Random Blu-ray Review: Penguin Highway Collector’s Edition

DoctorKev
DoctorKev
Jan 30 · 6 min read
Image for post
Image for post

Some of the very best movies leave behind a sense of aching melancholy, an intangible feeling that persists long after the end credits roll. 2018's Penguin Highway is one such film — an aquatic story that effortlessly outmatches the similarly themed anime Children of the Sea. As the perfectly matched closing song “Good Day” tugged at my heartstrings, I immediately felt drawn to rewind to the strange, surreal and whimsical scenes conjured by original novel author Tomihiko Morimi (The Tatami Galaxy, Night is Short, Walk on Girl and The Eccentric Family) and expertly adapted by first-time feature director Hiroyasu Ishida. This is also Studio Colorido’s (A Whisper Away, Burn the Witch) first feature, and based on the strengths of this effort they’re certainly a studio to watch in future.

Image for post
Image for post
Aoyama and Hamamoto — junior scientists investigate

I approached this film completely ignorant, knowing only it featured penguins, suspecting it would probably be surreal. The penguins themselves are very cute, but are merely a plot device rather than the true focus — instead, this is a coming-of-age story featuring Japanese 4th-grader Aoyama, a rather unusual boy. Like his intellectual father, Aoyama’s decisions are driven by the scientific method — he’s smart and studious, with an unquenchable curiosity about the world. He’s comparatively emotionally immature, however, and despite his claims not to have an overly high opinion of himself, his monologue proves otherwise. As the narrator of the movie, his somewhat off-putting personality may be a deal-breaker for some viewers. His haughty attitude frequently gets him into trouble with the class bullies.

Image for post
Image for post
If Aoyama could learn to shut the hell up, he probably wouldn’t get into these kind of scrapes

In the English dub, Aoyama and his best friend’s roles are both performed by child actors who certainly sound the part — and although their delivery tends to be a little stiff, it does fit in well with the setting of children attempting to navigate situations they are ill-equipped to manage. As I watched this with my 9-year-old son, we did not try the original Japanese language option. As a children’s film… it’s a bit slow. It was a struggle to hold my son’s attention for the first half of this two-hour movie. With a significant slice-of-life aspect, Penguin Highway hardly gets off to a raring start, though the cute penguins themselves are introduced early before almost entirely disappearing for much of the runtime. The final section of the film ramps up the pace and surreal imagery to the point my son giggled with excitement at the funny penguins and their bizarre actions.

Image for post
Image for post
The Lady, Aoyama and an army of penguins. My son adored this part

As you may have guessed, it’s a little difficult to distill this film’s plot coherently. Aoyama finds his interest piqued by the random manifestations of multitudes of penguins in his neighbourhood and starts investigating their mysterious appearances and disappearances. He’s also fascinated by a young woman who works at the local dental surgery, who also teaches him to play chess. She’s never named — he calls her “The Lady” (Onee-san in the subtitles) and she refers to him only by “Young Man”. It’s clear that Aoyama has developed a sweet boyhood crush on her — it’s not portrayed as anything remotely sexual, though he does note a strange fascination with her breasts and comments that looking at them makes him feel different compared to when he observes his mother’s. Aoyama ignores girls his own age because he wants to marry this woman once he becomes an adult… in 3,888 days (he’s counting).

Image for post
Image for post
Ooooh, look at the pretty colours. That’s the shiniest spacetime anomaly I’ve seen for a while.

Aoyama seems to begrudge his childhood and wishes to grow older and gain more knowledge in order to become “an exceptional person” that will be worthy of her. Hamamoto, a similarly intellectually gifted girl in his class clearly has a crush on Aoyama, but he sees her only as a friend and fellow researcher, which leads to some emotional conflict later on. He barely seems to register her interest. Hamamoto discovers a bizarre levitating spherical watery anomaly near the local forest that she dubs “The Ocean”, and Aoyama and Hamamoto along with his friend Uchida begin methodically investigating it and its links to the intermittently manifesting penguins. Their evidence leads to Aoyama’s mysterious Lady, who holds more than a few secrets of her own.

Image for post
Image for post
So many penguins

To attempt to detail the plot further would rob Penguin Highway of the many delightfully surreal surprises and imaginative imagery that are best experienced unspoiled. The story’s child’s-eye-view lends an air of mystery and wonder that eventually swirls into a stunningly-realised apocalyptic storm that evokes not only certain aspects of Children of the Sea (a movie also related from a child’s POV, covering similar issues with emotional development and also with its own bonkers ending) but also a less nihilistic End of Evangelion. As with the best, most meaningful fairytales, the characters must pay a cost for a happy ending, hence the lingering tone of melancholy enhanced by the beautiful ending song. This film seems all the more meaningful for it, more profound than any saccharine Disney children’s movie despite the weird imagery of the finale’s glitched reality pulling an already strange film far from storytelling’s mainstream.

Image for post
Image for post
It all goes a bit inception-y towards the end

Penguin Highway rewards the patient, empathetic viewer with a beautiful journey through a whimsical world of magical realism — it’s best not to think too closely about any of the underpinning dream-world logic. Although the original novel won national Science Fiction awards, the only thing scientific about it is the main character’s mindset and methods. This is pure, penguin-filled contemporary fantasy and is the kind of gorgeous, colourful confection that provides perfect distraction and comfort during these dark, troubled days.

Image for post
Image for post
Only 1100 sets were produced, though at time of writing some are still available to buy

Penguin Highway Collector’s Edition Blu-ray
Directed by: Hiroyasu Ishida
Production: Studio Colorido
Written by: Makoto Ueda
Music by: Umitarō Abe
Based on the novel by: Tomihiko Morimi
UK Release Date: 09/03/2020
BBFC Cert: PG
Format: Blu-ray + DVD
Region: B | 2
Audio: English, Japanese
Subtitles: English
Runtime: 118 minutes
Distributor: Anime Limited
Original Japanese Cinematic Release: August 17th, 2018

This ending song fits the mood so well

You’re reading AniTAY, a reader-run blog whose writers love everything anime related. To join in on the fun, check out our website, visit our official subreddit, follow us on Twitter, or give us a like on our Facebook page.

AniTAY-Official

Everything Anime and Beyond

DoctorKev

Written by

DoctorKev

Physician. Obsessed with anime, manga, comic-books. Husband and father. Christian. Fascinated by tensions between modern culture and traditional faith. Bit odd.

AniTAY-Official

A Community Blog dedicated to East Asian Culture

DoctorKev

Written by

DoctorKev

Physician. Obsessed with anime, manga, comic-books. Husband and father. Christian. Fascinated by tensions between modern culture and traditional faith. Bit odd.

AniTAY-Official

A Community Blog dedicated to East Asian Culture

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store