Penguin Highway  ペンギン・ハイウェイ Dir: Hiroyasu Ishida [Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival 2019]

Penguin Highway      Penguin Highway Film Poster

ペンギン・ハイウェイ 「Pengin Haiuei

Release Date: August 18th, 2017

Running Time: 119 mins.

Director: Hiroyasu Ishida

Writer: Makoto Ueda (Screenplay), Tomihiko Morimi (Original Script)

Starring: Kana Kita (Aoyama), Yuu Aoi (Mysterious Lady), Hidetoshi Nishijima (Aoyama’s Father), Megumi Han (Hamamoto), Naoto Takenaka (Hamamoto’s Father),

Animation Production: Studio Colorido

Website  ANN  MAL

Ten years since his three-minute student short film Fumiko’s Confession brought him to worldwide attention, Hiroyasu Ishida has taken the helm of his first feature, Penguin Highway, for Studio Colorido. A little more calm and controlled than his manic and comedic debut, what remains the same is his knack for telling a tale from a kid’s perspective and with a lot of heart.

Based on a same-named book by Tomihiko Morimi, the story takes a child’s-eye view of the world by following the adventures of Aoyama and his coterie of friends who live in a quiet suburban town. These bright and bubbly kids are charmers as they all display cute foibles while getting lost in their everyday squabbles and learning more about their world in a laid-back summertime atmosphere. Things take a turn for the fantastical as penguins start popping up everywhere without warning.

The birds emerge in gardens and fields, on the backs of trucks and in the waters of canals. Waddling, swimming, and jumping, they get into all sorts of mischief that brings smiles and laughter to Aoyama and his chums (as well as the audience), not least because these Antarctic natives are quite rubbery and nigh on indestructible and perfect catnip for curious land mammals that chase them around.

Penguin Highway Film Image 5

Aoyama may be an elementary school student but he is undaunted and quite analytical. Full of confidence and eager to work out how the world runs, he and his best pal, a timorous lad named Uchida, investigate the origins of the penguins. Their search leads to a forest clearing where there is a giant levitating silver orb which is already being investigated by the smartest girl in Aoyama’s class, Hamamoto. Methodical analysis involving copious note-taking based on rigorous measurements and experiments is done with maximum seriousness but made funny because the tools at hand to an intellectually precocious child are toys rather than high-grade electrical equipment. It is genuinely cute to watch these kids with hutzpah and an earnest and intelligent dedication to science try to discover the truth behind these wondrous occurrences and their love for discovery and wonder shines bright under the summer sun, so much so it all begins to feel like a big game.

Then there is a mysterious older woman who works as a dental assistant that Aoyama is fixated on, her breasts being a favourite thing for the boy contemplate. That may sound like some tonal whiplash for what was innocent until that last sentence but the possible perversity of Aoyama’s contemplation is reduced due to his earnest and analytical nature so any questionable lines are made palatable because they are delivered as philosophical and scientific observations. 

Indeed, it could be said that the confident and mysterious older lady who befriends Aoyama gives the kind of unrealistic relationship dynamic a lot of men crave, her openness and sass being used for confidence building through advice and support. It definitely serves to help Aoyama explore and broaden his emotions as he experiences character growth through their relationship. The dialogue between the two sparkles with admiration and genuine affection that buds into the possibility of love as they bond over chess at cafe “Au Bord de la Mer”  and chasing penguins but we understand there is more to her which she reveals and that ultimately makes Aoyama’s emotional growth rocket.

The pacing gets slower during these sequences that bring Aoyama and co’s searches and the connection with the lady together and this is when the penguins disappear but what keeps the film afloat is the growth in characters whether it is learning romance, responsibility to friends and family and shaping the behaviour of others through positive reinforcement and empathy. 

Aoyama tests the limits of his body and mind by exploring his feelings for other people and things with a maturity not often seen in little boys portrayed on the big screen and there are touching moments such as a late-night heart-to-heart talk with his little sister about mortality and his increasing care for the mysterious lady which adds shades of complexity and melancholy to the story as we see him leave his childishness behind and grow up, just a little. Everything he learns throughout the narrative is utilised in the third act as it strengthens Aoyama’s declarations of affection for others and intent to understand the world and its mysteries and makes his connections with others really heartfelt which means the ending packs a punch as he and other characters have to make sacrifices.

The chief delight through all of this is tracking down penguins with the kids and seeing the town from their perspective so the environment feels more expansive and mysterious, made doubly so by urban legends passed around classmates and the cute penguins who add magic to the everyday setting. Hiroyasu Ishida and his team bring this world to life with fantastic detailing to make the suburban world real and then subvert it with all the weird events before he and his team bring the penguins back for a barnstorming finale where reality is literally bent and some mysteries are left unclear. That’s for Aoyama to discover as he grows older and after this adventure the audience will be sure to trust him to do that.

The combination of Masaaki Yuasa and Tomihiko Morimi brought to life the dreamy world of student life in The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, which is set in a magical mirror Kyoto where a fantasy and reality melts into a loving tribute to life lived romantically. This film does the something similar by bringing to life the perspective of a maturing child, taking seriously the emotions felt by young people, detailing how they are fostered by pals, parents and passions, and how they change with growing awareness of the world. Although the film sags in the middle as it has to bring together an investigation, it picks up speed in a spectacular finale that shows the studio bending its artistry for a topsy-turbo ending that resonates with an aching love of humanity.

Penguin Highway Film Image 6

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