After waking up from a comfortable dinner the previous night, the nameless main character of The House of Small Cubes steps out of bed and finds his feet in water. Stepping outside, we see that the world has been flooded by water. Humans have been forced to either continually build their houses upwards or live on ships. Realizing the severity of continuously raising sea levels, the nameless main character—who will henceforth be called the Old Man—begins to build a new house on top of his current one.
Submerging the camera below the surface of the water, we see that the Old Man has been struggling against raising sea levels—the cause of which is never even implied—for his entire life. His tower of homes reaches at least a dozen levels down to the sea floor, which used to be dry land similar to the kind most of us live on.
Upon completing his new home on top his old, he begins moving furniture that is now floating in his old home. While lifting furniture onto his boat, he drops his pipe and it sinks down a hatch into an older home of his. Between him and his pipe are several yards of water. Considering his old age, it would be difficult for him to just dive down there and get it before he drowns.
After he finishes moving his furniture, he sits down in his new home. Something is not right, however. His hand feels empty, so he rubs his fingers together. The next day, he looks through his belongings for a new pipe. There are dozens available, but none of them are quite right. While looking, he notices that a visiting merchant has scuba gear. Immediately he decides to dive down there to get his favorite pipe. This is the beginning of a 15 minute short film.
Throughout the beginning—and indeed the entirety—of The House of Small Cubes, no information is ever given to the audience by word; all of it is given through visuals. House of Small Cubes is a silent film; not completely silent, however, because Kunio Kato uses music in a perfect display of choreography. Action on the screen is perfectly in tune with the music; music plays, then pauses, and then resumes again. When the Old Man is looking through his belongings for a new pipe, music plays in the background; when he looks up and notices the scuba gear, the music pauses when he starts blinking, and then continues when he stops blinking.
Animated entirely by Japanese hands, Kato has given The House of Small Cubes a very European-style visual look. Houses are surreal looking, with impossible angles used mostly on the roofs. Movement is slow, but energetic; exaggerating the movement of shadows helps create a look that has more movement than it really does. Characters are big with flimsy limbs, much like in Lupin III although of course lacking the Mad Magazine inspiration.
Despite the look, I believe that in content we have a story that is ultimately Japanese; the Old Man does not find sadness in his journey, but rather soothing. It is, in a way, a celebration seeped in sadness, that is, a coming to terms with the impermanence of existence. At the end, despite any sadness the audience feels, the Old Man opens a bottle of wine and has a toast.
On the most basic level, Kato has created a story of recollection. When the Old Man retrieves his pipe, he then decides to travel deeper into his older homes. When he travels to each home, each visit triggers a significant memory in his mind. As he travels deeper, the memories grow older until eventually he reaches the place of his childhood: the sea floor, which never used to be the sea floor. The House of Small Cubes is, on a basic level, a story of nostalgia; the Old Man remembers those memories of his life. Indeed, it is done in a very original manner. Using raising sea levels as a vehicle for a man’s nostalgic experience is nothing short of creative. Combine that with the masterful use of music, and The House of Small Cubes is nothing short of a great short film that emotionally impacts its audience.
However, that is not the case—The House of Small Cubes is not a great short film. No, The House of Small Cubes is a masterpiece. Underneath this basic storyline, we have a film with a message.
Here we have a man that lived his life to provide best for his wife and daughter. Instead of giving into the disaster, he persevered and built as many homes as needed. All of the many houses he built were by his and his wife’s own hands. His life is one long tale of small details—much like each house is made of little bricks—but within his life are significant details, which he associates with whichever house he lived in. In this manner, the houses have become symbolic of the Old Man’s past life. Kato has created a life lesson for his audience, that is, life is made of small details, some more important than others, and it is made by our own choosing. Just as the Old Man’s carpentry has created for him a symbol of achievement, all of us will look at ourselves and remember what we accomplished. For the Old Man, his life is a house of small cubes.