Penguin Highway (Pengin haiwei)

Japan (2018) Dir. Hiroyasu Ishida

Unless they are seen at the zoo in their bespoke enclosures, penguins will most likely be found in the Antarctic. Therefore, one wouldn’t expect to see a waddle of this aquatic flightless birds running along the street in rural Japan during the summer but in anime, stranger things have happened…

Aoyama is a precocious 10 year-old boy approaching life by recording daily experiences in a notebook. One day, penguins appear in his hometown situated far from the sea, which then run off and disappear into the forest. Meanwhile, a young woman who works at the dentist that Aoyama has a crush on, finds Aoyama after he has been tied up by class bully Suzuki.

To distract Aoyama whilst removing a loose tooth, the lady throws a coke can into the air which transforms into a penguin. Later on, a creature called a Jaberwock appears and eats the penguins. Naturally intrigued by this, Aoyama and his friend Uchida decide to investigate this phenomenon, joined by classmate and researcher’s daughter Hamamoto, who has found a huge levitating sphere of water beyond the forest.

Based on the sci-fi fantasy novel by Tomihiko Morimi, Penguin Highway offers another surreal take on the coming-of-age journey as only the Japanese can do, but compared to Morimi’s other works, such as The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, this is a more accessible and less obtuse entry, despite its offbeat premise Whether this is down to director Hiroyasu Ishida not being as bonkers as Masaaki Yuasa or if Morimi’s text is deliberately toned down I can’t say.

Not that it should matter as this has plenty of quirky charm and superb visuals in its own right in bringing Morimi’s story to life. The titular Penguin Highway is the single path the penguins take to return to the water, as divined by Aoyama, having studied their retreat from the public through the forest and out of sight. Early suspicions are this will end up a metaphor of some sorts, due to Aoyama’s young age, but the script isn’t so obvious in this respect, which makes a change.

Instead, the focus is on the relationship between Aoyama and the lady (she is never named and she always calls Aoyama “young man”), who appears to be the central hub for this unexplained avian activity. Unfortunately, she doesn’t understand it herself and hopes super smart Aoyama will figure it out for her, which he plans to do anyway – at least he would if Suzuki and the authorities stay out of his way.

For a 10 year-old, Aoyama is a ridiculously self-assured prodigy of science and logic, spurred on by his father, something he shares with chess master Hamamoto. The lady is teaching Aoyama chess so he can be the first person to defeat Hamamoto but he keeps being distracted by her ample chest, a plot point that seems ostensibly gratuitous yet serves to remind us Aoyama is still a child and that even logic can’t explain why he is drawn to them.

However, there are more pressing matters at hand. How is the lady able to make objects turn into penguins and where do the Jaberwock come from? What is the huge watery sphere in the forest? Is it sentient and why is it absorbing everything? Aoyama knows there is a link between all of this and the lady and tries to keep her out of the picture to protect her, but Hamamoto insists all recordings and findings must be shared, causing friction between the two.

Uchida finds a penguin, which he names Penta, and he and Aoyama try to take it to the sea but its health deteriorates on the journey, and when let out of its carry case, Penta dissolves in the sun and returns to being a coke can. With all of this being relative to the fluctuating health of the lady and the expansion of the sphere, named The Ocean, the mystery deepens and Aoyama pushes his inquisitive, scientific mind – and body – to the limit in solving it.

Since this is anime, the explanation – or rather the hypotheses Aoyama needs to confirm – is naturally scientific mumbo jumbo with a touch of existentialist fantasy to provide us with enough of a conclusion albeit a slightly anti-climactic one. The crux of it is really the emotional bond between Aoyama and the lady, which plays out how you might expect it to, offering a touching consolation in lieu of the paucity of explosive action that preceded it.

But, lingering questions remain unanswered, though these are largely superficial ones pertaining to the advanced intelligence of the young cast. It is established straight away that Aoyama is a rare progeny but this is presented to us without context or exposition, much like Hamamoto, other than her father is a scientific researcher. Then there is the lady and how she fulfils a role that reads as a physical substitute for Aoyama’s mother, who seldom appears in the film but with no signs of any animus between them.

Minor quibbles though, as the script is comprehensive in its coverage of Aoyama clinically breaking down the various elements of the mystery and exploring every possibility with astute, scientific determination. This creates a sense of authenticity in the processes behind the way real life natural phenomenon is handled and decrypted, and credibility for Morimi as a studious writer.

The recently formed Studio Colorido handle the production and it is a gloriously vivid and colourful presentation, sitting in the same visual class as Makoto Shinkai and Momoru Hosada in terms of detailed backgrounds artwork pulsating with palpable textures. The penguins aren’t cartoony like in Mawaru Penguindrum, probably not to stand out against the human characters, but are still amusing to watch.

Penguin Highway carries a lot of subtle weight in depicting the impetuosity of pre-teen youth with a timely paean to how they are our future, through this delightfully silly yet heartfelt and enjoyable caper.