He may only be a fourth-grader, but Aoyama is already a budding genius with a keen interest in all things scientific – not to mention a secret crush on the lady who works at the dentist. When large numbers of penguins start showing up in his sleepy Japanese town, Aoyama decides to apply the scientific method to finding out where they came from.
When I first saw the delightful trailer for Penguin Highway, I knew that I would have to find a way to see it. Regardless of whatever else might happen in the movie, the abundance of cute penguins was an immediate selling point.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to find an opportunity to actually watch the film. After being unable to travel to London to catch a screening in February, I had to wait a while and plan some elaborate logistics to make it to a showing at the Kotatsu Anime Festival in Cardiff in October.
On the surface, Penguin Highway is somewhat strange. Compared to some of the weird and wonderful things that show up later on, spontaneous penguin manifestation is actually relatively normal. Without spoiling too many of the specifics, suffice to say that the film’s finale involves the warping of space and time itself – not to mention, of course, more penguins than you can shake a stick at.
At its heart, though, Penguin Highway is quite a sweet coming-of-age story. From the moment we meet him, Aoyama is pretty arrogant and self-assured, and yet the narrative manages to make him sympathetic rather than annoying. Not only does he suffer his share of misfortune and jokes at his expense, but other characters such as the mysterious ‘Lady’ and fellow smart kid Hamamoto are able to match him intellectually. Instead of feeling irritated by Aoyama, we’re able to laugh at his cockiness, whilst urging him on to figure out the penguin mystery. The Aoyama we see at the end is nota radically different person, but he is definitely one who has inevitably changed and matured a little through his experiences.
Visually, Penguin Highway has a clean and bright aesthetic that is well suited to the depiction of its youthful protagonists. The penguins themselves are of course the stars of the show – at times impressive in their numbers, but also cute and adorable individually. One particularly memorable moment early on sees a penguin escaping from a tussle with a cat by jumping into a river and floating contentedly away. As is often the case with anime films, the music suits the film well but isn’t particularly memorable in its own right.
Penguin Highway is a delightful fantasy film that conceals a coming-of-age tale at its heart. I would have been satisfied with two hours of adorable penguin antics, but in fact this film has so much more to offer.