Somewhere along the red string from adolescence (all knobby knees that get skinned, metal braces that get caught on lips, hair that frizzes in the heat, elbows and boned corners of bodies and sweat, lots of it) to adulthood (taxes and relationships and peaks and valleys of loss and love), curiosity dissipates. At least, the curiosity we were all born with — it in its most concentrated form that saw sandy-handed tots play with beetles and 10-year-olds “dig their way to China” and kids of all ages dream starry-eyed of one day making it to the moon — is forgone once we cross the threshold into a phase of life that requires of us less inquisitiveness and more production, more end products.
Many a past film has explored this, the dissolving of childlike wonder as we grow up and out. But none have quite captured the emotion to which we all have unconsciously said goodbye (or done it as splendidly) as has Penguin Highway, the anime film from award-winning director Hiroyasu Ishida (of Fumiko no kokuhaku fame) and Studio Colorido.
It’s rare that a film of any sort bottles joy and amazement in a jar, then shakes it up and lets it shimmer in the sunlight. It’s just as uncommon for a director to strike gold with their first feature-length film. That Penguin Highway is shutterfly-stunning and expressive, that Ishida swung for the skyline on his first try and swiped a hand against the stars, is nothing short of miraculous.
An adaptation of Night Is Short, Walk On Girl author Tomihiko Morimi’s novel of the same name, Penguin Highway is an adorably strange little film. It follows whip-smart and eager-to-learn fourth-grade student Aoyama (Kana Kita), who is counting down the number of days he has left until he becomes an adult and is banking on marrying the beautiful (and un-officially-named) dental assistant the Lady (Yuu Aoi), with whom he plays chess after school. He’s certain she’ll accept his proposal, as he declares with unflappable charm that “lots of girls will want to marry” him. Hungry for knowledge and hard facts in equal measure to his obsession with boobs (there’s no candy-coating that), Aoyama’s equally as confident that once he comes of age, he’ll be a Nobel Prize-winner — for what exactly, he’s yet to find out.
When flocks of penguins, no bigger than your average house cat, suddenly materialize in Aoyama’s hometown, the mini T.J. Henderson (10 points to your house of choice if you catch that reference, dear reader) gets a twinkling of an answer. Adults around him rub their chins and tilt their heads, hum-hawing over the promptly-popped-up penguins, but Aoyama gets to work, endeavoring to investigate the strange happening and crack the case on the creatures’ unexpected arrival — and why they sometimes disappear at random.
It’s not long before Aoyama concocts six hypotheses (one of which hilariously suggests the penguins underwent a “mutation to become fat”) about why the “penguin highway” has stretched out in his town — but that isn’t the only bizarre phenomenon that impacts Aoyama and his friends. As it turns out, there are manifold mysteries to unravel in Penguin Highway, which are connected in a sort of Stranger-Things-meets-Ponyo-with-a-splash-of-Close-Encounters way and ultimately loop back to the Lady herself.
With his dream woman, who finds his crush on her endearing, and his pals Uchida (Rie Kugimiya) and Hamamoto (Megumi Han), Aoyama starts up a secret research project intended to be kept hidden from the other adults in town. But when the Lady’s true identity starts coming into focus, and when the ever-waddling penguins start pecking at a levitating silver orb Aoyama calls “the Ocean,” their mission to make sense of the nonsensical unfurls into a delightfully fey summer adventure bursting with glee.
From a story standpoint and in its visuals, Penguin Highway is kooky and beyond-words cute. Zooming out to soak in the full scope, though, the film has something to say — a message that will ring loud to those standing on the bleaker end of the child-adult dichotomy. Buoyed by Ishida’s resplendent visual techniques and energetic direction, it swims the deep of that long-forgotten spirit of inquiry, touches on the weird limbo of puberty, and doles out wisdom on growing older — all while remaining engaging and surreal and, perhaps above all, fun.
Penguin Highway thrums with positivity and hopefulness, draws out giggles with its physical gags and inspires dilated pupils with its bright and imaginative scenery, and squeezes hearts with character dynamics that are sweet as mochi and cheeky as Kumamon. Enchanting, exuberant, and odd enough to stick to the sides of one’s brain for days post-viewing, Penguin Highway is a must-watch for anime fans. And for people yearning for a heady hit of bliss to brighten their dark days. For everyone, really.