Hiroyasu Ishida/ Japan/ 2018/ 118 mins
@Glasgow Film Theatre, Sat 13 Oct 2018 and Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sat 20 Oct 2018 as part of Scotland Loves Anime Festival
The main auditorium at the Glasgow Film Theatre is packed for the European premier of Penguin Highway, as part of this month’s Scotland Loves Anime film festival. The film, produced by Studio Colorido and directed by Hiroyasu Ishida might superficially appear as a frivolous kids movie about Antarctic birds. However, there is much more at play here that even anime newcomers will value.
The film establishes its odd premise during the opening credits as penguins inexplicably totter through the streets of a Japanese suburb, while the charming piano-led soundtrack creates a sweet and cheerful atmosphere. After the penguins are gathered and loaded into a rescue van, we are then introduced to protagonist Aoyama, a smart, science-orientated boy with a slightly inflated ego that has the audience chortling. The movie progresses pleasantly as Aoyama’s home and school life unfold, and it isn’t until half an hour or so in that the tone shifts. What seemed like a comedic foray into a fairly ordinary boy’s life becomes something much more curious, even supernatural, as Aoyama’s new friend, who works at the local dentist surgery, reveals a bizarre superpower. This character, known only as ‘the lady’ throughout, becomes pivotal to the narrative hereafter.
Aoyama’s search for answers to the town’s mysterious influx of penguins now becomes a journey into the metaphysical, as his scientific prowess proves essential to his understanding of what’s happening. In this respect, much of Penguin Highway will be lost on younger viewers (even many older ones). A fairly complicated network of connections between the penguins, the lady, creepy ‘jabberwocky’ monsters, and a mesmerising entity — named ‘The Ocean’ by one of Aoyama’s classmates — become the core of the plot. Surrounding this too, is the main character’s inner journey as he deals with puberty, young love, bullying and loss. These emotive threads keep us engaged and there are some incredibly moving moments towards the film’s denouement that are especially effective.
The animation itself keeps us captivated, too. At points, it feels like there are some simplistic details in background action or minor characters. However, this is balanced with some beautiful moments, especially in the rendering of the watery, shimmering ‘Ocean’ and a mesmerising scene near the film’s climax when Aoyama and the lady take an immersive CGI expedition to a not-quite real-world setting. The effect is impressive and memorable.
Penguin Highway works on various levels. It is comedic, moving, and puzzling — enough to keep us engaged with turning us off. Seasoned anime fans at the GFT applaud with enthusiasm at the film’s close and novice viewers will likely find this a stepping stone to explore the genre further.