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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

11:39:00 pm , 3156 words, 8855 views     Categories: Movie

Penguin's Memory

Under the Mirabeau Bridge runs the Seine
And our love
I must bring to mind once again
That joy always came after pain
 —Guillaume Apollinaire, 1912

A penetrating examination of the impact of the Vietnam war on American soldiers who returned home and were forced to face the demons of their wartime experience alone, to the anguish of their loved ones, who were reunited with their sons physically only to watch them slip away in spirit. Would you believe this synopsis describes a film about cartoon penguins? For such are the mysteries of Japanese animation, which in 1985 gave birth to the conundrum that is Penguin's Memory. (watch)

This film is one of the mysteries of anime. On the surface, it depicts cute anthropomorphic penguins going through some kind of drama in some kind of generic country town. Think Maple Town. If you watched the film without understanding the dialogue, you could be forgiven for believing it to be a film for children. And you would not be entirely mistaken. But beneath the cutesy penguins and the occasional random song and dance number lies a story that seems flagrantly inappropriate for a children's film.

Penguin's Memory is essentially The Deer Hunter via Sanrio. The Deer Hunter is the film's obvious influence in many ways, not least the basic story about three buddies from small-town America who ship off to Vietnam, only one of whom returns with scars more emotional than physical. (The Delta War in this movie is clearly a stand-in for the Vietnam War.) The protagonist is named Mike. He watches his buddy fall to his death after the two of them grabbed hold of the skids of a helicopter in the midst of battle. He returns home only to shy away from the unwelcome attention of his family. Many other parts of the script have obviously been created for the film, but The Deer Hunter clearly provided the skeleton and the spirit for the journey of this film's protagonist.

At first it is quite confusing to watch the cartoon penguins and slowly realize that the story is in fact deadly serious in intent. It's a feeling remotely akin to that watching a film like When the Wind Blow, in which cartoonish visuals belie a deadly serious message. A more appropriate analogy might be Night on the Galactic Railroad, in which cartoon cats were used to tell a story with complex spiritual and philosophical undertones. They look like children's films, but are far more than that. I think this is the case with Penguin's Memory. The main problem is that in the case of Penguin's Memory the artistry is frankly not up to the level of the material. The cartoon penguins initially seem a baffling visual choice to tell such a story, and that feeling never goes away. There is no sync between the artistry and the narrative. The penguins are nothing more than symbols for humans, no doubt partially to sidestep the challenges inherent in portraying (and animating) humans acting out such a challenging script. The penguin designs are completely arbitrary. The film is essentially a live-action film with cartoon penguins overlaid over the humans.

How did such a film come about? The basic details are clear, although they do little to belay the radiant bizarreness of the final product. It all started with a series of 30-second animated TV ads for Suntory beer, depicting a cute cartoon penguin who each time invariably sheds a tear after reminiscing of lost love watching a girl penguin with a flower bow (watch), or being brought a beer by the girl penguin with the flower bow after losing a boxing match (watch), or some variation thereof. One of these ads featured the boy penguin watching the girl penguin with the flower bow singing a song in a dimly lit jazz bar. (watch) This particular ad may have provided the seed for the movie.

The Japanese love using cute cartoon characters to sell anything and everything, apparently including alcoholic beverages. The ads were such a success for Suntory that they decided to make a movie out of the series. Seems like a great idea, right? A beer company wants a cartoon movie about penguins, so obviously it has to be for adults, but kids still need to be able to watch it. What could possibly go wrong? I don't know the particulars of how the movie was conceived, but presumably what happened is that they decided to flesh out the short set in the bar by giving the boy and girl penguin a back story. The scene with the girl singing in the bar makes an appearance at the halfway point in the movie (watch).

So essentially a movie was constructed around this short ad, by coming up with a story to explain how the boy and girl got into that particular situation. The boy was turned into a Vietnam vet who returned home, but left his hometown for a small town to get away from everyone he knew and live life in peace. He went to work at a library and met a girl named Jill who turns out to be an aspiring singer. She wants to move to the big city with Mike to pursue a career as a singer, but Mike wants nothing of it and tries to leave Jill. The second half of the film deals with the conflict of their romance, which involves a jealous fiance who is a skilled surgeon and a greedy promoter who has a lot of money invested in Jill. Jill's story was obviously concocted to play into the popularity of the song in the CM by the then-rising idol singer Seiko Matsuda.

Thus, rather than a cohesive concept, the film is a Frankenstein's monster of various disparate forces: cartoon penguins shoehorned into a rudimentary Deer Hunter story with a tacked on idol singer plot, coerced at gunpoint into an animated film by a beer company. Meanwhile, the film is crippled by its attempt to reconcile its dual impulse as a child-friendly story for adults, unable to fully invest itself in either. The film entirely lacks the Russian roulette metaphor and other elements that made The Deer Hunter work as a film, borrowing casually without much thought to thematic integrity. This flattened visual and moral world assumes an audience that will not be thrown out of the narrative zone by penguin dance sequences, habituated as they are to seeing animated penguins selling beer. For the rest of us, it's just an improbable mish-mash.

Then there is the title. What devious mind named the film? The film's full title is: Penguin's Memory: A Story of Happiness. This is obviously dark irony. This Story of Happiness is one of the most deeply unhappy animated films ever made, pre-dating Todd Solondz's Happiness by 13 years. Audiences lured by this deceptive subtitle must have assumed they were to see a light-hearted romp in the spirit of the harmless, adorable ads, but were greeted instead by a dark, nuanced meditation about one veteran's struggle to re-gain happiness. This is not a happy film; it's a film about happiness. This film takes place during the dark night of the soul before happiness is, perhaps, eventually found. It is in this spirit that the film at one point quotes the Apollinaire poem "Mirabeau Bridge".

There are three people credited with the script, one director, and one "animation kantoku" or animation director (not to be confused with "sakuga kantoku", which the film also has). Clearly it must have been one of these people who made the decision to borrow heavily from The Deer Hunter and otherwise go in this daring direction with the film. While obviously derivative and watered down, it is nonetheless pleasant to see such hard-hitting material in anime, and I would like to see more like it. But the idea to do such material came from people who don't work in the industry. I suspect the main brains behind the film were the same people behind the ads.

The director of the film is one Shunji Kimura, director of the penguin Suntory beer ad campaign, about whom it is difficult to find much information, despite the fact that he has directed no less than 800 television ads over the course of a 30-some-year career. I assume the writers worked in advertising as well, as it is impossible to find almost any information about them. Funny how easy it is to find info about anime staff, yet how impossible it is to find any info about advertising staff. Yet again, it's a case of outsiders bringing fresh storytelling ideas into commercial animation. A number of films were directed or written by outsiders like this around the period of the late 1970s/early 1980s.

The "animation kantoku" meanwhile is Studio Junio's Akinori Nagaoka (Anpanman, Diary of Anne Frank, Tetsuko no Tabi). Junio head Takao Kosai is also present, but I'm not sure if the production was spearheaded by Junio or was more of a collaborative effort, as the only studio credited is Animation Staff Room, and the film gathers animators and staff from diverse studios, with notable names including Yoshiyuki Momose, Yoshinori Kanemori, Megumi Kagawa, Toyoaki Emura, Yusaku Yamamoto, Masami Suda, Sachiko Kamimura and Yoichi Kotabe. Yasunori Miyazawa can be seen as an inbetweener.

I'm fascinated by films like this in which there is overweening ambition that fails to coalesce. There are elements of genius, but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The story is one that is genuinely moving and compelling, and is actually surprisingly sensitively told by the script and the directing, but the necessary nuance feels blunted by the childish drawings rather than assisted, as it were, by the distancing patina of animation, as is the case in analogues like Night on the Galactic Railroad.

Anthropomorphic anime were nothing unusual at the time, and I myself never bothered to look into this obscure film until Bahi pointed it out to me just recently, because I fully expected to find nothing more than another Hello Kitty or Maple Town story about cuddly animals engaged in adorable antics. But the opener of Penguin's Memory dispels that notion immediately: You are plunged headlong into a Vietnam battle straight out of Platoon.

At first I took the scene for some kind of a parody, expecting the scene to shift at any moment back to the lighthearted real world of the anthropomorphic penguins, whatever that might be. But that shift never occurs. After the battle sequence, the same story grinds on, chronicling in depressing, painstaking detail the soldier's homecoming and attendant feelings of estrangement from the peaceful world that greets him on his return. A brief synopsis will indicate the level of attention to detail that makes the scene somewhat remarkable for its careful directing.

A lone harmonica sings plaintively over the opening credits, creating a deceptively peaceful mood. The screen fades slowly in from black, revealing the outlines of several Iroquois helicopters flying through the pitch black night. The peaceful mood is shattered as they launch their rockets onto the dark landscape, and unscathed enemy forces on the ground immediately respond with a spray of tracer bullets. On the ground, meanwhile, behind the cover of trees in the jungle, three soldier penguins fire towards an unseen enemy. Al is the burly penguin firing an M60 (favorite of Rambo and Heisenberg), Tom is the scrawny penguin with glasses, and Mike is the hero of the story. First one of the helicopters is hit by a rocket, and next Mike gets thrown in the river by the explosion of a rocket. Mike runs to his aid as Al covers him. The battle ends in stalemate as the helis retreat, and the three soldiers make camp to take care of Tom's wounds.

That night, Mike tends to Tom's bandages around a campfire when Al returns from a reconnaissance mission. As they sit talking around the campfire, we learn that the three are buddies who hail from the same small town, and they hope to start up a business when they get back home. Al jokes that he's got a busty blonde waiting for him when he gets back, but she just doesn't know he exists yet. Mike always carries with him a book of poems by his favorite poet, Randall James, and Al ribs him for it: "How can you read a book at a time like this, with bullets flying everywhere?" "That's exactly why I need it." "I don't get it. Are you going to hide behind that book when a bullet comes flying at your head?" Mike is too busy reading to respond.

The next morning, the three trudge their way warily through the jungle when they encounter a train of refugees, including women and children. Allied helis show up and, to Mike's horror, begin firing on the refugees, presumably assuming them to be Vietcong. Mike runs out and is injured, and Tom runs out to save Mike only to be fatally shot. Mike attempts to revive Tom while Al covers the two. As the enemy encroaches, the heli comes in to pick them up, and Al forces Mike onto the heli's skids, although not before Mike is able to grab Tom's harmonica. Almost on their way to freedom, a rocket hits one of the helis, and the blast causes Al to lose his grip and fall to his death. Mike can do nothing but watch.

The opening scene is exemplary of the film's assiduous 'realism-apart-from-the-penguins' approach. Every little detail of the Vietnam-era paraphernalia is meticulously accurate, from the Iroquois helis to the M1 helmets to the M1910 water bottles to the M60 machine gun to the M16 rifle. Even the flak jacket identifies the characters as Marines. This is a scene that, except for the penguins, could have played out in Platoon. Perhaps the true nature of the war came to light in the intervening years, as instead of NVA killing civilians as in The Deer Hunter, it's the Americans killing civilians that trips Mike's outrage.

One of my favorite parts in the film is the 5-minute wordless montage sequence of Mike wandering the countryside after leaving his home in the dead of the night. (watch) It's a beautiful visual storytelling scene by any measure, showcasing the film's tasteful and subdued sense of realistic filmmaking. The countryside is believably American and rural, with its wheat fields, barns, dirt roads, beat-up Ford trucks, lonely gas stations, and picturesque lines of mailboxes. After some wandering, eventually, to the strains of a jazzy harmonica, he wanders into a mid-century town whose neon signs, gruff industrial sector and steel girder underpasses believably convey a small American working class town. A street boxing den meanwhile reminds of the parts of Ashita no Joe where the downtrodden Joe lets himself be beaten, but also of the gambling den of The Deer Hunter.

The meeting between Mike and Jill symbolically occurs in the library where Mike has taken refuge. As during the war, when the book of poems by his favorite poet offered him refuge, so now the monastery silence of the library offers him refuge. She comes seeking a book of poetry by Apollinaire, a French poet who fought in World War I. She begins reciting Mirabeau Bridge, only to have Mike finish it for her. The book Mike reads is by one Randall James, but the title of his book "Ma Boheme" indicates that this is really Rimbaud, an earlier French poet. For some reason they changed the name to a more American sounding name, perhaps because it doesn't make sense for a lower class American boy with no education to be reading Rimbaud.

After Mike meets Jill, the story settles into romantic mode for a while as Mike and Jill go on dates and get to know each other. Mike saves an injured bird, and light begins to trickle into his closed heart. We discover that Jill is in fact engaged to a skilled surgeon at her father's hospital, but the surgeon is having affair with a nurse. In one scene, the jealous but two-timing surgeon phones Jill from his bedroom with his mistress in his bed behind him. The film can be quite adult in its understanding of affairs of the heart. He seems like a scumbag at first, but the film satisfyingly avoids pinning the crux of the drama on a simplistic arch-rival setup when the surgeon eventually admits that he has the mistress and 'gives' Jill to Mike.

The story then boils down to the question of what Jill and Mike truly want: Does Mike really want Jill? Still emotionally blunted, he reject her offer of redemption for the comfort of solitude. What about Jill? Jill is forced to sacrifice her ambitions for Mike, and this may be the key to saving Mike. When the promoter learns that Jill wants to abandon her career, he brings his thugs to convince Mike to make her change her mind. In the ensuing scuffle, they kill his bird, causing a dam to finally bursts in Mike. He erupts in violence, almost killing the promoter in a fit of blind rage. Mike is sentenced to 3 years probation for the crime, which signals both his low point and his emotional breakthrough.

The story is surprisingly delicate and genuinely moving in the second half with this setup and climax, and makes me wish that all of this were not marred by the visuals, which will prevent most people from appreciating a good, approachable story. Mike parts ways with Jill in a moving letter that reads in part: "My dear Jill, I'm sorry it came to this. I can never repay you for all you've done for me. You opened my heart and made me realize all the things that I've held inside. Maybe I've taken life too much for granted. I'm probably just a weak guy who lost his fight with a monster called war. But I wonder if there's really anybody who wins in a war."

For all that's odd and wrong about the film, it got a lot of things right, and represents a rare kind of humane, real-life based storytelling that I wish we could see more in anime.


Penguin's Memory: A Story of Happiness ペンギンズメモリー 幸福物語
(movie, 1985, 101 mins, Animation Staff Room)

Animation Producer:香西隆男Takao Kosai
Director ("Kantoku"):木村俊士Shunji Kimura
"Animation Kantoku":永丘昭典Akinori Nagaoka
Storyboard:永丘昭典
福富博
今沢哲男
森脇真琴
ひこねのりお
Akinori Nagaoka
Hiroshi Fukutomi
Tetsuo Imazawa
Makoto Moriwaki
Norio Hikone
Art Director:高野正道Masamichi Takano
Supervisor & Original Character Design:ひこねのりおNorio Hikone
Character Design & Sakkan:鈴木欽一郎
兼森義則
Kinichiro Suzuki
Yoshinori Kanemori
Asst Sakkan:平田かほる
賀川愛
Kaoru Hirata
Megumi Kagawa
Key animation:小田部洋一Yoichi Kotabe
山本福雄Fukuo Yamamoto
伊東誠Makoto Ito
星野絵美Emi Hoshino
北島信幸Nobuyuki Kitajima
富沢和雄Kazuo Tomizawa
須田正己Masami Suda
青嶋克己Katsumi Aoshima
百瀬義行Yoshiyuki Momose
坂本雄作Yusaku Sakamoto
木下ゆうきYuuki Kinoshita
松田?之_yuki Matsuda
槌田幸一Koichi Tsuchida
鳥居愛緒Ao Torii
椙目八男Hachio Suginome
河村信道Nobumichi Kawamura
兵頭敬Kei Hyodo
平田かほるKaoru Hirata
古川達也Tatsuya Furukawa
賀川愛Megumi Kagawa
小山善考Yoshitaka Koyama
西山里枝Rie Nishiyama
高橋明信Akinobu Takahashi
神村幸子Sachiko Kamimura
川越洋Hiroshi Kawagoe
江村豊秋Toyoaki Emura
荒牧園美Sonomi Aramaki
辻村武Takeshi Tsujimura
梅津美幸Miyuki Umetsu
なかじまちゅうじChuji Nakajima
小堤一明Kazuaki Kozutsumi
向中野義雄Yoshio Mukainakano
高木美和子Miwako Takagi
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2 comments

pete
pete [Visitor]

Nice review Ben. I think this short film must also have had some sort of influence. I wanted to see it for ages, but only recently was it uploaded. Made in 1969 btw:

Mickey Mouse in Vietnam

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uaaO57dTbg

11/06/13 @ 05:10
Ben [Member]  

Thanks, Pete. I don’t know if it had any influence, but it’s an amusing anti-war piece.

11/16/13 @ 15:01