Before we begin, YES, Penguin Highway, directed by Hiroyasu Ishida, was released in Japan in 2018. However, seeing as how it was released in the US in 2019, I consider it a worthy candidate befitting of the accolade emblazoned on the title of this review. Plus I’ll use any excuse to talk about this lovely film.
Some of the most acclaimed and beloved anime films from Japan have had an inherent focus on youth and growing up. Most of the studio Ghibli films center around young boys and girls going on harrowing fantastical adventures that mature them, whether they be children or teens.
Often times the films of this nature are enveloped in that fantasy fully, never questioning the logic (and really, what’s the need?). But what happens when you set a similar type of story in a setting that is rather grounded yet slowly descends into fantasy? Furthermore, what happens when the protagonist explores said fantasy through the sheer power of science?
Not only do you get one of the most unique stories of its genre, but you also get the best-animated film of 2019
Based on a novel by Tomihiko Morimi, Penguin Highway is the story of Aoyama, a boy who can’t wait to grow up. So much so that he calculated how many days until he becomes an adult. He is a young boy brimming with curiosity about the world around him who wants to pursue scientific discovery, taking after his equally science-minded father.
When penguins start appearing in his small hillside town nowhere near the ocean, Aoyama can’t resist trying to figure out why all of this is happening and his friends tag along to help him. As more and more unexplainable and otherworldly factors appear, Aoyama becomes convinced that the supernatural events are tied to the mysterious woman whom he has a boyhood crush on.
The film wastes no time establishing both Aoyama’s character and soon after, the strange phenomenon occurring in the town. All this before solidifying the opening of the film with a lovely intro segment following one of the adorable penguins running through town.
The music produces such delirious joy that I was surprised to find that the film’s composer Umitarou Abe has never worked on any anime prior (according to MAL at least). His music turns the contemporary rural setting into an almost urban fantasy matching/ surpassing Ghibli’s most joyful outings.
Aoyama is such a fun protagonist because, despite being an unusually gifted young boy, the film doesn’t make him as stereotypically asocial or unemotional as other, similar characters. Although, perhaps its more appropriate to say that he has more nuance for a character of his type. He is gifted but he still has friends and far from being unemotional, he is genuinely excited about science and discovery and, if anything, wants to share those discoveries with others.
He’s also very responsible and quick to learn from his mistakes, even if his being a deadpan smart ass can get him into trouble. Penguin Highway is a funny and charming film and Aoyama’s clever and cunning conduct contributes immensely to that. Even more so, his curiosity and his somewhat ignorant perception of adulthood make him relatable to anyone who was just as curious or adventurous as a kid. This comes through in character interaction especially.
Every relationship between characters felt very real and wholesome. Even the few scenes between Aoyama and his father established a very meaningful relationship that informs a lot of how Aoyama became who he is. Even minor moments between characters with big or small roles had a weight to them that makes Aoyama’s journey relatable.
For someone who seems to think that adulthood means having the answers to everything, learning how unknown the world can be is tough. Sometimes, the world and its people are plain illogical and helping that or sanctioning it means accepting that sometimes things can’t be entirely explained.
Penguin Highway is a film about accepting change and accepting our limits. It’s about moving through life one step at a time down your own path with the hope that what you’re looking for is ahead of you. Aoyama’s curiosity is sure to resonate with the kid inside all of us.
Aoyama and the “Lady” (I swear they say her name in the movie but MAL has her listed as “Lady”) share a sweet friendship. Aoyama cherishes her for her mystique and her ties to the bizarre happenings of their town. She finds his uniquely objective, mature personality and his silly desire to rush through childhood amusing. They both have a lot to learn from each other and that bond becomes the emotional crux of the film’s climax.
Even small things like the cafe in which Aoyama and the woman spend several scenes together become a locale whose importance is unspoken but understood. When it is utilized at the end, the weight felt is immense. It’s a small detail that not many might think about too much, but to me, it further proved how well they built such a touching relationship between friends.
Watching the trailers, I was intrigued by the charming visuals and music, but I wondered how the supernatural elements would play out. I wondered if it would feel out-of-left-field or simply be unexplained. As it happened, I never felt too taken out of the experience thanks to the science motif. Every new discovery or lead approached this phenomenon like an experiment and in turn, gave the story great pacing.
Of course, usually, an experiment ends with some kind of answer or result shedding light on what happened. In the case of this film, the answers are a bit muddied and not everyone will totally “get” why these events occurred. However, in my case, this wasn’t a detracting factor in the slightest as the emotional payoff was so strong and the lessons bestowed upon the protagonist as a result of the event were more important.
I was happy to find that the supporting cast beyond those two was just as strong throughout, both aesthetically and in terms of memorability. Aoyama’s friend Uchida is the weakest link and still manages to be hilariously animated and adorable to boot. Aoyama’s similarly intelligent classmate Hamamoto has a complete arc all her own that I enjoyed for how it portrayed the importance of science to her. Hell, even the school bully Suzuki had an entertaining little arc.
Director Hiroyasu Ishida has made his most notable splashes in the anime landscape through ONA’s and short films released on YouTube. Works like the short and frantic Fumiko’s Confession or the adorable Fastening Days showcase a theme with his works. He creates very bubbly and bright worlds with typically young protagonists.
Studio Colorido has been relatively unknown to me, mostly on account of them mostly producing short ONA’s such as Ishida’s past works and a few commercials. This film is both Ishida and Colorido’s first theatrical-length production and it should all but guarantee that they become an even larger name in the future. Unconstrained by any particular style across their current library, the artwork on display speaks for itself. High production values and talented creative staff are seemingly in abundance and oftentimes that staff stays in-house for a lot of the productions
The character art is gorgeous and it animates even better with some highly expressive and humorous character animation. Character designs are done by Youjirou Arai, another relatively unknown artist. Almost every major person on the staff list is tied mostly to other Studio Colorido projects. There is a well-oiled machine at Colorido that excites me to no end with the potential going forward.
2019 was a great year for anime, not just on TV, but in film. Promare was so good that I ended up seeing it four times in theaters, one of which was in Japan. Fate/ Stay Night: Heaven’s Feel continued to offer a gripping, dark fantastical romance whose third and final film I desperately await. Even Psycho-Pass made a return with three new short films.
But when I finished Penguin Highway, slept on it, and gathered my thoughts, I couldn’t think of a single film that made me as happy this year. Creatively its a statement from artists who I’ve never heard of before. Narratively, it excels at building up emotional moments with relatable weight behind them. Visually? It’s an utter delight. It’s a tough battle between this and Promare for the best-animated film of the year, but for best film in general, I’ve gotta stick with my guns on this one…
Penguin Highway is the best film of 2019.
Penguin Highway is available on Blu-Ray and DVD through Eleven Arts and Shout! Factory.
What did you think of Penguin Highway? Leave your comments below and tell me what other anime films I should review.
Did y’all miss me? My month-long break gave me plenty of time to relax and to focus on other writing but it also gave me plenty of ideas for what to write going forward this year. And I know exactly what I want to focus on next…
But you’ll have to wait. I know, I know, but I promise you will like it. I don’t want to make to many promises until I know how much my schedule permits me to write. At the very least I plan on keeping to a bi-weekly schedule, but I’m hopeful I can do weekly content like I was doing towards the end of 2018. I certainly have enough ideas after all.
So thank you for reading and I’ll see you next time!