Penguin Highway comes off as if a lascivious purveyor of adult-oriented anime got their hands on a Miyazaki project.
Based on the science fiction novel by Tomihiko Morimi that was subsequently adapted into a manga, the animated fantasy Penguin Highway is for the most part a delightful coming-of-age story. But Hiroyasu Ishida’s film comes with a nagging creep factor that seems more appropriate for an ‘80s sex comedy than a 21st century children’s movie.
Highway charts the path taken by studious 4th-grade schoolboy Aoyama (voiced by actress Kana Kita), who as the movie opens calculates he’s 3,888 days from reaching adulthood. Aoyama is more than a little conceited; he figures he already knows as much as some adults, and that he’ll have his choice of women when he grows up. But he’s already picked out who he wants to marry: Onê, a young woman (voiced by Yû Aoi) who works as a dental hygienist. Aoyama keeps an obsessively detailed notebook where he takes down various calculations and makes line-drawings of Onê that focus on her large breasts.
When penguins mysteriously appear in his village, Aoyama and a schoolfriend try to get to the bottom of it, recruiting school chums to undertake a study of the strange creatures, which seem to be connected to Onê. This manic pixie hygienist can somehow conjure up a penguin, under the right conditions, by throwing a can of Coke into the sky.
Visually, Penguin Highway is thoroughly enchanting. While the human characters are standard big-eyed figures, they’re brought to life so well you forget you’re watching a cartoon, and the penguins are meted out like a masterful jazz solo, appearing in a flurry of notes , following winding lines and then disappearing when they’ve run through some endearing chord changes. Against sometimes photorealist backgrounds, the characters are mesmerizing, and Ishida savors little details, like a neighborhood cat’s alarm at the penguin invasion.
Yet, following Aoyama’s precocious eyes, Ishida also frequently lingers on Onê’s breasts. It’s a completely understandable fixation for a young boy, and Onê’s magical powers reveal that there’s much more to her than an hourglass figure. But it’s a fixation that gets more and more distracting, and if one holds out for an extenuating metaphor that excuses his boobcentric worldview as overcompensation for the loss of his mother, well, that doesn’t happen, because his parents are very much alive.
The movie marries two seemingly incongruous tendencies in anime. While such beloved Hayao Miyazaki films as My Neighbor Totoro built a world fueled by a childlike (if kind of hallucinatory) innocence, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation of the popular manga Ghost in the Shell centers on a heroine who wears skin-tight outfits (that is, when she’s wearing anything at all) designed to show off her voluptuousness. Oh yeah, she’s viciously mutilated too (hot take: maybe it’s okay that, in the live-action adaptation of this material, the lead role didn’t go to an Asian actress, who would have been subject to all manner of violence and exploitation, after all).
Penguin Highway comes off as if a lascivious purveyor of adult-oriented anime got their hands on a Miyazaki project. The artistry and plotting are so captivating that it makes nearly two hours fly by with ease. And there’s something to be said for letting it all hang out with the childhood id expressed in all its horniness. But, whether it’s a culture clash or an unusually sensitive super ego, there’s something uncomfortable at work here. There’s no reason art should be all propriety and comfort. But the viewer should be aware that, if you take children to see it, you may have some explaining to do.