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‘Penguin Highway’: What goes up must come down … in penguin form

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

There’s something about the playful, magical realist novels of Tomihiko Morimi that seems to lend itself to animated adaptations. Those adaptations include TV series like “The Tatami Galaxy” (“Yojohan Shinwa Taikei”) and “The Eccentric Family” (“Uchoten Kazoku”), plus last year’s film “The Night is Short, Walk on Girl” (“Yoru wa Mijikashi Arukeyo Otome”). This time around, it’s the author’s 2010 “Penguin Highway” that’s been given the anime treatment.

At the center of the film is Aoyama (Kana Kita), a fourth-grader who’s practically the definition of precocious. With notebooks full of observations and theories, the pint-size anthropologist speaks and acts like an adult, which can occasionally vex his classmates. In fact, Aoyama has calculated exactly how many days are left until he officially becomes an adult — when, he explains matter-of-factly, he will marry the film’s other protagonist, an unnamed dental hygienist-slash-shogi teacher (Yu Aoi).

Penguin Highway
Rating
Run Time 119 mins.
Language JAPANESE

It isn’t long before Aoyama’s powers of observation are put to the test as, out of nowhere, a waddle of penguins shows up in his quiet town. And these are no ordinary birds: They appear and disappear seemingly at random, and seem to have something to do with a strange ball of energy that appears in town around the same time.

Aoyama and his friends form a research club to investigate these dual phenomena, but the grown-ups (including a professor played by Naoto Takenaka) soon ruin the fun. Meanwhile, Aoyama discovers the source of the penguins is none other than his dental hygienist crush, who creates them by throwing objects like cola cans into the air. What goes up must come down — in penguin form.

“Penguin Highway” is helmed by first-time feature director Hiroyasu Ishida, who initially gained notice back in 2009 for his short film “Fumiko’s Confession,” which combined cute character designs, a vivid color palette and fluid animation into a two-minute package. Animators who can deliver those kinds of frenetic bursts of energy aren’t always suited to feature direction (think sprint vs. marathon), but in “Penguin Highway,” Ishida finds a nice balance between penguin action and more contemplative character moments. (If anything, I think it could easily lose 10 minutes on the slow end.)

Having a Nihon SF Taisho Award-winning novel as a base (and the participation of “The Night is Short, Walk on Girl” screenwriter Makoto Ueda) doesn’t hurt. The same sensibility that made earlier Tomihiko Morimi anime adaptations so charming is on display here too: The real appeal comes less from the film’s occasionally obtuse story or even its parade of penguins (though those suckers are pretty cute) than its characters. Never without a quick comeback for the school bully, and rarely losing his cool, Aoyama acts how we would if we could go back to elementary school knowing what we know now. And his mysterious, nameless crush will feel intimately familiar to any former boy who’s ever had a thing for an older woman.

“Penguin Highway” is the first feature film from Studio Colorido, founded by director Ishida and ex-Studio Ghibli character designer Yojiro Arai — and the release of “Highway” will no doubt inspire a round of “Could these guys be the next Ghibli?” think pieces. The folks at Colorido would do well to ignore any such murmurs and simply create the kinds of films they want. With “Penguin Highway,” they’re on the right path.