There's something wonderful about penguins. There's something simple and awkward about their bowling pin bodies and quizzical expression, their hopping, waddling movements, and how communal they are. And yet, put them in water, and they are graceful bullets, soaring through the sea, leaving a line of silver bubbles behind them like a tracer round. That incredible dual nature, of something immediately lovable but with a purpose, makes them the ideal choice of silent protagonists for Tomihiko Morimi's 2010 magical novel, and this charming, strange, coming-of-age anime adaptation.
In a small Japanese town, Aoyoma (Kita) is a young genius – or rather, smart enough to know that, with a lot of work, he could go far. Still, he's only 10 now, and he's dealing with the standard concerns and joys of being 10, like trying to find the source of the local stream, and navigating new relationships. He's already obliviously in a love triangle with school bully Suzuki (Fukui), who has a crush on Hamamota (Ha), who likes Aoyoma. But he's become a little fixated on a woman who works at his dentist that he just knows as Lady (Aoi), who seems oddly happy to become friends with a fourth grader. And then there are those penguins that suddenly appeared all around town, seemingly out of thin air ...
Hiroyasu Ishida's debut feature doesn't always make linear sense, but then, it's not really supposed to be completely logical. What's happening is somewhere between magical realism and quantum physics, as Aoyoma puts his budding brain to work in calculating the connection between the penguins, the lady, and a mysterious sphere of water that has appeared in the forest.
Penguin Highway feels like a classic children's adventure page turner, of the kind that Lewis Carroll and the lesser-known (at least to American audiences) E. Nesbit wrote to inspire and depict kids. Aoyoma is awkward and bright, naive and bold, inquisitive and unobservant, but he's trying to work out how the world works. And then there are flocks of adorable penguins, bouncing, poking, blinking, and maybe saving the world.
Above all, even when there are moments of peril, somehow Morimi's story always makes the reader – or, as in this adaptation, viewer – feel safe. It's a similar feeling to Masaaki Yuasa's glorious adaptation of another of the author's books, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, and while that was a more adult-themed story (a mystical night in Kyoto's Ponto Town drinking district), it had that same sense of vibrant bliss and wonder. Yuasa has already become a leading light of the contemporary anime scene, and Ishida seems set to join him straight out of the gate. While Ishida's visual style doesn't come close to Yuasa's effervescent pop art sensibilities, Penguin Highway's innate charm is so effortlessly expressed in a luminescent countryside and dappled forests. It perfectly catches that childish point just before adolescence, where young boys are starting to notice girls but still want to find frogs in pools.
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