Scene from Penguin Highway. (© 2018 TM,K / PH)

Penguin Highway, winner of the Satoshi Kon Award for Achievement in Animation for the Best Animated Feature category at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada, is based on a novel published in 2010 by Tomihiko Morimi, author of Tatami Galaxy and The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl.

Morimi grew up in a boring suburban neighborhood and often fantasized about the end of the world. The novel describes the landscapes and wild ideas he conjured from his imagination. Director Hiroyasu Ishida, on the other hand, has been a fan of Morimi since his university days, and although he hadn’t thought about animating Morimi’s work at the time, he was delighted when the opportunity arose to bring Penguin Highway to life. Released in Japan in August 2018, it is the first feature film released by Studio Colorido, which was founded by Ishida and Yojiro Arai, a character designer who had worked at Ghibli. It will play at Grand Central Cinema April 19-25.

The protagonist of Ishida’s film Penguin Highway is a precocious fourth grader and a budding scientist. Nothing escapes Aoyama’s attention in the rural suburban Japanese town he lives in, so when a group of penguins suddenly appear one morning, Aoyama, aided by his best friend Uchida, takes it upon himself to investigate the mysterious source of the penguins.

From the outset, Aoyama makes it clear to the audience he is not an ordinary boy: “I’m very smart, and I study very hard. I’m sure I’ll be someone great in the future.” His conceit and arrogance oozes out of his words as he continues, “I can’t imagine just how amazing I’ll be when [I become an adult]. I might be too amazing for my own good. I’m sure that lots of girls will want to marry me, but there’s already someone I have in mind, so the others will just have to live with it. I feel bad for everyone else, but this has already been decided.”

Scene from Penguin Highway. (© 2018 TM,K / PH)

Who is that “someone”? It is Onee-san, the local dental assistant he has taken a fancy to, particularly with her oppai: “I think that boobs are mysterious. I keep thinking of that lady’s boobs. Her boobs aren’t the same as my mom’s. They’re the same category of object, but the feeling they give me…I wonder why they affect me so differently.” As an astute observer, he often scribbles and jots down notes on numerous topics in a variety of notebooks. One of them is titled “The Lady: A Study of the Geometry of Breasts,” which contain sketches of objects, such as bowls, that are similar to the shape of breasts.

People may be taken aback by Aoyama’s frank and open acknowledgment of his avid interest in the female anatomy since the movie appears to be geared towards elementary school students. They wouldn’t be alone in their discomfort, a feeling shared by Uchida, who is often subject to Aoyama’s meandering thoughts on oppai. Although Aoyama’s comments may be startling at first, his statements are never made in a lewd fashion and are always delivered in an honest and straightforward manner that turns his seemingly sullied opinions into harmless and hilarious comments.

For instance, Aoyama associates shapes he sees in the outside world with breasts, such as the round, white, bouncy cakes he sees in a bakery. Much to his friend’s chagrin, Aoyama says, “Those are boob cakes,” to which Uchida dubiously asks, “Are they really called that?” His discomfort is further exhibited when Aoyama tells him, “Just think about boobs if you think you’re going to get angry. You’ll feel extremely calm instead.” Uchida replies disapprovingly, “I don’t think that’s a good thing to think about,” to which Aoyama replies candidly, “Well, it’s not the only thing on my mind. Probably only about 30 minutes a day.”

As Aoyama investigates the penguin phenomenon, he finds out about a path penguins take to return home from the ocean called Penguin Highway. Believing this is the key to finding the source of the penguins, he and Uchida try to track the penguins and follow them.

Scene from Penguin Highway. (© 2018 TM,K / PH)

Coinciding with this operation is Project Amazon, a venture to find the source of a river in their town. During those rare moments he is not researching, exploring, studying or learning, he sometimes plays chess with Onee-san in a nearby café and becomes acquainted with her. Aoyama soon realizes the source of the penguin is from her, and she challenges him to solve the mystery.

Hamamoto, the smartest girl in Aoyama’s class, soon adds to the mystery by revealing a secret she has been keeping of a giant, silver orb that hovers over a field. Noticing the penguins have the ability to destroy the orb, he realizes the orb, penguin and Onee-san are all connected together somehow, and he can’t help wondering if it has something to do with being at the very edge of the world. As Onee-san’s health declines and she ends up summoning frightening creatures that eat the penguins, the orb grows bigger and threatens to swallow up the town. It is up to Aoyama to figure out a solution before the end of the world is upon him and the rest of the townspeople.

Penguin Highway is a refreshing sci-fi mystery set in a lush, verdant town filled with beautiful landscapes and adorable penguins that will tug at people’s hearts and make children squeal with excitement. Due to the references to oppai, monsters and some disturbing imagery (for young children), it is most appropriate for people ages 10 and over. The story is sure to please adults interested in science fiction as well since it lightly covers Jabberwockies, black holes and the theory of relativity, bringing life to this sleepy suburban town.

Scene from Penguin Highway. (© 2018 TM,K / PH)

It is also the story of first love for a young boy. I want to say this is a coming-of-age film, but it’s hard to call it that when the protagonist is about nine years old. At the same time, Aoyama is mature for his age, and grows from this experience, bringing him one step closer to becoming the brilliant adult he is certain of becoming. An inspiring tale filled with love, mystery and adventure, it is sure to be enjoyed by most, if not all.

Penguin Highway will be shown at Grand Illusion Cinema from Apr. 19-25, 27 and 28. There will be dubbed and subtitled screenings. Check website for tickets, details and showtimes.

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