tsumiki no ie: a melancholy in cubes

29Aug13

Kunio Kato’s beautiful and melancholic Academy Award winning animated short, Tsumiki no Ie (つみきのいえ) — The House of Small Cubes — is a film infused with the sadness of disappearing time.  The source of melancholy seems obvious at first: it’s the classic melancholy of old age in which the gradual erasure of the world one has known and lived in results in a profound loneliness.  In Kato’s short, memory becomes the vehicle of redemption as the old fisherman recollects the meaningful events of his life, rolling them together to create a welcome sense of wholeness and completion, at least at the level of consciousness. The metaphoric vehicle for the fisherman’s journey into the past is almost too obvious to warrant mention: the surface of the ocean represents the division between the present and the past, as well as the division between consciousness and memory, while the different rooms in the multi-story house that lie under water represent the stages of family life.

All this seems quite evident, and on this reading what we get is the story of a man who has reconciled himself to loss via a series of memories that redeem the present by imbuing it with the fullness of the past.  It’s a typical, though beautiful rendered and realized, story in which the value of a life is, ultimately, measured by the emotional richness of personal (especially family) relations.

But what if there’s another kind of loss at work as well?  Kato’s use of rising sea level to represent the passage of time might seem like a pleasant idiosyncrasy at first, but it takes on a far more serious aspect when viewed in the light of global climate change.  The House of Small Cubes is surely a document about personal loss, but it also seems to me to be a film about the dissolution of society as we have known it.  It’s no accident that the fisherman’s life starts on dry land and that the village that he and his family live in seems, at first, to have nothing to do with the ocean.  Over time the ocean fills the village streets, and eventually the entire village is submerged except for those few houses that have remained inhabited and been built and rebuilt until only their very tips hover above the surface of the water.

We already know that as the ocean rises over the next fifty to a hundred years that not only will entire islands become uninhabitable, but many coastal cities will become utterly unrecognizable (and some, like Miami, may vanish completely).  It’s also almost certain that as climate change disrupts food production on a global scale and resources become depleted that the standard of living that many in the developed world have come to accept as normal will simply become impossible to maintain.  As the fisherman’s house gets rebuilt again and again because of the rising sea level, it also gets smaller and smaller.  The fisherman simply no longer has the space to keep all those things that once defined middle-class family life.

Even the most sanguine predictions about global warming and the future of resource management on a global scale suggest that it’s going to become impossible to continue burning through resources at the currant rate of use, and contrary to the ridiculous utopianism of some techno-futurists it’s exceedingly unlikely that technology alone is going to be enough to get us out of this fix.  It’s almost certain that there are going to be immense changes at the level of civilization, perhaps to the point where certain aspects of civilization as we know it will disappear entirely.  There are even those who argue, like James Lovelock, that in the worst case scenario civilization itself will vanish as the climate makes most of the Earth unsuitable for human habitation: “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”

In a way, then, The House of Small Cubes can be read as a parable about the disappearance of civilization as we  know it.  It’s not that those things in life that we hold dear — the family photograph, shared wine around the dinner table, a spacious living room filled with decorations — will have become things of the past on an individual level, but rather that the very possibility of such a lifestyle will have disappeared on a civilizational level.

The melancholy of a disappearing past — that is, a social and material past that is not able to replicate itself in the present due to changing social and material conditions — is not confined to an as yet unrealized future.  The fact is, we can already see the effects of global warming now.  If we keep the blinders off, its impossible not to see those things that are going to vanish forever, very shortly, from the world that we have long known.  It is impossible not to be depressed by the images of starving polar bears, deflated like sick balloons, that are coming out of the Arctic Circle.  Or by the notion that the beautiful ice formations on Japan’s Mount Zao are going to be a thing of the past.  Or the idea that the iconic ice cap on Mount Kilimanjaro is likely to go the way of the dodo.  Jorie Graham’s recent collection of poems, Sea Change, is an effort to get at what it means to have this sensation of the world disappearing before your eyes.  As she says in an interview with Deidre Wengen:

Sometimes I feel I am living an extended farewell, where my eventual disappearance, my mortal nature, normally a deep human concern, has been washed away by my fear for the deeper mortality — the extinction — of other species, and of the natural world itself. I cannot look at the world hard enough.
There is an element of hope of in The House of Small of Cubes, however, in the shape of the house itself.  While the existence of the bourgeois family lifestyle may disappear entirely, the simplified life that the fisherman finds himself living doesn’t seem to be that bad at all.  While his meals aren’t elaborate, they do look simply delicious.  He may not have much space to live in, but his home is clearly cozy.  And most importantly of all, the collapse of capitalism as we know it (clearly a corollary of the collapse of civilization as we know it) appears to have left him with plenty of spare time for contemplation, and for the quiet recreation of fishing.  It’s a return to the simple life, a vision that — while in it’s own way as decidedly unreal as the future dreamed up by techno-utopians — reflects a strong contemporary trend to escape the shackles of capitalist consumption through lifestyle simplification.  The growing tiny house movement is one of the more evident examples of this trend, not to mention the (out of control?) urban poultry movement.

So perhaps the future will bring with it the quiet simplicity that’s being lived by the solitary fisherman in The House of Small Cubes.  We could think of it as a kind of forced Thoreauvianism, a simple life framed by an entirely new social-cultural model built around an ethics of scarcity and the concomitant revaluing of all values.  This possibility is among the best of all best-case scenarios, though it won’t happen without lots of work and a concerted movement toward alternative models of living.  As Thoreau himself put it in Walden,

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours … In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.

Of course, it may be more direct and to the point to ask a simpler question, one asked by Thoreau in a letter he wrote to Harrison Blake in 1860:

What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?



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