The Work of Kunio Kato, Anime's Other Oscar Winner

It is easy, with the degree to which Hayao Miyazaki is lauded, not only in terms of anime as a form of animation, but among the pantheon of animators, from Park and Lasseter to Bird and Chomet, to forget that he is just one of two Japanese animators who have received the highest accolade possible in cinema. The other is Kato Kunio, whose work I will explore today. Whilst less prolific than Miyazaki, and with almost every film he creates being under 15 minutes, they are nevertheless as beautiful, as artistic and indeed as important as a record of the direction of anime as the better known director's work. Often surreal, largely silent, and with an often melancholic or nostalgic feel, Kato's work is, despite its brevity, often thought-provoking and visually arresting.

Unlike Miyazaki (or indeed many of the more famous figures in modern anime)'s background, I could find very little about Kato-the biography on his own site doesn't list his most famous work, "La Maison en Petits Cubes" (2008) and gives little about his background other than the facts he was born in 1977, he studied animation at Tama Art University and joined his production group, Robot Cage in 2001, just before making his first film, the Apple Incident (2001)

The Apple Incident, in short, is a mixture between the work of Monty Python's Terry Gillam, and renowned Internet counter culture oddball (and creator of Salad Fingers), David Firth. Firstly, the animation-Kato's animation style is anime in the widest possible context-in this film in particular, they are rough-hewn or often shadowy figures, with squarish faces, surprisingly westernized eyes, and an almost Soviet-style limited animation style-the majority of the animation is either very simple movement, such as chewing, pointing, walking, or more fluid, as in the case of the titular apples, which seem to float, fall, roll, and crush as they move around.

At many points in this two and a half minute short, figures simply gesticulate, or stand around, and indeed the way that Kato tends to draw figures are as simple but effective outlines, or shaded in, to ripple and move with the animation. Indeed, the vast majority of the backgrounds and scenery, and the solitary vehicle that appears, a tram car, is shaded in with the predominant colour of the background, either a copperish green or a sludgy brown or yellow. The backgrounds themselves are simplistic-enough to give one a good idea of what the setting is, but simple enough to not distract from the characters, such that they are, who are shaded lighter than the often oppressive backgrounds. Towards the end of the short, the city (or town) is replaced by a blueish sky, and slow moving clouds.

Before we tackle the tone and story of The Apple Incident, it's necessary to talk about the sound design of this short. There's no voice acting, sound effects or music in this short, and indeed it's not until the later and much more elaborate short, The Diary of Tortov Riddle that we get the latter two. What we do get is best described as "ambient noise". Emphasis on the "noise". For the great majority of the short, starting about a second in, and ending a second before the short does, we get a long, unceasing series of high-pitched tones, some muffled or burbled speech, and that's it. As to what this quasi-Eraserhead headache inducer means, or indeed what Kato was thinking adding it in the first place, I cannot tell you (having found several copies on various video sites, all with the same tone, I'm forced to believe that this is part of the original film).

The Apple Incident, in the simplest of terms, is a simple but effective surreal horror. One day, huge apples arrive in the sky, and indeed in the buildings of a town, some descending from the sky, others appearing in the hallways of apartment blocks, a-la The Shining. Some apples crush people about their daily business, other roll out of control down streets, some just fall, to the horror of the watching populace. A tram arrives, shadowy figures, presumably workers, making their way home, are halted by the huge apples that they promptly mine into and consume, before a final scene shows those who have (presumably) consumed the apples standing outside as smaller apples appear on their heads.

As to what The Apple Incident means, it's difficult to say-there is no clear reason as to why the apples arrive, why they fall from the sky, why some appear indoors. The apples are merely a threat, and one that is eventually bested, only for the apple-vanquishers to become, themselves, partly apple. The visual influences of disaster and horror movies are occasionally notable, at least from my perspective, but, like the film it seems to take auditory cues from, perhaps the very nature of the work is to be almost impossible to understand. The apples simply are, and this work, short though it is, is content to be an interesting, if somewhat crude, piece of work compared with Kato's later work.

Yet, some of the visual, and indeed story-telling elements do carry through to his next work, The Diary of Tortov Roddle (2003)-the greenish pallet, the use of colour washes, of simple sketch outline buildings, of simple but effective figures whose clothing is dominated by black.. Where they differ wildly is in tone-Tortov Roddle is a gentle, rather than abrasive surreal, and the work often calls to mind Miyazaki at his most visually narrative, or even, if I may be so bold, old progressive rock albums-a city aboard the back of a huge turtle that swims out to sea to meet other city-turtles, a fish that appears in the air above a coffee cup, strange upright walking rabbits that travel the sky in a half-sunken tram car. Also notable is the greater complexity of the work-the animation is more accomplished and feels very natural, with the facial expressions, movements of people and backgrounds in particular far better executed. 
Added to this is a mood-setting soundtrack-dark moments, such as our hero dreaming his pig-mount grows to a terrifying size is undercut with unsettling, almost electronic, music, restful sections with acoustic guitar and gentle ambience, or piano, funny moments with playful horns, even a section that approximates your typical 1920s cartoon score, whilst a meeting with a young lady that reminds Tortov of a possible lost-love is underscored beautifully with a haunting music box melody that is then repeated, even more evocatively on strings, accordion and piano. Kato's composer, Keiji Kondo, (no, not Koji Kondo of Mario and Zelda fame) almost acts as the voice of Tortov for this film, as no dialog, other than the written inter-cards [in the style of old cinema], which are clearly intended to be excerpts from Tortov's diary, appears. Elsewhere, the sound design is greatly improved with sound effects such as bear roars, footsteps, and most evocatively, the sound of falling rain at the end of the penultimate section, adds a depth to the world

What is most notable about Tortov Roddle is the tone of the piece-whilst it takes the form of a series of vignettes, little incidents that happen to its hero, the tone overall is wistful, almost melancholic-some of the small stories end on an amusing note, some on a thought provoking note, but in particular "The Melancholy Rain", in which our hero recovers from a bad dream in a rainy city, and the final vignette, "The Flower and the Lady", seem to ask some questions that the film struggles to answer-who is the mysterious lady? Why is Tortov always travelling, and alone? The film (or more correctly, set of films) seem to certainly move from the whimsical to the thought provoking-and it's clear that the last two are far longer, far more complex and indeed far more emotive pieces than the preceding four episodes, as though Kato is moving and developing his story-telling as he goes.

Whilst the film certainly has a story, with a vague narrative of Tortov moving from place to place, encountering, in turn, the city on a colossal frog's back and the spectacle of many of these cities atop many frogs, to a cafe with strange fish that appear to the drinker, to a small outdoor cinema projected onto the back of a bear, to the rabbits returning to the moon via a tram car (a mode of transport that appears to be a favourite of Kato), to the bad dream in the rainy city and another dream, or memory of a woman, it remains largely separate little stories, as though these are mere excerpts of a more complex and complete diary.

What is notable, however, is that, whilst the first four can be surmised as "Tortov comes upon interesting spectacle/people/place" the last two seem to reverse this, looking at Tortov himself, becoming less "what has Tortov found" and more "who is Tortov? Why is he on this journey? Where has he been?" with the previously surreal visuals giving way to evocative if more naturalistic scenes, culminating with the final shots of Tortov and his memories of the mysterious woman among the flower fields. 

It is memory that underpins Kato's most famous film,
La Maison en Petits Cubes (Or; "The House of Small Cubes", by far his best known and most lauded work, and the receiptant of the "2008 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film", among other major animation awards. It certainly acts both as a career and technical high-point (indeed, Kato has not made another major film in the following nine years, restricting himself to shorts that I couldn't even find information on in Japanese, aside from the collection of shorts, Fantasy, made around the time of The Diary of Tortov Roddle).

What it also does, in striking contrast to the rest of his work is tell one coherent, and character-driven narrative, largely stripped of the surrealist imagery that defines his earlier work-whilst the visual style of Kato's previous work, with its
Giorgio de Chirico-esque (if the name sounds familiar, the Italian surrealist also influenced the cover of Playstation arthouse masterpiece, Ico) buildings, and greenish-grey colour washes remains, this is a far more intimate and less showy film. One also cannot help, with its francophone title, brownish grey colour scheme during the old man's recollections of his past, human-scaled homely grubbiness and gallic feel, most notably in the visual design of the protagonist, but be reminded of the work of French animator, Sylvain Chomet.

At its center, La Maison is a dive into memory and the role of a location in telling a story-the dive of the old man who has to retrieve his pipe from the depths of his flooded home reflects the old man travelling back into his past, remembering the events of his life that have transpired in the rooms, and how these have affected him as a person. The short's opening shot of a large number of photographs only compounds this sense of memory, whilst his building-ever-upward to escape the rising waters of a world seemingly flooded (make your own judgment as to whether this is an allegory for escaping the past, a critique on mankind trying to avoid responsibility for climate change, or simply the way to present beautifully surreal images of flooded towering houses.)

Awaking one day to his newest room being flooded, the old man has more bricks brought to his house via boat, and begins adding another layer-this scene in particular suggests a greater maturity to Kato as a director, content to let the camera run as his elderly hero goes about his work. Transporting furniture by boat, his beloved pipe falls from his mouth and sinks into the flooded house below-unable to find a suitable replacement, he thus decides to dive after it.

As he reaches it, in the flooded room below, so a memory of a (seemingly now departed) wife picking up his pipe and returning it to him floods back, and he begins to swim downwards through the house, seeing the bed where he nursed her, then his children and their family posing for a photograph, his son in law visiting for the first time, then his daughter as a young child. And down he goes, to his daughter in her playroom building towers of blocks, before he arrives down at what would once has been his front door, before, leaving via it, he arrives back at what was once street level, restored in his memory to a grassy landscape, as the entire story of his childhood and his relationship with his wife, and them building what would become his house, before we are suddenly brought back to the present, and the old man sits alone in what was once his small little bungalow. Returning to the surface, he makes himself supper, pours a second glass of wine, and clinks the glasses together.

With its grumpy old man, and its travel through the memories of that man, it is easy to compare La Maison to that by now iconic opening five or so minutes of Pixar's UP-both focus on memory, are almost entirely silent, and, to an extent, take place in a single location. Yet, this is something of a red herring-Up is a pair of lives at important, if increasingly sorrowful moments, and end in sadness. La Maison, in sharp contrast is a story of a life via rooms-most of the moments captured and later remembered by the old man are happy, if bitter-sweet, and whilst the first and last memories seem to encapsulate the loneliness that the old man feels, the rest are quite happy-it is easy, and indeed part of the human condition to connect a room, or even a certain seat or place within a room with, for example, a particular memory, or time of your life.

At the heart of La Maison, one could suggest the film is, despite its visual metaphor of rising waves and sunken cities, essentially about either accepting or denying loss, and old age. The old man builds higher, isolates himself from his loss and his past, and it is only when he loses something he cannot replace, (the pipe, but possibly also his wife) that he begins to reconsider and in essence, dive into his past; indeed, there is something oddly cathartic about his continual diving down, as though he seeks some higher reason, some eureka moment as to why he is trying to escape loss and old age, and finds it, ironically, in the construction of the first layer of his now towering house. 

by far the longest memory, the recollection of his entire childhood, of his love for his now absent wife, and their act of construction together of this first layer, and the first meal they shared together are some of the most beautifully simple yet searingly beautiful sequences of any animator's works.
Yet, once he returns to the surface, makes his dinner and pours two glasses of wine, in a recreation of that first meal the final scene is surprisingly difficult to read as a piece of film. Is the second glass of wine intended to signify that he has come to terms with this loss, or that he, in a sense, cannot, and thus repeats what is his favorite memory of the two of them? That, dear reader, falls to your opinion

Yet, through my eyes, Kato ends his story with a sense of closure-it is as if, by returning to his past, that the old man realizes how far he has come, and despite his implied losses, and the sense of melancholy, he is able, at least, to remember his wife and child fondly. Indeed, this wistful melancholy, and the idea of memory and how past events shape us seems to be a common thread in Kato's work, with both this and Tortov Roddle ending with their protagonists moving on, Tortov physically, and the protagonist of La Maison emotionally. It's strange that two such tonally different films culminate with this same realisation.

Kato is a surprisingly soft voice in an industry that seems ever more dominated by large egos-with the exception of The Apple Incident, his films are gentle, emotionally driven, beautifully animated, and visually as far from anime as one could think. Yet, in the nine years since his win, only three films, all by Studio Ghibli, have bee nominated for any form of animated feature Oscar, with not a single victory. Why Kato, and indeed, by extension, why Miyazaki won, is a certain universality-particularly in Kato's silent and emotionally-driven sunken world, one does not need words to reflect upon the idea of memory and emotional closure. His, in short, is a voice that needs to be heard again. 


  1. A wonderful read (and watch)! The melancholy and nostalgia which can be evoked by Kunio Kato explores such a delicate aspect of the human condition.


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