Penguin Highway is a 2018 science fiction anime movie based on a 2010 novel by Tohihiko Morimi.
Bright fourth grader Aoyama lives a peaceful, normal life as summer vacation looms. He meets a nice woman at the dental office with whom he forms a close bond with as she helps him with his chess skills. Suddenly, a horde of penguins appear out of nowhere and invade Aoyama’s quiet little town. Together with the woman, Aoyama investigates this strange occurrence.
Plot and Story
I’ve never been familiar with the works of Tomihiko Morimi, but after watching Penguin Highway – adapted from his 2010 novel of the same name – I can mostly gauge his style of writing, even if I haven’t seen The Night is Short, Walk on Girl or The Tatami Galaxy. The film offers a simple premise with a complex structure. In the beginning, we’re introduced to the young, precocious Aoyama who is an aloof personality determined to use scientific methods to solve the mysteries of the world around him. It’s when strange penguins appear out of nowhere and invade his small town that the story gets much weirder, adding in a magical realist element that kickstarts Aoyama’s journey of discovery and growth.
This all connects to Aoyama’s relationship with a woman he calls ‘Onee san’. Her role in the film is mysterious, but she plays a pivotal part as the guiding catalyst for what Aoyama wants to be. There’s enough engaging events and strange happenings to keep Penguin Highway from being a dull slice-of-life feature where penguins pop out of nowhere. The film combines an adventurous children’s story with coming-of-age themes and some sci-fi fantasy to keep things interesting for Aoyama and his friends.
Morimi’s story may leave is with just enough questions as there are answers, but I’m mostly satisfied with having time to think about them. Aoyama’s quest to solve such questions effectively touches upon his exploration of a logical, rational world versus one that is absurd and driven by dream logic. Aside from penguins, there are appearances of a Jabberwocky and an Ocean Sphere. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, where nonsensical things happen right before us for no particular reason in a fantastical, dreamlike world. Yet, the film attempts to offer a vague explanation to all the strange happenings by centering its theme around emotion. The result is a satisfying climax that leaves a somewhat open ending, but enough closure to see Aoyama become more optimistic about his future.
Art and Music
Penguin Highway is a gorgeous feature debut by Studio Colorido, who were previously known for the 2015 short film Typhoon Noruda. Scenes of the natural landscape like the skies, water, and trees are the highlights of the film. Especiall the green and blue colors stand out in a seamless animation effort by Hiroyasu Ishida and his team. The studio is named after the Portuguese word for ‘rich in colour’ and this moniker shows through the eye popping colors. Certain scenes remind me strongly of moments from Ghibli movies – most notably the still waters from Spirited Away and the calm forests of My Neighbour Totoro. There’s also some charming musical sequences I found amusing, demonstrated by Aoyama and Onee san’s funny banter, as well as his interactions with his friends.
The music is pleasant and easily transitions from calm and playful to loud and dramatic during tense moments. The soundtrack works to the film’s favor and gives the beautifully animated scenes more impact.
I left the theater with a good amount of questions, but I’m glad I did because I now see Penguin Highway in a new light. The film is an unmissable spectacle with a balanced mix of substance and style. There’s plenty of emotional depth that makes Aoyama’s story easy to invest in and enough weirdness to keep the plot interesting. Penguin Highway demonstrates that some things in life can’t be explained, but like Aoyama, that isn’t going to dumb our curiosity and our hunger to find answers.
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