REVIEW: The Dam Keeper [2014]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 18 minutes | Release Date: 2014 (USA)
Director(s): Robert Kondo & Daisuke ‘Dice’ Tsutsumi
Writer(s): Robert Kondo & Daisuke ‘Dice’ Tsutsumi

“Out both, I saw darkness”

An inclusive metaphor, The Dam Keeper‘s young Pig is made to combat the darkness of adolescence spent as an outcast and the black ash threatening to consume his town unless he stays vigilant at the windmill dam where he lives and works. He’s the protector of all the animals below the wall, a child shouldering the responsibility of an adult in a way none of his peers can or want to understand. To them he is merely a dirty pig covered in soot, ignorant to the fact of his keeping that soot at bay so it will never touch them. Left alone to endure the rampant bullying unleashed upon him, the arrival of an outsider brings hope that change and understanding can occur.

Written and directed by Robert Kondo and Daisuke ‘Dice’ Tsutsumi, the story of their underappreciated Pig is brought to life in a rough, children’s book aesthetic of textured color fields without the need of thick outlines or edged delineations. It reminds me of the illustrations I’d see as a kid with a loose technique and cute characters populating a world much like mine. Beyond the desolation of their land getting ravaged by dust storms daily as though some warning of what’s to come via global warning, Tonko House, LLC personifies the animal kingdom for a family friendly appeal that grabs attention yet remains relatable. Allowing them to exist in a darker world of ridicule, vengeance, and empathy, however, is what sets it apart.

The Dam Keeper goes darker in tone than expected once the in-coming Fox befriends Pig like no one ever had. It’s such a common scene generally followed by the transformation from pariah to equal with some comeuppance for the bullies. Impressively, this isn’t how the direction they go. Instead this short gives us a moment of jealousy, rage, and betrayal—a perfect cocktail of “last straw” markers firmly planting Pig in sorrow while the smoke envelops them all. It’s an impulse we all feel, a yearning to make our oppressors walk in our shoes and know our plight. And in Pig’s anger comes the revelation things aren’t always what they seem. Because just as he trusts the gas mask to stave off the ash above, so too must he trust the kindness of his friend below.

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