Friday, February 27, 2009

Kunio Kato: How playing with blocks can win you an Oscar

by Chris MaGee

Throughout the week I've been busy reporting a lot about Yojiro Takita and his Oscar-winning "Departures (Okuribito)", but I haven't done much follow up on the other Oscar-winner this past Sunday, Kunio Kato and his film "La Maison en Petits Cubes (Tsumiki no Ie)", which took home Best Animated Short Film. Let me tell you, it's not been from lack of wanting to, but when you have the first Japanese production to win Best Foreign Language Film in 54 years things get more than a bit hectic for us Japanese film bloggers. Kato-san can't be pushed to the back burner forever though so here's a bit more about the 32-year-old animator, his career prior to his big win, and more about "La Maison en Petits Cubes".

Born in 1977 in Tokyo Kato attended the Tama University for the Arts for graphic design. Upon graduating in 2001 he and two other Tama alumni, Osamu Sakai and Tatsutoshi Nomura , joined Robot, a production company formed by young animators, filmmakers and producers who not only produce independent films, but also do contract work for NHK and various television commercials. When Kato finished his acceptance speech with "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto," it was a nod to his company.

Even prior to his Oscar win Kato enjoyed a great deal of success at animation festivals both at home in Japan and around the world. His 2001 film "The Apple Incident" earned him the top prize at that year's Laputa International Animation Festival in Tokyo, while his "The Diary of Tortov Roddle" series of short films was an official selection at the 2003 Annecy International Film Festival and took home Best Film at Hida International Animation Festival of Folktales and Fables in Takayama and again at Laputa. He even picked up a prize right here in Canada at The Ottawa International Animation Festival in 2004 for his short "Fantasy".

For "Tsumiki no Ie" Kato and his co-writer Kenya Hirata took inspiration for the story of an old man who must add bricks to his home to prevent it from sinking by playing with Tsumiki Construction Blocks, a popular Japanese building toy that's a cross between Lincoln Logs and Lego. Using just a pencil and A4 size paper to draw the entire 12-minute short frame by frame Kato then layered the colours on top using a computer. It was painstaking process that took him whole year to complete, but before he could screen the film he was forced to translate the Japanese title. Apparently it would be easier to have the film showcased at international festivals if the original title "Tsumiki no Ie" was translated into either English or French. In the end he felt the French translation better captured the nuances of the film. It definitely seems like all the work and name changes paid off in a very big way for Kato in the end though.

You can check out Kato's 2001 film "The Apple Incident", the first segment of the truly gorgeous "The Diary of Tortov Roddle" (the remaining segment can be found here), an Kato's now famous acceptance speech below. Thanks to Daily Yomiuri for some of the background for this article.

The Apple Incident (2001)

The Diary of Tortov Roddle #1: City of Light (2003)

Japanese TV coverage of Kato's Oscar win

No comments: