I love my job, but like any job, it’s sometimes tedious. And if you don’t believe that watching movies for a living could ever be tedious, remember that when you do it for a living, you don’t get to pick and choose which titles you watch. I’ve spent countless hours up close and personal with shows so appalling that it’s a crime against humanity to describe them as entertainment.
Every now and then, though, there’s a diamond in the dirt, a shining, perfect thing that makes the years of churning up mud worthwhile. In 1989, working through over 300 hours of video to devise the first anime programme at a British convention, I saw a film that changed my life: Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. I was so dazzled by its subtle simplicity, perfect artistry and sheer daring that I had to find out about the artist who made it.
Finding diamonds in the dirt has been my business ever since. Just a few weeks ago, I found another – Rintaro’s Yona Yona Penguin.
Yona Yona Penguin uses similar materials to Totoro: girl protagonists, secret worlds of childhood where myth and fantasy can walk the same path as the mundane, flight as metaphor and motif, inventive visuals, a wonderful score and a perfectly judged sense of pace and framing. But it takes more than a list of ingredients to make a good cake.
Magic in art isn’t just about pushing the right buttons. It’s created when artists make a leap of faith from their inmost honest hearts out into a strange universe. Their daring encourages their audience to jump with them, to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride like children at play. There’s magic in Yona Yona Penguin.
I’ve always admired Rintaro, whose long career mirrors the postwar anime industry, from celpaint to computers, from localised to globalised. His first job in animation was over half a century ago, on Legend of the White Serpent (Hakujaden,) the movie with which Toei Animation rehabilitated the Japanese animation industry in international eyes after its diversion into wartime propaganda. He was just seventeen when he started out as a lowly in-betweener, but with work on two more features under his belt he joined the new animation studio set up by comics superstar Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was in a hurry to make animation for TV, as fast and inventively as the American animation studios whose imports dominated Japan’s screens, and he believed in promoting talent. Rintaro made his directing debut in 1963, on the fourth episode of Astro Boy.
Since 1971 he’s been a freelance, working on TV series, straight-to-video titles and major movies with a host of big names. He gave fellow Tezuka fan and protege Katsuhiro Otomo his start in animation on Harmagedon (Genma Taisen) in 1983. In 2001 the pair came together again, Otomo on screenplay and Rintaro directing, to make Metropolis, their tribute to Tezuka.
Yona Yona Penguin is first and foremost a delightful film for children: but in the hands of an intelligent film-maker at the top of his game, a delightful film for children can speak to all the ages. Adults will note many similarities to Metropolis, especially in the use of vertical space and movement, the sense of enclosure and shadow as threat and prison, and the theme of the old and greedy perverting the boundless, unfocussed energy of youth for their own ends. The transitions between the film’s many levels are beautifully handled as Rintaro develops the story of heroine Koko’s journey towards herself. One early transition sequence is a stunning metaphor for modern childhood, a mad mix of commercialism and tradition, safety and danger, abundance and trashy excess. Koko lives in a world of magic, but it’s also the world of today.
The art direction and writing are joyously inventive, playing with references across the spectrum of Asian and Caucasian culture, from the seven Gods of Good Fortune to the hierarchy of the Heavenly Host, from Dante’s Inferno to the subtleties of Dali and Escher to baby-images in the style of Mabel Lucie Atwell or Anne Geddes. The Christian Heaven is coolly surreal, an overbearing, impressive high-concept hardland bathed in golden light, like the foyer of some deranged yet tasteful megalomaniac corporation more interested in preserving its brand image than getting its hands dirty in the realms below. The natural world and the hordes of Hell are given the same level of attention, with Disney references and a nod to The Peanuts among many playful echoes and inventions. The heroine’s hometown is sheer delight. Like the town in Gisaburo Sugii’s Night on the Galactic Railroad (Ginga Tetsudo no Yori) or the world of Rintaro’s segment in Neo-Tokyo (Manie Manie Meikyu Monogatari) it is seen in darkness, emphasising its fantastical architecture and the potential danger of its magic.
The film is a co-production with French company Denis Friedman Productions, previously known at home for work on Asterix. French-Japanese co-productions have a long and honourable history including shows like Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities of Gold (Taiyo no Ko Esteban.) Madhouse worked on the animation, and the characters are by Katsuya Terada, self-styled “Rakugaking” whose other credits include monsters for Godzilla: Final Wars and videogame work. Screenwriter Tomoko Konparu, whose credits range from the surreal worlds of Urusei Yatsura and Hello Kitty to Master Keaton, does a fine job as usual. But in the end it’s the director who ties all the strands together and either sends the kite soaring or weighs it down. Yona Yona Penguin soars.
It’s beautifully crafted, warmly humane and generous to all its characters. It has the courage to see the world at a child’s eye-level and move at a child’s pace. It explicitly recognises the real villain of every piece, the one all the guys in black hats stand in for, the gunman no-one can outdraw. Alice Walker’s beautiful novel Possessing the Secret of Joy proposes that “resistance is the secret of joy”. Rintaro’s beautiful film, made from a child’s perspective, tells us that acceptance is the secret of joy – not a passive acceptance, but an open, dynamic response to the potential for good in every person, the possibilities in every situation, the magic at the heart of the world.
Yona Yona Penguin is, in short, a wonderful film, far ahead of any other children’s anime in its year. For me, it even edges out the superb Mai Mai Miracle. Sunao Katabuchi’s film was marred here and there by abrupt editing; Rintaro’s flows like warm honey. Take the first chance you get to see it in a cinema, and let its magic take you flying.