What They Say:
Budding genius Aoyama is only in the 4th grade, but already lives his life like a scientist. When penguins start appearing in his sleepy suburb hundreds of miles from the sea, Aoyama vows to solve the mystery. When he finds the source of the penguins is a woman from his dentist’s office, they team up for an unforgettable summer adventure!
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Penguin Highway is based on a novel by Tomihiko Morimi, a Japanese author who’s also written the original novels for The Tatami Galaxy and The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl. Unlike these two, both of which were directed by Masaki Yuasa at Madhouse and Science SARU, Penguin Highway is helmed by Hiroyasu Ishida at Studio Colorido, both relatively unknown names before now. It can hardly be said that the end result is lacking, though. Penguin Highway is a charming and surprisingly emotional coming of age story that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
Penguin Highway makes its main appeal clear from the start, with a fun scene of a penguin wandering through a town doing penguin-y things. It’s little more than an intro, but it instantly tells you how the rest of the film is going to feel. Light adventure with a hint of nostalgia for the wide-eyed curiosity of childhood is the name of the game here. Everything has a sense of wonder just behind it, like there’s always another answer to be had. Aoyama’s thirst for knowledge is something virtually anyone can relate to; who hasn’t been a kid who always wanted to know why things are the way they are and how even the most mundane of details works? Even something as small as following a stream to try and find the source is imbued with enough energy to make it feel like a huge adventure or a great treasure hunt. As the various supernatural phenomena start piling up, the intrigue also grows as the film continues to draw you in.
Aoyama is a perfect protagonist for this type of story-intelligent, methodical, curious, and somewhat arrogant. His ego just barely avoids being obnoxious, but is saved by the fact that the film is aware that he’s still just a 4th grader and treats him as such. The young woman, only referred to as “the Lady” (Onee-san in Japanese), is an excellent counterbalance to him, always willing accommodate his curiosity while also teasing him enough to deflate his ego when necessary. Their dynamic is always fun to watch (one scene with Aoyama tied to a vending machine is especially hilarious) and gives the film a lot of its charm.
Though the film’s sense of adventure continues throughout, the second half is far more serious than the first half. The stakes quickly rise as more and more supernatural phenomena start appearing, not all of which are as innocuous as a group of penguins showing up in a city. It clashes slightly with the lighter tone of the first half, but the film never completely abandons its sense of wonder, allowing its drama to grow without ever feeling disconnected. This could easily be seen as a metaphor for growing up, which Penguin Highway doesn’t necessarily treat as a bad thing. Instead, it encourages viewers to never let go of Aoyama’s thirst for knowledge and to always look at the future as a chance to grow and become even more than you are now. A simple message, true, but a poignant one none the less.
Though Studio Colorido is virtually unknown in the anime fandom, having only helmed a few short films that never made their way overseas, that doesn’t end up being a problem for Penguin Highway. The film is solidly animated all around, with particular attention paid to the way the penguins move and act. Every scene pops with energy and really drives home what makes Aoyama and his friends so eager to learn more about the world. It also gets more creative later on, particularly in a dream sequence painted in evocative watercolors that draw you into Aoyama’s fears about the future and what’s going on in his town. The final act even features some downright surreal imagery that almost feels like a strange dream. All in all, there’s nothing to complain about with Penguin Highway’s aesthetics.
I didn’t know what to expect from Penguin Highway coming in, and I was pleasantly surprised by what we got. Penguin Highway perfectly embodies the youthful feeling of curiosity about the world, that desire know everything there is to know. Kids will immediately relate to Aoyama, while older viewers will be charmed by the film’s whimsy and nostalgia for wide-eyed youth. Penguin Highway is a fun film all around, and one that I’d even recommend to non-anime fans. Is it perfect? No, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and leaves its audience thinking, which is more than enough for me to recommend it. If you have a chance to see Penguin Highway in theaters, you won’t regret checking it out!