Penguin Highway: a heart-warming, hormonal mix of Twin Peaks and Studio Ghibli

When scores of penguins suddenly appear in this rural Japanese village, it is a little like “Magnolia,” but exponentially cuter. In fact, these penguins might just save our world as we know it, but until then, they are quite charming to have around in Hiroyasu Ishida’s “Penguin Highway,” which won the Satoshi Kon Award for Excellence in Animation at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

“Highway” is surprisingly intriguing as science fiction, warmly endearing as a coming-of-age story. It is just the living end as a penguin fantasy. Despite the borderline “Summer of ’42” relationship between Aoyama and The Lady, the film has a lot to offer family viewers. Including lessons on the scientific method and the depiction of two fathers who are smart and engaged parents (Aoyama’s and Hamamoto’s dads). Plus, there are all those fun-loving penguins.

The animation (with character design work from Yojiro Arai) is visually quite lovely. But it is the film’s bittersweet vibe that really sticks with you. The trappings are contemporary, but the narrative has a timeless element to it.

When you get right down to it, it would be ever so nice to stroll through this burg in the foothills. That with a dozen penguins for company.

To his credit, Makoto Ueda never dumbs down his screen adaptation of Tomihiko Morimi’s source novel. There is some clever stuff in here, and the stakes get planetary in scope. Yet, it still faithfully evokes all the optimism and confusion of young adolescence—with penguins.

For precocious fourth-grader Aoyama (Kana Kita), life is a sum to be solved, and he has the notebooks to prove it.

The young hero of this squeezably adorable debut from Hiroyasu Ishida – whose new animation house, Studio Colorido. He co-founded with the ex-Ghibli animator Yojiro Arai. That is constantly scribbling in jotters, trying to crack the mechanics of his quiet suburban existence.

When the film begins, he knows he has 3,888 days to go until adulthood. That is certain a Nobel Prize lies ahead, and has even calculated himself a bride-to-be, in the nameless pretty young woman (Yu Aoi). Who works as an assistant at a local dental clinic. So when a flock of penguins materialises in a field near his home one morning. He can’t just point and coo: he has to find out where they came from, and why on earth they ended up in his neighbourhood.

By the afternoon, he has six hypotheses in mind. But the truth turns out to be odder than anything his overactive pre-teen imagination can conjure. When you are still 3,888 days away from adulthood, it’s funny how many things turn out to be like that.

The penguins’ appearance is just the first mystery of many to present itself in Ishida’s film

Which plays something like Twin Peaks crossed with Studio Ghibli’s 2008 film Ponyo: cute kids and cuter creatures, juggling eerie cosmic upheaval with the lower-level turmoil of small-town childhood.

The penguins’ arrival is connected to the pretty young woman. That as is the sudden presence of a large ball of water hovering in a forest clearing which Aoyama and his classmates Hamamoto (Megumi Han) and Uchida (Rie Kugimiya). They go to examine during the long and lazy summer afternoons.

Hormones buzz as insistently as the cicadas in the trees: Aoyama finds himself captivated by the young woman’s breasts. Even though he understands they are technically no different from his mother’s. And somehow this becomes just as preoccupying as the extraordinary happenings around town.

The animation itself is bewitching, from the cute charm of the (human and penguin) character design

That to some keenly observed physical humour and some truly visionary set-pieces. Including one sequence in which the penguins make a haywire dash through town, with Aoyama and the young woman borne along on the black and white tide.

There are strong overtones here of both Ponyo’s famous showpiece storm sequence. Also Ishida’s tremendous 2009 short film Fumiko’s Confession, which he produced at 21 years old.

The film was adapted from a book published in 2010 by Tomihiko Morimi – whose earlier novel. Night is Short, Walk on Girl, was recently made into an animated film by Masaaki Yuasa. But it is impossible not to sense a parallel between Japan’s national reckoning with the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The children’s own grappling with the various bizarre goings-on around town – most obviously the ever-swelling threat of the giant ball of water in the woods. Which they pointedly nickname ‘the Ocean’.

Not that Ishida is simply playing allegorical join-the-dots here:

In style and substance alike, Penguin Highway glows with the fine-grained strangeness of a dream, and on a number of occasions. We see the characters themselves teetering on the edge of sleep, heads nodding forwards, eyelids flickering shut. Its ready embrace of ambiguity, not to mention Aoyama’s breast-related musings, probably rule it out for much younger viewers.

But for almost all ages, this is a heart-warming, imagination-tickling joy. And a film that should put Ishida and Colorido on every anime fan’s to-watch list.


Rating: NR
Genre: Action & Adventure, Animation, Anime & Manga
Directed By: Hiroyasu Ishida
Stars: Kana Kita, Yû Aoi, Landen Beattie
In Theaters: Apr 12, 2019 Limited
Runtime: 119 minutes
Studio: Eleven Arts


Andrea Gronvall
Making his feature debut, 30-year-old director Hiroyasu Ishida confidently adapts Tomihiko Morimi’s bestselling coming-of-age novel, gracefully segueing…

G. Allen Johnson
The joy of discovery is at the heart of “Penguin Highway,” a delightful new anime that is about the mysteries of life, both scientific and personal. Oh, and it’s about penguins, too.

Peter Debruge
Making his feature debut, 30-year-old director Hiroyasu Ishida confidently adapts Tomihiko Morimi’s bestselling coming-of-age novel, gracefully segueing…

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