JAPAN 2009 Directed by: Masahiko Tsugawa Written by: Yasuhiro Koshimizu, Masao Kosuge (novel) Produced by: Taiichi Inoue, Hisao Nabeshima, Tsuguhiko Kadokawa Cinematography: Katsuhiro Kato Cast: Toshiyuki Nishida, Yasuhi Nakamura, Ai Maeda, Keiko Horiguchi, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Takashi Sasano, Zen Kajiwara, Hisako Manda, Sansei Shiomi, Naomasa Musaka, Hiroyuki Nagato, Ittoku Kishibe, Akira Emoto, Naomasa Musaka, Zen Ishida, Taro Ishida, Houka Kinoshita, Akaji Maro
Surprises can come in many forms, but who would have thought that a movie about our furry friends (and their friends) could be any good. PENGUINS IN THE SKY however turns out to be more than just the semi-fictional answer to HAPPY FEET.
The story is based on a novel by Masao Kosuge that again is based on true events surrounding the Asahiyama zoo, Japan’s most northern zoo. Plagued by harsh winters, lack of visitors and money and strong competition from amusement parks the Asahiyama zoo is fighting for survival. While local politicians would like to see it closed rather sooner than later the zoo’s director and staff are dedicated to keep it running and are seeking for a breakthrough idea to get the zoo back on track.
One day the nerdy Yoshida applies for a job, any job, just so he can be with the zoo and its inhabitants: ever since his childhood Yoshida prefers animals over humans thanks to bullying classmates. The dedicated but naïve Yoshida works his way up and brings with him some fresh ideas and motivation to the ailing zoo.
Things get more desperate when a disease leads to the death of some animals and a local political reshuffle starts to increase the pressure on the zoo and its staff. But great solutions are often born in difficult circumstances, so they come up with a brand new idea called “behavioral exhibition” that makes all displays more interactive and attractive and finally they play their last trump card – Yoshida promises he can make the penguins fly and Asahiyama zoo the first zoo in the world to feature this never-before-seen attraction.
It’s not that PENGUINS IN THE SKY is reinventing the wheel, but its love for the subject, its honesty and subtle way make it a wonderful film about the ever more important conflict of culture vs. nature. By definition humans turn nature into culture (and in this sense there are no good or bad kinds of culture), leading to nature being forced to retreat into reservations for preservation. Today the movie is even more relevant than when it came out – zoos may seem a trivial matter or even a place that exploits animals for the sake of family entertainment, but after the BP oil spill disaster you might want to rethink the zoo as a place that is becoming ever more important while the destruction of the environment and its species continues to progress with no end in sight.
PENGUINS IN THE SKY hasn’t exactly set out to become eco-conscious cinema, but it succeeds in creating awareness through a simple provocative question: if you had to choose, would you prefer a zoo or instead a theme park in its place? Confronted with this dilemma we begin to reflect on what’s really important, without being forced or lectured. It’s an automatic process that also reminds us of a time when we treasured seeing real animals more than seeing a plastic mouse.
Even it may follow the Japanese blockbuster recipe a little PENGUINS IN THE SKY isn’t clinically designed as entertainment, but it’s a heartfelt story with just the right attitude and message. In other words, it’s a really good movie.