The Dam Keeper is a short animation film which lasts only 18 minutes, and it offers my favourite 18 minutes on the screen.
Despite the brief running time, it offers a rich and deeply rewarding viewing experience of the best feature films in all aspects: characters, storytelling, artwork, music, and the deep appreciation of humanity both in its brightest moment and its darkest. The story is told by delightful light, somber shadow, rich colour, and by the gently mournful voice of Lars Mikkelsen (Sherlock, House of Cards). The events in the past week reminded us, again, just how terrible our experience on the Earth can be. And, this is what I decided to share with anyone who cares to read my writing, with my heartfelt gratitude for everyone who returns to my pages since its launch this summer despite everything happening, or unhappening, in life. (Thank you.)
This short animated film was directed by Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi. Both worked as art directors at the famed Pixar Animation Studios, yet directing a film of their own was a completely new experience for them. Following this challenge, they took an enormous risk by quitting Pixar and starting a new path as independent film directors by setting up Tonko House, an independent production company. I applaud their courage and conviction as independent directors, for, once one watches this short film, there is no doubt that they have so much to offer.
Now, onto the film itself.
The Dam Keeper tells a story of a young orphan, Pig, who dedicates himself to the task left by his late father. He lives in isolation at the edge of the city where a windmill called ‘The Dam’ stands at the top of a great wall which separates the city and the world of ashes that ‘suffocate everything’. His life is dictated by a rigid routine in order to maintain the function of ‘The Dam’, for, without its proper function, the city will be smothered by dark ashes, rendering the place uninhabitable. The story begins with a somber tone, reflecting the deep sorrow of the protagonist. Through the windows of his ‘home’, he sees the world obscured by ashes on one side; on the other, he sees the world of ‘people’. And on both, he sees ‘darkness’.
We soon discover what he meant by the darkness that surrounds him. He is isolated from the rest of the society for which he silently carries on one vital duty as the dam keeper. It is not entirely clear at first that the residents of the city are aware of his vital function, or the fact that they owe him their delightful existence. There are a few instances which suggest that they are fully aware of what he does for them. Despite the knowledge of his service to the society, he is despised in a manner in which people of certain professions are discriminated in various societies. For example, in Japan, there is a very strong prejudice against Burakumin, i.e., untouchables, who toil as butchers, undertakers, etc. This is a terrible condition which many still suffer, as an Academy Award winning Japanese film, Departures (2008, by Yōjirō Takita), points out. In many societies, certain professions are available for a certain social class, and the harsh discriminations based on one’s creed remains strong. This explains the way Pig was treated not only by his peers, but also by the adults. The inhabitants of the city can barely contain their disgust toward this little child, and his peers at school mercilessly bully him at every opportunity they can find.
All of this changes when a new student joins them at the school.
The moment Fox steps into the ‘school bus’, everyone takes notice. The tone of the movie suddenly shifts lighter. She brings a breath of fresh air, with a lively spring in her every step. Unassuming and open, she is not afraid of being a newcomer. The moment she takes the seat next to our protagonist, who always sit alone the back of the vehicle, she begins to draw in her sketchbook with a great exuberance. It turns out that this newcomer is his new classmate. She is kind, lighthearted, and instantly popular amongst her peers. Yet, as she takes notice of the plight of our protagonist, Fox does not join them in their discrimination of Pig; she offers instead the very first and seemingly the only hope of friendship for him. And yet, how terrible would it be to feel the despair of this lonely soul who happens to ‘discover’ that Fox is not who she appears to be and there is no hope of real friendship in the first place?
In the wake of this crushing ‘realisation’, the world turns dark. Literally.
Since I would like to share this greatest 18 minutes on screen with you, I refrain from revealing the specifics of this movie any further. Instead, I would like to draw your attention to some lessons in life: Whilst we are all supposed to be able to summon our strength and overcome any obstacles, we cannot do so all by ourselves. In this respect, being genuinely kind, or being a good friend of someone, is one of the greatest contributions each of us can offer to the world around us. I sorely need to improve myself in this regard, since I have made, however briefly or remotely, many encounters with Foxes in my journey through the world. Like our protagonist, I was lifted by most of whom I would never meet again on the various corners on the Earth. Some of the help I was offered were life-saving in a literal sense, whilst others were just as important. Whilst a Pig cannot become a Fox, any Fox you will meet will tell you: It is OK.
A Pig will be capable of kindness, in time.
This film also tells us never to lose heart. When everything appears dark and one is left with the deepest sense of despair, you might find just enough light to show you the right path for you. So, hang on. We will see it through until the light shines through. Together.
I sincerely hope that this gem of cinema is available to every one of you. And I am infinitely grateful that these two directors took some incredible risks to deliver such a wonderful work. This is the kind of movie I would recommend to anyone, on any occasion. It lifts you up without refraining from plunging into the real darkness that can exist in life. It is rare to have a movie like this in one’s life, and still rarer that one experiences such a profound emotional journey in a mere 18 minutes.