Updated: Oct 10
On the outside, The Dam Keeper may look like a simplistic children’s movie. But it successfully conveys a message that often many big-budget movies fail to deliver. The fact that it manages to do it without becoming too gory or terrifying, is probably it’s best aspect.
We have often seen movies try to address bullying and harassment. The message is always to refrain from bullying, due to the suffering it causes to the ones bullied. It relies heavily on sympathy and sometimes on empathy, which can often be qualities that may be hard to develop. This is true especially in cases where the people are too far apart in class, race or any other distinguishing factor that sets them apart.
Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi, instead, draw on an entirely different emotion to get the message across - fear. The short film recognizes everyone’s importance in society. It recognizes the value of the work they do and warns us against antagonizing them based on aesthetic and vain differences and standards. It shows us that people who are harassed may eventually snap and that may result in massive losses to the society overall. Essential workers and those in blue-collar jobs are the first ones that spring to mind. Even though we treat them as too simplistic and look down on them, the laborers, the drivers and all workers whose skills and labour we often undermine and overlook, are vital to the smooth functioning of our social system.
However, at some point, the message and the presentation gets repetitive. We get to see countless such movies every year. It teaches us about morality and ethics. It sheds light on the people we marginalize. Be it Parasite or The Dam Keeper, we always hear about the downtrodden and their miseries.
What we never hear about are the ones abusing. What we do not think about is that moral lectures affect the abused and the abuser differently. Children who are bullied will seek solace in The Dam Keeper, they will look for a better understanding of their situation. What will the bullies learn though? Are people (or mini-people) who do not flinch when beating someone up for the fun of it, watch them victims cry, bleed and have panic attacks out of fear, really expected to watch a movie, go through some kind of enlightenment and have a sudden change of heart? I would be more inclined to be believe that a bully would sit through such a movie, consider it as torture and bully some more to take their frustrations out.
Such movies never show the existence of a protective system. Where are the parents? Where are the teachers? Where are the people who are supposed to protect children from abuse? What is the message for Pig? Don’t act out. Don’t always get offended. They might not be laughing at you, instead they might be laughing with you? Or is it “learn to take a joke?” The underlying message at some point seems to turn into victim blaming and becomes an attempt at gaslighting abused children.
This comes coupled with the movie’s description online. The Wikipedia article cites grassroot movement on social media as the main cause for the movie’s rise to fame. However, it doesn’t go beyond that. The critical reception for the movie has been filled with opinions from renowned critics. The target audience for this movie, the message it delivers and the purpose it serves in society are perhaps too complicated for children to recognize.