Penguin’s Memory: Shiawase Monogatari (1985)

Rating: C-

Dir: Shinji Kimura
Star (voice): Kôichi Satô, Hiromi Tsuru, Kêshî Takamine, Eiji Okuda

Mike (Satô) returns home from his experiences in jungle warfare, indelibly changed by the horrors he witnessed. He’s unable to fit in any longer with his friends and family, so he leaves them behind, moving to another town and getting work in the library there, fuelled by his love of poetry. There, he meets and falls for Jill (Tsuru), a local girl with dreams of becoming a singer. However, there are problems, in that there’s a competitor for her affections in Jack (Okuda), a local doctor with much better prospects than Mike. Jill’s ambitions can also only be fulfilled in the big city, and her producer Bob Adams (Takamine) tries to separate her from Mike so he can cash in on his rising star. Mike is about to learn that running away from PTSD is not a solution to it.

Oh, yeah. In case you hadn’t noticed the header image, all the characters here are animated penguins. And, just to add to the weirdness, Mike and Jill were originally mascots for Suntory Beer. Their story was told through a series of commercials in the mid-eighties, and the popularity of the pair spawned the animated feature, which reuses some of the songs from the advertising campaign and gives the two characters a back-story. It’s an utterly bizarre, and arguably tasteless, concept: And, yet… It’s all done with such earnestness, the makers almost pull it off.

The use of animals to tell serious stories is hardly new, of course. Things like George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Art Spiegelman’s Maus show it is possible. Those weren’t created originally to sell beer though. Imagine if someone had made a movie about the Budweiser frogs, in which one of them has to handle schizophrenia. That’s basically the arena in which this operates. Even entirely divorced from that campaign, there’s still something off about the execution here, with the cuteness inevitably interfering with, and getting in the way of, an obviously heartfelt message. Perhaps too heartfelt, since it skews too hard towards bad soap-opera in elements. Jill’s singing career is the worst culprit, diverting energy from Mike’s story (her singing voice was provided by famous idol, Seiko Matsuda).

It’s also too restrained in its depiction of the hero’s PTSD, which never seems to manifest itself in anything more traumatic than an unwillingness to settle down and commit. There is some power in sequences, such as his wandering from place to place. His tending for an injured bird is also a clear metaphor for his own trauma, though I kept wondering about the moral question of penguin Mike keeping another bird as a pet… It’s certainly more dramatically honest than I expected; on the other hand, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Meet the Feebles with penguins, perhaps, and that would explains my sense of vague disappointment. I wouldn’t have bothered with this, without the flightless avians, and though I respect the ambitious reach here, it feels like a swing and a miss.