Illustration • Inspiration Kids Can Handle the Dark

Dice Tsutsumi, of animation studio Tonko House, discusses the graphic novel sequels to the award-winning short film, The Dam Keeper

In the world of graphic novels, The Dam Keeper trilogy is the rarest of creatures: a lushly illustrated series created for a younger audience that manages to sacrifice nothing along the way. The books mine rich narratives that allow razor-sharp writing and enthralling illustrative techniques to clash in increasingly exciting ways.

The graphic novels continue the storyline of the 2014 Oscar-nominated, animated short film of the same name by ex-Pixar art directors Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi. The trilogy, which comprises The Dam Keeper, The Dam Keeper: World Without Darkness, and The Dam Keeper: Return from the Shadows, are essentially volumes 2, 3, and 4 of the larger story. The books set the film’s main characters on a grand, windswept journey that is as substantial and surprising as it is awe-inspiring.

Focused on the adventures of childhood friends Pig, Fox, and Hippo, the series functions as eye-catching children’s entertainment while offering enough depth and complexity to entertain big kids—and adults. Young readers will certainly appreciate the winsome character design and pastel colors, but having an adult around to help them navigate the dark places the books frequently visit (think Lord of the Rings dark) makes this a great series for parents to enjoy with young ones. While the books lack the somber vocal narration by Lars Mikkelsen in the short film, Kondo and Tsutsumi use eye-opening set pieces, innovative panel arrangements, breathtaking use of color, and heartfelt characterization to drive the often-surprising narrative.

As a part of Adobe Create's survey of recently published graphic novels, I spoke with Tsutsumi about the trilogy, the books’ dark themes, the team’s primary influences, and upcoming works from animation studio Tonko House.

Create: At first glance, The Dam Keeper looks like a children’s book, but within the first few pages (especially if you’ve seen the short film of the same name) it becomes quite dark in tone, touching on themes of death, possible suicide, bullying, and isolation. What kind of book series were you aiming to create, and for whom?

Dice Tsutsumi: We think of our main protagonist, 10-year-old Pig, as a starter for our target audience. While it may feel dark and serious compared to classic fairy tales, we believe kids these days know these are real issues they face. And as adults, we all dealt with these things one way or another when we were Pig’s age.

Create: Hayao Miyazaki completed the Nausicaä film in 1984 before he completed the manga it was based upon, which he actually began in 1982. Did you always envision a similar track for The Dam Keeper film? Or did you decide to create the graphic novels only after you finished the film?

Tsutsumi: When we made the short [film], we did not have the long-format story outside of the dam. But both Robert and I come from film concept art and we always think beyond what’s on the screen when we design for films. So it was natural to continue building the stories outside of the first short.

Create: You’re producing a TV series in Japan called Pig: The Dam Keeper Poems, a feature-length version of The Dam Keeper, a stop-motion TV series called Oni, and two other projects called Sleepy Pines and Leo. Do you imagine giving The Dam Keeper series a small or big screen treatment in the future?

Tsutsumi: We know that we are far less qualified to call ourselves graphic-novel authors with such limited experience, but it really opened up possibilities for us. We love the book form of storytelling, such as graphic novels, in order to develop story. Sometimes with the regular filmmaking process, we get too many opinions too soon before we identify what it is we want to say. The book format minimizes a “too many chefs [in the kitchen]” situation.

We certainly would love to think of other stories we are making in the same way.

Create: The schematic cutaway views of the dam and windmill you show in the early pages of the first graphic novel look so intricate and detailed. Do you have an actual working model of them in your studio?

Tsutsumi: Ha! Not in our studio, but we did make a model of the dam with Japan’s acclaimed miniature artist, Satoshi Araki, for our past gallery exhibition. We only made the part of the windmill where Pig lived, but hope to make the rest in the future.

Create: Lastly, The Dam Keeper short film seems to have disappeared from its previous digital distribution channels. Are you planning to bring the short film back into circulation?

Tsutsumi: We are currently in the process of finding a new distribution platform. Please stay tuned!

All installments in our limited series on recent graphic novels will eventually be accessible from the series landing page.

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