Saturday, March 7, 2009

Kunio Katô's La Maison en Petits Cubes

Got a chance to see a program of all the 2008 Oscar-nominated animated short films yesterday in a showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art. As Japan nuts we were particularly excited to see Kunio Katô win this category (and as a child of the '80s I loved his acceptance speech), and so we were happy to actually see the film, and on the big screen. You can watch it here: I have no idea if this is legitimate.

La Maison en Petits Cubes was clearly the best of the five nominated films, we thought. The look of the animation was unique (slightly reminiscent in atmosphere to The Triplets of Belleville), but more than that, it was the story that impressed us. Such an aching look at loss, with startling connections both to the internal and external worlds.

The central metaphor is the many levels of the old man's house that are now underwater, and on the one hand it's an evocation of aging, and how as you move through life you store up more and more submerged memories, and how eventually the memories are larger and in some ways more interesting than your present circumstances. This sounds scary and depressing, but it's handled so poetically and gently that it ends up making the aging process seem somehow benign: hey, at least you still have these memories to swim around in.

What gets scary is that the vision of cities being swallowed, story by story, by the sea can't help but make you think of global warming. Katô doesn't have to push this aspect of the story at all for it to be effective, and he doesn't. It just lurks there, behind the poetry, like - well, like an ache.

The other nominees were all quite impressive in their own way. We particularly enjoyed This Way Up, from the UK (watch it if you can find it: I couldn't), which is in many ways a Tim Burton homage. Not only does its macabre subject (two undertakers who go through hell and high water, literally, to bury a coffin) tread Burton's favorite territory, but it shares his comic aesthetic of running right up to the edge of good taste, pausing, and then (with a mischievous grin) jumping right over.

But what set Maison apart for me was the fact that, alone among the nominees, it seemed to be telling a story entirely for adults, and thus advancing the argument that (Academy ghettoing notwithstanding) animation is, and should be regarded as, an art form equal to live action film. Especially because, these days, what's the difference?