FILM REVIEW: ‘Penguin Highway’ Is a Psychedelic Sci-fi Bildungsroman

Cute penguins and the scientific method underlie a surprisingly complex story.

The News Lens
Date: 2019/01/22
By: CJ Sheu

Credit: YouTube Screenshot

Honestly, I came for the simply adorable penguins, which are indeed lovingly animated. But it turns out that “Penguin Highway” (Pengin Haiwei / ペンギン・ハイウェイ) has a lot more on its mind.

Based on the award-winning 2010 novel by Tomihiko Morimi, the film follows young boy Aoyama (Kana Kita) as penguins suddenly appear in his small Japanese town. Aoyama is a budding scientist who is eager to apply the scientific method to all sorts of conundrums in his daily life, and his father (Hidetoshi Nishijima) guides him and encourages his efforts with gifts of chocolate. Aoyama’s brainy personality, almost to the point of resembling a young Sherlock, is counterbalanced by his best friend, the klutzy and hapless Uchida (Rie Kugimiya), who serves as the frequent butt of slapstick jokes. Their research project is later merged with some mysterious research conducted by classmate Hamamoto (Megumi Han), a girl with Aoyama’s brains, and actual social skills to boot. And then there’s the unnamed 20-something dental assistant (called the Lady, voiced by Yū Aoi) who chaperones Aoyama after school, teaches him chess, and with whom he is madly in love; she’s a mystery, too.

The part of this premise that’s perhaps hardest to digest is Aoyama’s unreal braininess – he even uses words to try to defend himself against class bully Suzuki (Miki Fukui) – so it’s smart of writer Makoto Ueda to use this as the jumping off point, allowing us to accept it immediately. But something he probably should have changed is Aoyama’s obsession with female breasts, the Lady’s in particular. After the year of #MeToo, this running gag just seems creepy, especially when first-time director Hiroyasu Ishida gives us more than one voyeuristic POV shot. Not something we should be teaching our kids, I think.

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