By W.R. Miller
What if The Twilight Zone had an animated episode? Submitted for your approval: Meet Aoyama-san, a fourth grader who knows he’s smart and believes he will make a great adult. “As you can tell,” he says, “I am not conceited, and that makes me great.” He has a crush on a dental assistant, whom he calls “Lady.” She has something he’s attracted to: a knowledge of chest–and “boobs.” Ayoma is a kid in control of his emotions. How? “Just think about boobs if you think you’re going to get angry,” he says.
One day a flock of Adélie penguins appear in a field in the middle of town. This being Japan, and not Antarctica, Aoyoma has to go investigate. Where do these penguins come from? From “Lady.” She throws a cola can into the air and poof!
Instant penguin. Welcome to The Twilight—that is, Penguin Highway. It’s the first feature film from Studio Colorido, adapting Pengin Haiwei, the science fiction novel by Tomihiko Morimi in 2010.
Now, why does “Lady” manifest these penguins—and how? To find out, Aoyama teams with his best friend Uchida and the smartest girl in the class, Hamamoto, who has discovered a watery sphere she calls “Ocean” floating in a hidden part of the woods. Yes, there is a connection between Ocean, the penguins, Lady, and a new species, Jabberwockies, that pop up. It’s up to the kids to find a solution before unreality warps the whole town.
What makes Penguin Highway remarkable is its richly-detailed backgrounds, along with clever staging one would expect from anime, and the “slice of life” approach in contrast to all the weird goings-on. I’d like to call particular attention to the characters’ hands. Hands can be difficult to draw and there is a lot of nuance in their construction. Yet, the animators have captured that nuance brilliantly.
Otherwise, Aoyoma’s predilection for “boobs” and three crotch attacks would likely be nixed on American television since this kind of behavior is “imitable.” Definitely not Disney fare. Likewise, the story moves along at a leisurely pace. Definitely not for those with short attention spans. But in this era of 3D CG animation, one has to salute Studio Colorido for producing a hand-drawn feature, one that is both gorgeous and thought-provoking.
Notable credits go to Hiroyasu Ishida as the director, Yōjirō Arai as the character designer, Makoto Ueda for the screenplay, and Umitaro Abe as the film’s music composer.
In Japan, Toho released Penguin Highway theatrically on August 17, 2018.
In North America, Eleven Arts is releasing it on April 12. See here for list of cities and showtimes.