So today is a Wildcard Review of a movie that would qualify as part of May In Japan. If you have access to Crunchyroll in the UK, you can watch this for free (adverts included) at the moment. As part of a Special known as Crunchyroll Movie Night: Special Digital Event – Penguin Highway.
Set in modern-day Japan (2018) – the story revolves around a young boy named Aoyama. He has all of the makings of a young Kentaro Oe – as His main hobbies are education and breasts (Which he is, oddly, very wholesome about). He is an incredibly bright kid who is literally planning his life right down to the smallest detail. One day his younger sister, along with other children, notices some odd shapes in a field nearby. Aoyama goes to investigate, as binoculars gave him an unusual image. The Field is full of Penguins, which are eventually guided into a Van and presumably taken to a Vet or a Zoo…except for one Penguin, who is the centre of attention while the opening credits roll. Aoyama is not your typical ten-year-old. He doesn’t get overly emotional or angry. But does put a lot of energy into the things that fascinate him. He has one friend, Uchida, who is effectively Chuckie Finster while Aoyama is Tommy. One rival, Hamamoto, matches Aoyama at Chess and has a crush on him. And One Bully, Suzuki (and his two cronies), the Angelina Pickles in this equation. At the Dentist, Aoyama trolls Suzuki into believing that he has a terrible tooth disease. The Dentist’s assistant, known only as “Lady”, tells Aoyama off for cruelty towards Suzuki. It is clear that Aoyama and Lady already have a friendship, as they discuss the penguins, which leads to Aoyama’s “want”. He wants to find out where the Penguins came from and why they can appear and disappear as they do. Lady, Uchida, and eventually Hamamoto offer to help – making this an intriguing mystery that isn’t afraid to be pure science fiction while approaching it like a school science project.
Now for the construction materials of this wonderous highway:
The Art is beautiful, from its realistic line work to its saturated natural colour palette. It really does manage to bring a children’s book quality to this anime. It also has some of the best use of 3D graphics mixed into 2D. In particular with the presentation of water, camera angles and journeys through trees. The penguin designs manage to be recognisable and even iconic, and the imagination aspect brings out a hint of adventure.
The Animation is more or less as good as Miyazaki, Shinkai or Taichi Ishidate (Violet Evergarden). It’s stunning in its flow and intentionally comedic in its accents when used in short bursts.
The Voice Acting, especially in Japanese, is very good. With Yuu Aoi as Lady (who voiced Shiro in Tekkon Kinkreet), Kana Kita as Aoyama in her first voice acting credit, and Rie Kugimiya (The voice of Alphonse in the Full Metal Alchemist series) as Uchida. The English dubs are a mixed bag. Because some of the children, especially Aoyama’s bully, Suzuki, sounds like a twenty-year-old rather than a ten-year-old. This is why in Japan, much like Nancy Cartwright voicing Bart Simpson, children are voice-covered by either women or children. However, Erika Harlacher (who is Ann Takamaki from the Persona 5 games/anime) is the English voice of Lady, so I don’t mind that aspect of the dub.
The Characters, in general, are excellent, and I particularly enjoyed how different Aoyama is from the conventional child protagonist. His approach to self-discipline and research are very similar to what you might see from someone with autism. He is so dead-set on his investigation that he can neglect some simple stuff, such as brushing his teeth or fighting back when he gets bullied (Literally he just waits for Suzuki to go away, regardless of the damage done). Lady is a fantastic bridge between the penguin world and the real world. As she is both the responsible adult and the caring, child-like guide who doesn’t shoot down Aoyama’s suggestions, no matter how fantastic they are. I think we would all love a friend like Lady, quite literally.
Based on the novel by Tomihiko Morimi – The Story is excellent. I haven’t read the book to say whether it’s better or not, but I can tell you that I enjoyed this. Because of Aoyama’s aloof personality, we feel surprisingly safe when he goes through trials and tribulations. Even though he clearly suffers at the hands of his bullies, his reaction to their idiocy is weirdly inspirational. The pacing can appear a little unconventional, but trust me, there is a focus within the story. Metaphorically speaking, it might look ‘fatty’ in places, but this is all meat.
The Music is by Umitarō Abe and much like the art style – it captures a sense of adventure and wonders that you look for in anything that would bring out the imagination of both children and adults (and teens). I won’t lie – it makes you feel like you’re listening to Joe Hisashi’s scores for Hayao Miyazaki movies. It’s that good! The ending song is called Good night by Hikaru Utada. Which, as a Kingdom Hearts and Utada fan, makes me joyful.
The Themes of the film include adaptability, as the presence of these penguins turns Aoyama’s plans upside down. He is no longer able to micro-manage the successful life he has been putting together. Also, as a coming-of-age story, we see how he learns to let go and enjoy the few thousand days he has left as a child and continue to see the world and learn from it.
Would I recommend Penguin Highway? Yes! It’s lovely to look at. The characters are vibrant and funny, the Music is beautiful, and the story will keep you coming back to find things that were missed. Once again, if you have access to Crunchyroll in the UK, go have a look. As for me, I think I’ll start reading the novel, rewatch the movie, and perhaps get around to other Studio Colorido creations, including 2020’s A Whisker Away.
Art Style: ****3/4
Voice Acting: ****1/4