the English dub is not as bad as I thought it would be. In addition to this, it is worth dipping into the Mandarin dub of this as well. The three dubs I watched (Japanese, English and Mandarin) all have different takes on each of the stories. I guess that, as the Comix Wave Films name is stamped on this, viewers might expect something similar to what your name had…well this is nothing like that at all.
Here is the Netflix trailer for Flavors of Youth:
The three stories told in this anthology film are, in my opinion, average watches, with A Little Fashion Show being the best out of all of them. As you watch them, you can’t help but think what would happen if these stories ended up becoming feature-length movies…then it suddenly hits you: the stories just aren’t thrilling enough to be 90+ minutes long. They are all better off being 20-30 minutes long. I do appreciate how this has become an international co-production though, and it has definitely painted China to be a very nice place, with ordinary people living ordinary lives, and not the terrible place we all see and hear in the media and news.
If you have time to kill on Netflix, then Flavors of Youth is certainly worth the watch, but just don’t expect too much from it.
As you watch this anthology film, you might find yourself a little frustrated at how these stories of youth and nostalgia try to work together to become one. While some are good watches, with positive views on life, others are just incredibly dull and boring. If this film had more in the way of passion, then I’d be giving it a higher mark, but as I finished the film, I just found too many things to poke at. An average watch, but nothing special or remarkable here.