The 2018 anime film Penguin Highway, which is the first feature of Tokyo-based anime producer Studio Colorido and an adaptation of the award-winning 2010 science fiction novel by Tomihiko Morimi, presents a fascinating look into both animated adaptations of novels and modern anime production for global audiences.
The story of Penguin Highway begins when a large number of penguins begin appearing in and around a town in Japan, much to the confusion of its residents. While many of the adults can’t help but watch in confusion, two very intelligent grade-schoolers, Aoyama and Hamamoto, set out to begin solving the mystery of the penguins through scientific deduction and some lucky hunches. The comedic combination of young, super-smart protagonists is a very established convention in anime, as seen in the decades-long popularity of series like Detective Conan. It might be hard to find a mainstream equivalent to this sort of genre outside of anime, though I’ll wager it’s not outside of the ballpark of Young Sheldon.
True to the film’s American-release poster, penguins are just the beginning. As the story unfolds, Aoyama continues to follow a series of clues including (but not limited to) a young woman with the magical ability to (sometimes) manifest penguins from other objects, a massive, shapeshifting sphere of floating water, and a horde of interdimensional jabberwocky monsters. That said, one of the most interesting things about Penguin Highway is that in spite of all of these fantastical elements, the film doesn’t come across feeling like a fantasy or even a sci-fi movie. The fantastical elements are carefully examined through the characters’ scientific experimentations, and their collected presentation comes across much in the same way as a magical realism (a literary genre that combines fantastical and surreal elements with ordinary life—such as in the works, encompassing much of Tomihiko Morimi’s writings as well as the famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami). The fantasy elements afford for some really interesting visuals and CGI effects, some of which take on an almost abstract, painterly quality near the end of the film.
In addition to the rationalistic explanations of fantastical events, the film is equally balanced out by a good degree of coming-of-age charm, social humor, and some surprisingly well-timed physical comedy. While the film can come across as a bit exposition and explanation-heavy at times, it more often than not does a great job of blending its stylistic elements, generating just as much interest in the growth of its characters as it does in the mysterious fantasy they’re trying to solve.
A lot of anime productions are done for television rather than feature film, and they often have their source material as Japanese manga comics rather than novels like Penguin Highway. This film both echoes and contrasts with the usual development pipeline of the Japanese animation industry, which has taken on an increasingly diverse set of animation techniques and types of productions in recent years. While Penguin Highway doesn’t necessarily hit all of the same universally-approachable themes as something like My Neighbor Totoro, it is a charming, visually-impressive mystery that deserves recognition in the growing international popularity of Japanese animation.
Penguin Highway premiered on July 28th, 2018, with a showing on July 4th, 2019 at the 2019 Anime Expo convention in Los Angeles by Eleven Arts. The Crescent would like to thank Eleven Arts and Anime Expo for its accommodations to the event.
Cover Photo: Leeds Film City