Bath House of Whales (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

One of the films featured in this years JAPAN CUTS is Kiyama Mizuki’s stunningly imaginative animated short, Bath House of Whales. Running at just over 6 minutes, this short tells the story of a mother and daughter finishing off their day in the town’s bath house (sento). What starts as the depiction of a mundane daily ritual slowly transforms into a hypnotic set of visuals that, much like the vivid imagination of a child, crosses beyond the boundaries of what conventional animation can achieve.

Bath House of Whales utilizes a rather unusual “paint-on-glass” style to achieve a uniquely astonishing effect that punctuates on the child-like wonder of the subject matter. The fluidity of this technique is reminiscent of Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013), although Mizuki’s style is significantly more experimental. Lacking any kind of dialogue, the film’s entire emotional resonance rests in its visual aesthetics. From a child’s perspective, the adult world is both fascinating and scary: adults are giants, hot water is boiling lava, and sauna sweat looks like tears. By virtue of the animation style, all nudity is muted, and the naked bodies in the bath house appear as barely gendered blobs of flesh participating in an almost-religious daily ritual.

While at a first glance, the idiosyncrasies Mizuki’s animation style clearly dominate the viewing experience, I couldn’t help but also sense a hint sadness present in the contents of the film’s narrative. The first scene is that of lone woman emerging from the ocean straight into household chores, while the husband watches TV. In the last scene she returns to the ocean as lonely as she started. In many cultures, whales represent solitude, and the hints of solitude are ample in the film. Even in when in a group, the loneliness is ever-present in the woman’s face – always tired, always alone. Once again, it’s the creativity and dynamism of the animation that draws you in and allows for these ideas to manifest in a minimalist yet evocative manner.

Bath House of Whales was Mizuki’s graduation project at the Tokyo University of the Arts, and has already made the festival round in Japan and Europe, gathering a heap of awards and prizes. Most notably, the film won the “Lotte Reiniger Promotion Award for Animated Films” at the Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film in Germany this past May. I’m certain that Kiyama Mizuki’s mesmerizing creation will continue to grab the attention of viewers everywhere for some time to come.

Bath House of Whales is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.