Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Penguin's Memories

The cover show cuddly blue penguins. It looks like a children's movie. But it's not.

A Penguin's Memories is a strange bird indeed, a parable of war and its aftermath, using anthropomorphized penguins as characters. It tells the story of Mike, an ordinary guy from a small town. During the "Delta War" (i.e., Vietnam), he's injured and his two best friends are killed, in a confusing running battle that has no context and no meaning. Unable to cope with the gung-ho patriotism of his family and the small town he came from, he runs away and becomes a drifter. Eventually, he washes up in Lake City, an idyllic community where no one knows him. He takes a job as a librarian, meets Jill, an aspiring singer, and tries to build a new life. But neither the world nor the war will let go of him.

A Penguin's Memories is almost unknown in the West. It has never been released on DVD or Blu-Ray and has never been translated before. The contrast between character design and content can repel some viewers. As Mike Toole commented in his review,
In 1984, SUNTORY started rolling out a series of amusing TV commercials to help sell their beer to the public. The commercials were fanciful little vignettes depicting a pair of cartoon penguins out on a date. The campaign was a hit, so the following year, the liquor and beverage company produced a thinly-veiled version of The Deer Hunter, only starring those same adorable puffy penguins. This means that we see funny little penguins traumatized in Vietnam, funny little penguins returning home with terrible PTSD, and funny little penguins struggling to re-integrate with society and reconnect with old friends. You sometimes see Penguin Memories tossed onto lists of bad anime, because the way its premise clashes with its visuals is just that shocking. The movie is unmistakably, disconcertingly weird, but it's not actually bad at all. It's technically sound, with a good story and sympathetic characters. They just happen to be wacky-looking little cartoon penguins. Penguin Memories might not be a movie worth seeing for strictly the best reasons, but it's worth seeing nonetheless, an absolutely unmissable movie.
(The SUNTORY commercials can be found on YouTube, by the way.)

Now, this review is a bit exaggerated. Although A Penguin's Memories is clearly set in the United States and deals with the aftermath of a war that's clearly Vietnam, it's no Deer Hunter. (It is subtitled A Tale of Happiness, after all.) In fact, except for the opening battle sequence and the climactic confrontation, it's a quiet story about the ongoing struggle of a damaged ex-soldier to find his footing in civilian life again. The use of penguins rather than people helps to keep the viewer at a distance: the beaked faces can show little emotion, and the voice actors deliberately underplay their roles. Thus, Mike's closed-off emotional life is conveyed both visually and vocally.

The background music is spare and effective, often riffing on a sad harmonica tune Mike plays in the opening sequence. I particularly like how music is used in the wordless montage of Mike's aimless drift across the country. In contrast, Jill's songs are traditional pop, ranging from children's songs to love ballads.

This release has a complicated history. Iri, the translator, had been monitoring Japanese auction sites for rare shows from the 80s and 90s. (He's still looking for Laserdiscs of Kasei Yakyoku.) He bought A Penguin's Memories and a bunch of others and had them shipped to Skr, a team member in Japan. Skr packaged them up and sent them to Orphan's Laserdisc ripper, Erik of Piyo Piyo Productions. Erik in turn encoded the raw we're using. Iri then translated the show, Eternal_Blizzard timed and styled it, I edited it and added the credits, and Calyrica and Nemesis did QC. The result is the first English release ever of A Penguin's Memories. Eventually, there may be other releases from this batch of Laserdiscs, but one never knows... do one?

The release is letter-boxed the old-fashioned way, with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. Accordingly,I've allowed long subtitles to meander closer to the edges of the screen than normal. This means most subtitles are a single line, and they display in the black bar at the bottom of the screen without obstructing the video.

Sato Koichi, who played Mike, has no other credits as a voice actor; it is impossible to trace his career. On the other hand, Tsuru Hiromi, who played Jill, has an extensive resume, including Perrine in Perrine Monogatari and Kajima Miyuki in Miyuki. She also had featured roles in Sanctuary and Tomoe ga Yuku, both subbed by Orphan. The director, Kimura Shunji, has no other listed credits. The music director, Matsutouya Masataka, has few credits as well. A Penguin's Memories is an outlier in almost every respect.

Orphan is really proud to release this relatively unknown movie for an English-speaking audience.


  1. It seems weird to me to bring up Tsuru Hiromi by mentioning some of her more minor roles and not noting that she played the beloved Madoka Ayukawa in Kimagure Orange Road!

    1. I know it's an unforgivable oversight in my anime education, but I've never watched Kimagure Orange Road. I worked on the four series I mentioned, and that's where I know Tsuru Hiromi from...

  2. I've heard of this but never expected to see it with good subs. Thanks mate. ᕳ ✧ ‿‿ ✧ ᕲ

  3. The opening scene has a lot of banding. Any chance for a re-encode?

    1. Not from Orphan. PPP released a high bit-rate DVD as part of the raw torrent, so feel free to try for something better yourself.

    2. thanks for replying, and thanks for doing what you do!