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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
Runtime: 118 minutes
Distributor: Anime Limited
Original Japanese Cinematic Release: August 17th, 2018
Random Blu-ray Review: Princess Arete
Another lucky haul from my local secondhand store’s anime shelf, Princess Arete is a relatively obscure anime movie I…
Random DVD Review: A Letter to Momo
Part of a bundle of cheap DVDs from my local HMV store, I chose Momo as the first of them to watch (and also as it was…