Title: Tsumiki no Ie / La Maison en Petits Cubes
Length: 1 x 12 minute movie
Year of release: 2008
“Oh, doesn’t he look young here?” my mother commented as she passed me the photo. I took in the image, wholly, because it was a rare sight indeed! I couldn’t recall him looking quite like this in my lifetime. My father, noticeably less rotund than he is now; thin-frames for his oversized eye-lenses, grinning hugely on his wedding day. Most amusing of all, however, was his combed, brownish hair, laying thick atop his head. We joked about his thinning hairline then, compared to the desert-like landscape of his scalp now, and mused that my uncles – his brothers – both still have respectable heads of hair; the younger of the two, in fact, is barely beginning to experience the receding, if any at all. Though it has, in truth, been a few years since we’ve seen him, and I do recall that his cuts were gradually thinning. As she flicked through the next pictures, my mother smiled with her lips and cheeks, but, at the time, I would have described the expression closer to a frown. We laughed at the image of me at my fourth Christmas, remembering how distraught I was to have lost my voice; we sadly laughed about all the silly things my old dog would do like in the pictured adventures in our garden of him and his bucket; on, and on, the trip through memory lane of a dusty photobook that we lost ourselves in. But, despite it all, I couldn’t escape that feeling that this was not a happy occasion. Not for her.
In all honesty, I don’t remember when this was; several months, perhaps; maybe a year or so ago. In the moment, it didn’t feel like something worth remembering. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I recall a feeling of weariness, as that cupboard didn’t need cleaning and the whole affair was, frankly, interfering with my sacrosanct day off and plans… to do nothing (don’t look at me like that, nobody’s above a bit of ‘self-care!’). This was yet another meaningless moment in my life, just like any other. So why is it that, when thinking on Tsumiki no Ie, sorting out its imagery in my head… do I recall this moment so vividly?
If you’re already familiar with this movie’s premise, it’s not too much of a stretch to see the parallels. The elderly man – who, due to the movie’s entirely dialogue-free nature, goes completely unnamed – lives in a house on flooded plains. He has always lived there, building higher and higher atop his former homes to deal with the rising sea levels without relocating. He drops his favourite pipe down to the lower layers, and, after deciding that no other pipe will do, rents diving apparatus and goes on a journey down memory lane.
His life was mundane; not the kind of story worth telling. He married a friend out of love, he watched his child grow up, he gave her partner permission to marry, he cared for his wife through sickness. But watching this old man reminisce is utterly gripping. The shifting perspective dances through past and present, as he enters the pictures on the walls, sees the floor his child grew up upon and watches her build fortresses with toy blocks; he sees his wife pick up that very pipe for him when he drops it. Throughout it all, the vast difference in expressions he wears is telling – he is old, weary, unflinching now, with slow, pained movements, but he once had carefree, peaceful stretches and he once wore a gentle smile. Tsumiki no Ie’s gorgeous art conveys such strength of emotion in such subtle strokes, and propels the old man to becoming one of the deepest, most developed characters in anime history. Through these intimate 12 minutes, we learn that his life may have been nothing to write about, but it was his. We see his amusing mistakes in life, and we realise that his life was precious.
However, has the old man wasted his time? The question seems subtly asked. The soundscape of Tsumiki no Ie is carefully orchestrated; beautiful strings can come to crashing halts as the time moves back to the present, and it reaches its darkest note when we see just how tall his mountain of houses has become. He builds and builds to never let go of the past, but that past has left him behind. Is he cynical for his lost time? For his loneliness?
There is a philosophy that we become new people as we grow older and transition to new states and new people. The tragedy of the movie preys upon that; he is not truly reminiscing, but he seems to be sympathising with that former self. He laughs at his mistakes with a chuckle, finding his former self amusing falling in front of a family photo; he feels something akin to pity as he sees the height his home has become. But, there’s nothing unhappy about that. Tsumiki no Ie’s old man builds up and up, and while it seems like at the outset that he can’t let go of the past, at the end of his journey through his modest life, he is content. No longer shocked by the sudden pang of lost time, he is truly content.
And I think of my mother, flicking through those photos, fighting off feelings of sadness because those times are long behind her – and, why should that be sad? They are happy times, after all. No matter how menial our memories might be to us long after the moment, the feelings we felt in the moment soared. Tsumiki no Ie is a tender reminder that the good times were good, and even if they are gone, gently fading memories, they are still there, in the foundation of our person, and are rich, beautiful.