They had plum jobs at one of the best companies in the world. Their successes were the envy of their peers. But last summer, two peak-career professionals quit their lucrative day jobs to found a start-up. With no income or investment, they built their own studio, mostly by hand, and started working long odd hours, seven days a week, on the edge of the San Francisco Bay in Berkeley, California.
Typical Silicon Valley fairy tale? Hardly. These two make animation.
“I just felt like I had a lifelong dream to make art,” Tokyo-born, 40-year-old director Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi said at a café in Berkeley in October. “And that if I was going to do it, I better do it now.”
Tsutsumi and his Tonko House Studio cofounder, Japanese-American 34-year-old Robert Kondo, both left positions at American industry giant Pixar Animation Studios last July — Kondo after 14 years, Tsutsumi after seven. Their resumes include global hits “Toy Story 3,” “Monsters University” and “Ratatouille.” Their start-up studio’s Japanese-inspired name corresponds to the main characters of their first film — “ton” for pig, “ko” for fox.
The film, an achingly beautiful 18-minute parable titled “The Dam Keeper,” was released last October. It screened at various festivals, picking up a handful of citations and awards. In early December, it had its first public premiere at a small cinema in Berkeley, where Tsutsumi and Kondo auctioned off some of their original art.
Now it is one of only five films nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, the winner of which will be announced at the 87th Annual Oscar Ceremony three weeks from now in Los Angeles.
“We’ve just gone through the festival circuit,” Kondo said of the film’s marketing strategy, or lack thereof. “This (nomination) is the most attention we’ve ever received. It’s really the first step in finding out who our audience might be.”
As first steps go, this is a leap. And last week it was announced that on Jan. 30, Magnolia Pictures and ShortsHD would release all five nominees in more than 350 theaters in North America, plus dozens more in Europe and Latin America. This is a first for animated short films, which are usually hard to locate and see on the big screen, and it guarantees that “The Dam Keeper” will reach a large and diverse viewership.
Both directors mention the works of Hayao Miyazaki and early Walt Disney classics such as “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo” and “101 Dalmatians” as influences on their own aesthetic tastes. Growing up in Southern California, Kondo cites the films of Don Bluth (“The Secret of Nimh,” “All Dogs Go To Heaven”). But it is the late Canadian animator Frederik Back (“Crac,” “The Man Who Planted Trees”), an idol of Miyazaki’s and winner of two Academy Awards, who came to mind when I watched the quiet, painterly gestures of “The Dam Keeper,” and felt pierced by its simple humanism.
“Yes, if I had to single out one artist, it would be Back,” agreed Tsutsumi. “He always had something to say. For him, figuring out what was happening in society came first, before his craft. He was an animal-rights activist and environmentalist. Anything he touched in animation had his stamp. It’s a very scary thing to do. There isn’t a large commercial market for his films, and he stuck to his beliefs. I really respect him for that.”
“The Dam Keeper” is set in a mountainous European village that looks like Switzerland and is peopled by anthropomorphized creatures. Its protagonist is a young boy, a pudgy orphaned piglet, whose morning and nightly ritual consists of cranking up an old windmill, whose breezes keep a carcinogenic smog from overtaking the town.
The piglet is mocked and bullied by his schoolmates and teacher: ostracized on the bus, slapped and humiliated in class. A new student arrives, a slim, smart-faced fox, with a passion for sketching — a trickster, popular with the in-crowd, but smarter than them, too. Fox befriends pig, and even at the worst of times, strengthens their bond through art and genuine camaraderie. A brief misunderstanding leads to an apocalyptic near-catastrophe that brings the two into a deeper understanding of one another’s burdens, even if the rest of the village remains clueless.
“The Dam Keeper,” for all of its superficial simplicity, feels like an allegory for many contemporary phenomena — climate change, terrorism, fear of the other, betrayal and the need for teamwork and community.
“The filmmaking was very much an organic process,” Tsutsumi said. “We never intended to use our film to make a social statement. But as storytellers, we tried hard to stay true to who we are, we are very conscious of what is happening today. It seems rather strange that this is so rare. Filmmakers and audiences both live with very serious social issues.”
Tsutsumi left Japan when he was 18, pursuing a career in art at universities in New York because he couldn’t speak English very well, but he could draw. Now he is more comfortable in the U.S. animation industry, which is “more based on classical art, versus Japanese animation, which is still heavily based on manga.” But he’d like to work with other Japanese artists in the future.
“Earlier in my career, I didn’t know if I could ever go back to Japan,” he says. “But now Robert and I both feel that Tonko House can bring together the best of both worlds. I am ready to work with Japan. Maybe not necessarily in Japan, but with Japan.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.
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