Adapted from Tomihiko Morimi’s Nihon Science Fiction Taisho Award-winning novel from 2010, Penguin Highway takes us into a world barely unlike our own. Directed by Hiroyasu Ishida from Makoto Ueda’s script, the film centers upon a Japanese fourth grader on the cusp of self-proclaimed greatness. With just under four thousand days until adulthood and his first Nobel Prize (he calculated it himself), nothing can peel Aoyama’s (Kana Kita) precocious interest from new, mysterious experimentations besides his crush: the town’s pretty dental hygienist he refers to as “The Lady” (Yû Aoi). She takes his affection in stride by chastising his infatuation with her breasts (the blatant lecherous gaze of children in recent anime is disturbing) and always looks forward to his company on the other side of a chessboard.
It’s almost serendipitous then that Aoyama’s latest scientific quandary concerns her too. Penguins have suddenly arrived in their fields, waddling their way along a path towards the forest. During the course of his and friend Uchida’s research into this strange occurrence — coupled with the rampant bullying of classmate Suzuki — Aoyama ultimately discovers they might not be exactly like the birds his textbooks describe as native to Antarctica. This conclusion arises after “The Lady” runs into him while tied to a vending machine. She buys a can of soda upon freeing him and eventually throws it into the air to watch it impossibly transform into a penguin. Aoyama unsurprisingly looks to discern how she did it after an admission that she’s done it before. What could it all mean?
If that wasn’t enough, Aoyama’s other classmate Hamamoto (whom he admits may be more amazing intellectually than even himself) has stumbled upon a discovery of her own. Deep in the forest is a suspended orb of water she’s coined “The Ocean.” She recruits Aoyama (and Uchida by extension) to help figure out its origins and he slowly begins to put two and two together as far as its phenomenon’s relationship to the penguins. Both mysteries will converge to reveal a fantastical adventure pitting the pragmatism of experimentation against the unpredictable landscape of puppy love (Aoyama’s for “The Lady” and Hamamoto’s for him). Friction is introduced as jealousies force decisions that prove detrimental to the science itself while these children get wrapped up in potential catastrophe.
Ishida’s film takes a bit to hit its stride with the first act (from Aoyama’s cute but cringe-worthy monologue about his humble brilliance to “The Lady’s” first penguin trick) proving very exposition heavy. The script needs to introduce its lead’s ambitions — including his ten-year-old boy’s lust for a woman twice his age — as well as the children in his orbit. Uchida, Hamamoto, and Suzuki are all stereotypical in their use to the plot, but each fits nicely in an 80s family adventure sort of way. You don’t realize just how little is happening during this span until its sci-fi underpinnings manifest to make the penguins more than simple curiosity. I’ll admit I was worried when it all seemed to just be setting up an unhealthy love triangle.
“The Lady’s” soda can penguin will get you sitting up in your chair, though. Couple it with Hamamoto’s “Ocean” and Penguin Highway officially earns your attention. Aoyama and the gang start their calculations with inspirational help from fathers who aren’t quite sure what their kids are up to since you never divulge the details of a serious experiment until you’re ready to publish it. The trio reveals unseen connections and carnivorous monsters hunting the friendly birds that have taken residence in their quiet town. And just when they get close to real answers, a team of scientists begins snooping around the forest to ruin their fun. Think “Stranger Things” and Super 8 but skewed towards a much younger audience of fantasy lovers keen for mystery devoid of horror.
It’s difficult to say much more without spoiling its reveals, so just know that the end result does mostly overcome early trepidation. With subject matter and a tone that targets kids Aoyama’s age, however, his interest in “The Lady” can get awkward. The text is clear in skirting the issue of early hormones and sex drive by having the boy talk about how “he doesn’t know why her boobs make him feel different than his mother’s,” but that in itself is problematic — especially when the camera often portrays his vantage point with lingering close-ups of her chest. The other crushes are contrastingly much subtler with Suzuki picking on Hamamoto because he likes her as she leverages those feelings to make him promise to keep “The Ocean” secret.
The Weird Science gaze of grade-schoolers aside, where things go is worth the journey because it’s fun to see kids diving head-first into a mystery that should be well-beyond their capacity to solve. When things are as out-of-this-world as what’s happening here, adults too often dismiss the truth as being youthful flights of fancy. We therefore need that curiosity to shine as the children’s desire to see the impossible allows it to exist. Nothing that occurs sets the whole apart from the myriad examples of this that cinema and television have provided, but it succeeds on its own terms nonetheless. I only worry that Aoyama’s inflated sense of self-worth will grow to too dangerous a size. While endearing now, he’s sure to be insufferable once high school arrives.
Penguin Highway is now playing the Fantasia International Film Festival.