[Review] Flavors of Youth

It took me a few years to finally get around to watching the 2018 film Flavors of Youth, which you can now find on Netflix. This anime-original anthology includes three short stories in different Chinese locations each with their own cast of characters. Studio CoMix helms the film, which you might recognize from recent Makoto Shinkai works Your Name, She and Her Cat, and Weathering With You. When I first noticed this work and its title, I assumed it would be some kind of food adventure commentary on regional foods. This holds true for the first story, but the “flavors” here are instead a description of experiences and emotions that do resonate for the short time we’re together but fade away quickly once the film ends.

The Rice Noodles

“If you like eating, you’ll be blessed with delicious food.”

The first short story starts us out with a Hunan comfort dish whose smells and tastes invoke memories of places and people. We’re shown different variations within this one story on San Xian noodles, one handmade by a renown chef, another in a humble eatery with delicious toppings, and lastly a convenient but mass-produced meal in the city.

San Xian noodles formed the protagonist’s morning routine, where he’d savor a bowl with his grandmother at the start of every day. The depiction of the soup with its rice noodles, ample mushrooms, minced beef, and amber broth is my favorite segment in the entire film for its animation and mouthwatering depiction of the simple joys a meal can bring. When the shop inexplicably closes like restaurants so often do, he wisely notes that wherever that chef goes, people will find happiness.

As special as that first chef experience was, “The Rice Noodles” spends more of its time with the second location which used instant noodles but still offered generous toppings. This family-run eatery and the connection to his school make this particular bowl more tangible despite it ranking lower quality-wise than the first noodles. His observations of the family and how they change along with the restaurant serve to remind us to not take our family for granted and to make the most of the time spent together.

A Little Fashion Show

The second short story takes us to a completely different world in fashion with two sisters Yi Lin and Lu Lu. The older and taller pursues a successful career in modeling; the younger harbors a quiet interest in design. When we meet them, their life together seems balanced—the older supporting the younger who in exchange adores and cheers her on.

As we watch Yi Lin go from one photo shoot to another, her struggles rise to the surface. The success she once appreciated and now takes for granted seemingly stagnates as younger models step up. In desperation, she pushes herself beyond her health and the care of her sister and manager. We can see all the mistakes she makes like some kind of slow motion collision. Yi Lin’s collapse on the runway comes as no surprise and it’s hard to feel pity for her given how she’s acted up to this point and even afterwards while she questions her career.

When Lu Lu snaps, it’s the real wake up call Yi Lin needs. Somewhere along the way, she forgot her reason for getting into modeling in the first place and the people who helped her. While Lu Lu has constantly supported her in the background, the angry face at the end feels like the first time we’re actually seeing her for who she is. Lu Lu has her own dreams and aspirations separate yet still connected to her sister’s.

Love in Shanghai

The third and final tale is one of first love and regret, and probably the one most reminiscent of Makoto Shinkai’s style. I found this to be the most frustrating of the three. Li Mo’s experiences feel uncomfortably familiar, both his stubbornness and dishonesty. His anger at Xiao Yu for listening to her father and testing for a prestigious school far away is understandable, despite being misinformed about her home situation. It’s his actions afterward that ruin my opinion of him: cutting off communication, lying to her about taking the same test, then not visiting her at the hospital. The awkwardness between the two of them came about from his own mistakes and it’s a miracle she hasn’t put up a wall after all these years.

The discovery of Xiao Yu’s last cassette tape rips the clouds from Li Mo’s mind and pushes him to finally listen to his heart. I wanted to yell “I told you so!” It would have felt completely fitting for her to have moved on with life in America, and I wish that it had. The writing could have ended there and accepted the fact that first loves most often don’t find fulfillment. Our regrets usually stay unresolved. Instead, they opted for predictably hopeful ending.

Final Thoughts

Visually, Flavors of Youth performed superbly with its background imagery and lighting. Objects like food, clothing, and cassette tapes might as well have been real. The settings and their lighting captured the intended emotions–almost all the cityscapes were drenched in rain and glowed a garish blue that made you clutch your blankets a bit closer to yourself. In contrast, the characters themselves lacked the time and depth necessary for me to fully slide into their viewpoints. Of the three, “The Rice Noodles” comes closest to success with its lingering sense of loss.

While I wouldn’t recommend people go out of their way to watch this film and its short stories, I do think those already familiar with Makoto Shinkai’s tone and style will probably like this well enough. I don’t regret my time spent on the movie and still think it looks great a few years past its release. Just don’t expect anything revolutionary or memorable here; like the chef from the opening tale, people move on, you say goodbye, and you leave yourself open to new connections.

Rating*: 0 dango

Watch Flavors of Youth on Netflix.

*Rating system:

  • 0 dango – average and forgettable.
  • 1 dango – very good in its category.
  • 2 dango – excellent show that is worth a try.
  • 3 dango – exceptional show one must watch.

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