At Kumoricon 2019, I had the good fortune of getting into a screening of the anime film Penguin Highway. It is an anime film of a variety that doesn’t come out in the US very much – an anime film that is a straight-up family adventure film, and a film that also plays into some of the Kids on Bikes concepts that came up in a few works I’ve reviewed recently (The Gate and Tales from the Loop).
Penguin Highway is based on a novel from the author of The Eccentric Family, The Tatami Galaxy, and The Night is Short, Walk On Girl. The book and movie are set in a fictional Japanese suburban town and follows a young grade-schooler named Aoyama. He’s very intelligent for his age, very studious, and has that level of absurd seriousness possessed by young children who are approaching adolescence and desperately want to come across as not being childish – making them considerably more childish.
Aoyama’s dad is a scientist, so Aoyama tries to approach everything and catalog everything in a very scientific manner, and Aoyama has a massive crush on the assistant at the Dentist’s office, who he just calls “Onee-san”. These all end up being somewhat upended when, all of a sudden, penguins start showing up in the neighborhood completely out of the blue – and Onee-san may know something about it. And also there’s this weird spherical water object out in a clearing on a hill at the edge of town.
Penguin Highway feels a lot like how I’d imagine a Japanese Kids on Bikes story to be. It’s kids going on adventures, with a considerable degree of independence from parental oversight, and with eventually a little bit of peril, leading to the development of some actual emotional maturity, and a loss of innocence without an increase in cynicism.
Consequently, and I can’t say how much of this is in the original book, it feels like a mix of elements of Miyazaki, Hosoda, and Shinkai. From Miyazaki, we get the pastoral elements of the environment, the depictions of nature, and a very significant part of Aoyama’s character arc. Without getting into spoilers, his character arc is something of a male version of Chihiro’s arc from Spirited Away, but without being thrust into a magical world and having to grow up through being in an environment away from his parents. He’s placed in a situation where he and his friends gain knowledge, and through gaining that knowledge and from the decisions they make with that knowledge and how – and how not – to act on it they gain wisdom and thus maturity. It is, to a degree, the standard fantastical coming of age story but there are bits of it which remind me a lot of Miyazaki and Spirited Away.
From Shinkai, we get love with a barrier. Aoyama has a child’s crush on Onee-san, which is clearly not reciprocated (at least in the same way) due to age but persists for Aoyama throughout the story. By the story’s conclusion, Aoyama’s feelings clearly are going to persist, and the question isn’t that will his feelings fade with time, but will time cause them to transition from a romantic attraction to a platonic attraction with a side of nostalgia, or if that torch will just keep burning.
Onee-san herself feels a lot like a Hosoda character. From the Hosoda films I’ve seen, he tends to like having a character of some variety or another who is generally a little older and more mature, and who possesses a degree of knowledge about whatever the situation is or how to deal with it that the protagonists lack – but who are not present as a mechanism for exposition, and instead serve as an inciting character for the plot, either as the catalyst for complications or as some sort of mentor figure. Examples of this are the Aunt from Girl Who Lept Through Time, the titular beast from The Boy and the Beast, and Granny from Summer Wars.
The styles and narrative themes of the three directors and writers, and the preferences in the material they work on fit together well. It makes Penguin Highway, basically, into a cinematic curry. It’s familiar, reassuring, but very flavorful, and makes for a very enjoyable film.
Penguin Highway is available from Amazon.com (Blu-Ray + DVD, Digital) and RightStuf (Blu-Ray + DVD). RightStuf also has a special edition version with a bunch of bonus features and a really big artbook available for pre-order, but with no release date as yet. Buying anything through those links will help to support the site.