Picture this: You’re in grade school, and you call PBS, asking for your hero, Mister Rogers. Against all odds, you’re connected directly with him, and you’re faced with the fact that your childhood hero from TV is real! What do you do from there?
The answer from Oscar-nominated animator and filmmaker Ru Kuwahata wowed the appreciative crowd at Game Changers, Moore's annual event featuring women who work in animation and gaming. At the event in November, Kuwahata said her experience of speaking to the “Mister Rogers of Japan” was the catalyst for her career in animation.
Growing up in Toyko, Kuwahata was inspired by the Japanese children’s show Dekirukana (What Can You Make?). Led by family-favorite mime artist Noppo-san (played by Ei Takami), the show taught viewers how to bring recycled materials to life through child-friendly crafts.
She shared with the gathering that her mother had a policy of not buying toys except for holidays. “That’s what I used to do every day, was to craft out of trash,” Kuwahata deadpanned to an amused audience.
The young Kuwahata had dreams of becoming just like Noppo-san, and decided to go to the source to find out how to do that. She called her local television station that aired Dekirukana and asked to speak to Noppo-san. What seemed like a pipe dream became an unlikely surprise, as the station gave her his personal phone number. Kuwahata now credits her good fortune to lenient privacy practices in the ’90s. “It was a very different time,” she said.
When she connected with Noppo-san, she asked him how to have a career like his. After breaking the fourth wall by explaining that he’s just an actor, he advised her on the process of becoming an artist, and told her, “You should go to the best art school possible.”
Her dreams of grandeur guided her to New York City, where she attended Parsons School of Design.
Fast forward—Kuwahata graduated from college, got married, and had many discussions about the future with her husband, fellow animator Max Porter, in an unlikely place.
“We seem to have many serious talks in the bathroom,” Kuwahata laughed.
She and Porter were both frustrated with their current jobs. After a few more bathroom conversations, they made the decision to go independent, rather than work for other people and their businesses. Soon, they began working as the directorial pair Tiny Inventions.
“People often ask me, ‘When is the time to take a risk?’ For me, it’s always when you think about it. When you do it, do not regret that choice. When you just follow, you regret it.”
WORKING WITH GIANTS
After some “scary times” during their early independent days, they finally caught a break when they got a call from They Might Be Giants, an American alternative rock band that is also known for children’s music. Tiny Inventions created a music video for Davy Crockett in Outer Space, a project that allowed them to combine digital and analog animation techniques.
“It was refreshing to mix media,” Kuwahata said. The process involved digitally creating an animation, projecting it on a chalkboard, then tracing it.
Within a month of that project’s completion, They Might be Giants called back with another.
“They said, ‘Here’s the music, do whatever you want,’” Kuwahata recalled. The words were music to her ears. The team created a video for the song Electric Car.
The first film by Tiny Inventions that Kuwahata discussed was Something Left, Something Taken. What appears to be an adorable animation has a paranoia looming underneath, as it depicts a fictionalized version of Kuwahata and Porter’s trip to San Francisco where they were convinced that their driver from the airport was a serial killer.
A more surrealistic film, Between Times, came next, after Tiny Inventions was accepted to a yearlong residency at The Netherlands Institute for Animation Film. Viewed from the perspective of a cuckoo clock, Between Times showcases the theory of relatively, but explains it in a more approachable way, Kuwahata said.
“It’s about how the feeling can change the time,” she explained, such as how waiting for water to boil feels like forever, yet hours spent with someone special are gone in a blink of an eye.
Somewhat ironically, Between Times took three years to complete. Looking for a palate cleanser after its completion, Tiny Inventions turned to a short, lighthearted idea that became Perfect Houseguest. The inspiration for the polite mousey protagonist came from a real-life mice infestation in their studio. They both found themselves wishing these guests would pull their weight.
“Mice have such little hands,” she joked. “If they could help us, we’d be finished so quickly [with this film].”
Finally, Kuwahata presented Tiny Inventions’ most recent short animated film, Negative Space. Based on a short poem by Ron Koertge, the film depicts a father-and-son relationship through the art of packing a suitcase. The film culminates with the father’s funeral, where the narrator gazes upon his father’s open casket, and thinks to himself, “Look at all that wasted space.” Negative Space was nominated for an Academy Award, has won 127 prizes, and has played at more than 314 festivals.
While looking at Kuwahata’s accolades-showered career, it can be easy to forget some of the challenges she’s faced simply by being a female animator.
“Animation is still a boys’ club, a male-dominated field,” she told the audience. She said that in business meetings, she is often asked questions like “How’s your family?” while her husband is asked about meatier topics such as finances. Even though she is the one in the partnership that handles the finances and contributes equally to the creative process, she said this recurring issue illustrates the assumption that men do the intellectual work. Over time, she’s learned to direct the conversation more and take credit for the work she does.
“I had to be a little more aggressive, a bit funnier than my usual self,” she said. She had this advice for young female animators: “You should stay true to who you are, but adapt to survive.”