At the Stuttgart Festival for Animated Film, Kiyama Mizuki’s “Bath House of Whales” – one of only two Asian entries in this year’s International Competition – walks away with its most recent win: the Lotte Reiniger Promotion Award for Animated film. The film premiered at Annecy last year, and reaped acclaim at last year’s Pia Film Festival and Image Forum. Though the film screened online this time, the short impressed judges regardless; Mizuki walked away with a whopping cash prize of 10,000 EUR.
The mesmerizing paint-on-glass production only runs around six minutes. The film explores the mysterious realm of the public bath house from a child’s eyes. Thermal pools spread into oceans; simple scrubbing stretches into an assembly line; sauna sweat melts everything, even the paint, from the screen. A simple hygiene trip becomes a full-bodied journey in this world of wonder.
The film’s strengths can be found in its universal appeal to childhood. Primary colors overwhelm the screen in each section of the bath house: refreshing cerulean pool waters, daisy yellow sponges, and heavy ochres for wooden walls. The almost child-like medium of paint-on-glass — as if recalling the elementary days of finger-painting — captures the film’s naivete. The primitive basics of the color palette and medium alike indicate each careful decision to create this intimate, yet ubiquitous, sense of awe.
Almost ironically (or perhaps self-reflexively?), external, older influence manifests in this simple world. A line of women furiously washing pays tribute to Jeong Da-hee’s 2019 characteristic rush (as seen in Cannes Director Fortnight short “Movements”) and the narrative cyclism– of exiting and entering back into the ocean — an homage to the medium of animation itself. And no wonder: guided by animation auteur Koji Yamamura (“Mt. Head,” “A Country Doctor,”), the intense emphasis on inflation and deflation (in sound, at the very least) embody Yamamura’s teaching. This, all added to the nasal strum of the koto localizes the film in a deeper history beyond the child — and in its Japanese roots. The short thus adopts a timeless quality on top of its globalism: a tribute to discovering pre-existing worlds.
Mizuki’s first award in a Western film circuit is belated, but well-deserved. Tokyo University of the Arts’ dominance in independent animation should rest easy with graduates like Mizuki — thriving talent who strike the perfect balance between child- and adulthood, universalism and localization, movement and inertia. It truly would be a delight to see what Mizuki will have to show next time.