In a flooded town where the waters are ever-rising, an old man must constantly build new floors onto his home in order to keep dry. But when his favorite smoking pipe falls into the watery abyss beneath him, he dives into the depths of not only his house, but memories of years past.
Tsumiki no Ie is a short film about the everlasting effect of time on one's life—how it can swallow the past entirely, and how one must learn to continue moving forward despite what has already happened.
In 2008, Tsumiki no Ie won multiple awards, including the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and the Annecy Cristal prize for short films. The film also won prizes at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival and the Japan Media Arts Festival.
You don’t need 26 episodes. You don’t need 13 episodes. Hell, you don’t even need an hour. You only need 12 minutes.
You only need 12 minutes to have one of the most absorbing, thought provoking, melancholic, bittersweet, beautiful and calm (all at the same time) moments of your life. Le Maison en Petits Cubes (The House of Small Cubes) is proof of that.
This Oscar winning short film (yes, you read right, this anime won an Academy Award in the category Best Animated Short Film in 2009) is about a grumpy old man who builds additional levels onto his home in
order to escape the water that is flooding his town. While rummaging through the lower levels looking for his pipe, he is flooded with memories of his life thus far and how the eternal continuum of time filled his journey with speckles of happiness and inklings of sorrow.
With less than quarter of an hour of total run time, there’s not a lot of story. But lack of story does not mean lack of content. By taking the example of an old man, it sends us spiraling down memory lane and makes us relive the flavors of the past, posing questions that you thought about, but never answered. If you were to contemplate on your life right now, what do you think would be the moments that you would take to your grave? What was your life’s defining moments? If you were to disappear today, would there be someone to cry for you?
As you can see, the movie covers a lot of ground with one protagonist and no voices. It has no vocals and for the entire twelve minutes, you are treated to a wonderfully orchestrated violin and piano combination that will enchant you for every second. The sounds of the occasional acoustic guitar just ooze emotion into this already sentimental anime. You can just switch off the monitor, close your eyes and just listen to the music, and still give it a 10/10.
It also works the other way around. Turn off your speakers and just watch the movie. You would still give it a perfect ten – it really is that good. The animation is done in a Van Gough-esque style, much like the one in The Diary of Tortov Riddle. Its break-motion animation also gives the feeling that you’re flipping through the pages of a picture book. Le Maison en Petits Cubes is absolutely beautiful.
The old man is the lone character and it is through his eyes that you see the trials and tribulations of a man. Due to the abstract nature of the show, the true meaning of this anime is wide open for interpretation. It is poetry in motion, filled with rich metaphors and subtle symbolism.
Drenched with meaning, seasoned with style, coated with the perfect chords and pregnant with emotions, Le Maison en Petits Cubes is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.
Maison en Petit Cubes is a metaphorical and heartfelt exploration of everything that lies behind an old man`s seemingly meaningless existence. His world is flooded, and all the houses that managed to keep above the water have been stacked like pyramids, with each living space getting progressively smaller. Our lethargic old man`s now jail cell sized room has just been flooded, so he gets to work building yet another, smaller room at the top of his house. As he works, he drops his pipe into the water. Unwilling to part with it, he dawns diving gear and goes through each level of his house to
get to the bottom, finding memories associated with each room in the process.
The rich metaphors in this film leave an openness to interpretation that can be mulled over for quite a while. Perhaps the pyramidal structures symbolize how life degrades, and grows progressively emptier until it is but a tiny shard of the fullness it once possessed. Or maybe the little chunk sticking above the water represents how this old man`s life looks insignificant to the outside world, but hidden beneath the surface is the wealth of vivacity that has brought him to this point. Maybe the flooding itself is a nod to rising sea levels and global warming. These ideas are amusing to ponder, but Maison en Petit Cubes does not rely on them to deliver its emotional punch. That comes from its silent and simple story telling.
As the old man explores each room of his house, he dives deeper and deeper into his past. At first, he is stricken with a few sweet memories of his late wife. From the framed pictures on his walls, we already know he cherishes her memory, so these flashbacks are easily passed off as bouts of nostalgia not uncommon for a man his age. As he explores the lower levels, he travels further and further in time, down to the point where the foundations lay, with each level triggering more memories. It becomes clear eventually that it is not simple nostalgia that he experiencing, it`s a retread of his entire life, all of which is held between the walls of his house. The old man is enviable for the beauty of his life; most of us can only hope for an existence as fulfilling and picturesque as his, but he is pitiable for everything that he has lost since his prime. It is these emotions we feel for him, and those that we feel vicariously through him as he evaluates his years that makes this short film so affecting.
Animation & Sound:
The European inspired setting is drawn like a western children`s book. The designs bare no resemblance to conventional Anime visuals. The penciled look and the choppy animations further enhance the children`s book aesthetic. It looks almost like the moving pages of a flip book. The sound and visuals both work together to establish the different moods in this film. Accompanying the old man`s daily life is a deep, but plain color palette, and a guitar string piece that is at once melancholic and playful. His memories are washed in an off white, like the color of old photographs, and played along gentle, but heart wrenching piano or strings. There isn`t any dialogue, and the man has very few facial expressions, or expressive animations in general, but the shift in musical and visual themes gently guide us to the emotions he is experiencing in every scene.
Could such a grand theme like the meaning of life be tackled with anything but a short and silent film? It seems as if a certain pretentious, know-it-all essence would taint any lines regarding the subject. Maison en Petit Cubes gives us full reign of emotional and philosophical interpretation by eliminating words altogether. While that prevents the viewer from perceiving any pretensions, the universality of the emotions it aims to express makes it instantly poignant.
If you are feeling "artsy" and have 12 minutes to spare in your busy schedule, I would highly recommend checking out "House of Small Cubes". This was one of only 2 anime to ever win an Oscar. The other was Spirited Away in 2002. What is this anime and how did it win? I will try to explain.
Technique: A history lesson of the total silence symbolism genre of film.
WARNING!!! If you either don't care about the history of this film genre or already know the history, then please skip this next paragraph! Otherwise it will be boring!!!
The first thing you will notice about
the story is that there is ZERO dialogue in the entire 12 minute run time! Telling a story entirely visually and through symbolism is a very difficult task, but if done correctly can be a truly moving and powerful experience. You may be familiar with this technique if you have seen a lot of art-house cinema. For example: "Le Samourai" which Americans probably know better as, "That weird French movie where people smoke cigarettes slowly and don't talk". Probably the most famous example in the US from this genre is "The Red Balloon" a 1956 French art film in which a little boy follows a floating red balloon around Paris for 34 minutes. However, the French aren't the ONLY ones that love this technique. Like with ballet, the French convinced the Russians to love it...and basically no one else. A famous Russian film using this technique is "Man with Movie Camera" from 1929, which is an experimental Avant Garde film showing bustling Russian cities and trains for 68 minutes in order to capture the sense of modernization and industrialization that the Soviet Union was undergoing...before Stalin revealed his utter insanity in the 1930s. The most prestigious film magazine in the world (Sights and Sounds) recently ranked "Man with Movie Camera" the 8th greatest film ever made, so this is easily the most critically acclaimed and beloved by film elitists that the the "pure silence" genre has ever produced. Another very famous Russian film in this genre was the "reaction" short film by Lev Kuleshov, in which the camera goes back and forth between an actor with a totally neutral expression and different objects including: a coffin, a bowl of soup, and a woman undressing. Viewers (who aren't already aware of this experiment) tend to believe that the man's expression changes in between shots and that he looks "hungry" or "sad" or "lustful" depending on which shot came before it. This was to demonstrate that human beings interpret emotions in context with the environment. You may be familiar with that last film thanks to it being featured on Hitchcock presents, since Alfred Hitchcock LOVED Kuleshov. House of Small Cubes was presented to Hollywood titled "La Maison en Petits Cubes" to reference the heavy French artistic influence on the film. Also likely to trick Hollywood into thinking it was French and giving it the award. Curiously this was the only time an Asian EVER won a short film Oscar, which are usually dominated by the French. Also because if they named it "Дом из маленьких кубиков" Hollywood would have said it sucks and awarded it nothing IF they didn't refuse the nomination all together like they did with Tarkovsky's movies. FINALLY, I move on to talk about the Japanese film that wants so badly to be French!
Story: SPOILER! I basically analyze the whole 12 minutes!!!
The story is that an old man is living in a house that is slowly sinking. Every year the water gets higher and the old man must permanently abandon a lower floor of his house and move up to a higher one. Eventually he will be able to move no higher and the water will kill him. As you no doubt have inferred, the film is about the process of aging and facing our own mortality. As we age, we aren't able to do things that we once enjoyed and must abandon them one by one until there is relatively little that we can still do. However, the old man gets some scuba equipment and decides to revisit the unusable parts of his house and reminisce on the past including: the day he married, the day his son was born, his son's marriage, etc. Eventually the old man stops thinking about the past and returns to the attic where death will soon follow. He pulls out a bottle of wine and has a drink alone, since his wife is already dead and his children are long since out of the house. However, he doesn't seem particularly melencholy and instead rather satisfied and content after looking back on his long life. He clinks glasses with an empty glass he put out to honor his deceased wife and the film ends.
House of Small Cubes is DEFINITELY an "art film", so if you dislike French art films, you will probably just suffer for 12 minutes. However, if you enjoy art films then this is a surprisingly good one. It is peaceful, reflective, and deals with a topic that we all must eventually face unless we die young. This would actually make a nice companion piece with "Up", so someone should ask Disney to add this film to the special features the next time "Up" gets re-released out of the "Disney Vault".
When a message is made so short that only what is essential is communicated, is it a full message, or merely a reflection of the truth?
This anime is a masterpiece because it is more about the questions than the answers associated with them.
And because it is so short, there really isn't a reason not to watch this. Its simply a work of art that will force you to question your own life, and the meaning you build each and everyday you live it.
Did the man really appreciate things as they were happening? Or is he appreciating them now, now that they are
memories? Its not to say that all should be cherished, as some of us have nothing worthwhile to look back on. But essentially, the message of this story is appreciation. This man had a family, that is all he ever had. And now that he is old and feeble, and they have left him, he himself is a memory of a time past.
Its a sob story, but could this man really consider his own life sad?
Looking back, he has no lines, no voice to his concerns, so we can never really know the answers quite when we needed them.
Is that what life is, then? Something that can be communicated in a mere twelve minutes?
Watching an anime series is great, but sometimes there are just not enough free hours on your schedule to justify starting a new show. But those 2 hours you have to kill are enough time for a film, so here is our list of the top anime movies you may not have heard of.
The When Marnie Was There nomination for Best Animated Feature Film at the upcoming Oscars 2016 is sure to provide a fair amount of exposure for Japanese animation. Let's explore the pioneers who opened up the door to the Academy Awards and gained attention and respect for our beloved medium.