I saw Penguin Highway in theaters during the New York Int’l Children’s Film Festival. I was sitting next to two women in their late 20s who were discussing where to get artisanal haircuts. If that does not paint a picture of who was sitting next to me I’m not exactly sure what will. After the movie ended one of them commented that the story distinctly had the feel of what she expected from one of those “Japanimation cartoons”. Before I say anything else I do have to address the elephant in the room: I’m just as shocked as you that anyone still says “Japanimation cartoons” let alone two young women. But it does give you a sense of how Penguin Highway feels very different when your baseline for anime is just seeing Ghibli movies and Adult Swim shows. That said I would argue that Penguin Highway falls into that realm of your stereotypical “anime” either.
That is a fairly weighty statement to make so I think it requires some justification beyond “Penguin Highway gets lots of critical praise so it has to be different.” Let us see if I can back up my claim.
Aoyama is a child prodigy and he knows it. He is far smarter than almost everyone in his class and even most of the adults around him. So when a group of Penguins mysteriously appears in his town he is determined to discover their origin. Soon he discovers that the sexy dental hygienist he has a crush on is tied to a mysterious sphere in the woods and the spontaneously generating penguins. As the supernatural phenomenon in town gets more pronounced can Aoyama and his classmates figure out how everything is connected before things take a turn for the apocalyptic?
Tomihiko Morimi is definitely an author who works in the realm of magical realism. The Eccentric Family is from the perspective of a family of tanuki set in the modern-day. They interact with tengu and oni as well as humans with a very mundane perspective. The thing is humans deal with supernatural creatures like they were a slight oddity in their routine. When the humans of the Friday Fellows discover tanuki they are slightly taken aback but then it seems their next question is “Are they tasty?” His other series like The Tatami Galaxy and Night Is Short, Walk On Girl take things from the opposite direction and have very normal protagonists who just so happen to get caught up in very unusual situations involving gods and demons, temporal anomalies, and the cowboy libidos. People are always unnerved by the fantastical occurrences but in the same way, they would react to losing their wallets or find a hundred dollars on the street. They are events you would mention over dinner as an interesting or depressing story but nothing to change your worldview.
Penguin Highway works in the same way. Most everyone in the town takes the spontaneously generating penguins as just a minor bit of news to gossip about. Only Aoyama, and his female counterpart in the class Hamamoto, really care about getting to the core of what is going on. Eventually, the military and scientists get involved but that is because things really start getting so they can’t ignore it. It is all so “mundane” that most people only get involved when circumstances force their hand.
The most “anime” thing is probably that Aoyama has a fairly well-developed crush on the dental hygienist he only every calls Lady. He hangs around her, plays shogi with her at a local cafe, and dreams of marrying her which is all pretty standard young kid crush stuff. But then he is very articulate about his admiration of her pleasant curves and knows exactly how many days it is until he is an adult and they could theoretically have a legal physical relationship. All the talk about breasts, in fact, got the movie a little racy language warning in the NYICFF write up. It is a very horny-on-main sort of thing that feels like part of the stereotypical outsider nerdy perspective of anime. It is almost certainly one of the main reasons those ladies made a comment about “Japanimation cartoons.”
But this is not just something for all the horny boys in the audience. It is a vital part of Aoyama’s character and actually of the greater themes of the movie. Seriously. I know that can easily sound like I am apologetic sugarcoating his part of the story but hear me out. Aoyama is this little genius who is clearly extraordinarily smart. He runs circles around most everyone in his class and most adults he encounters. Whenever he talks to other people or thinks to himself he has a very scientific and articulate manner of speech. His friend Uchida follows him unquestioningly and one of the reasons the bully Suzuki hates him is because of how authoritative and knowledgeable he is. But as the movie goes on we see more and more while Aoyama is incredibly smart his wisdom has not had time to grow to the same level.
Aoyama has a great deal of book learning, analytical ability, and a fairly sharp tongue. The problem is since he is still only an elementary school student he just lacks a lot of practical experience. So while he talks like a genius professor if you scratch the surface of anything he says that is not from book learning it is clear he is still a naive little kid. Any sort of situation that revolves around emotional intelligence shows off that he still needs to grow up a bit. The problem is that since he is so conventionally smart most people either ignore or miss where he is weak. Effectively he fools everyone into thinking he is more mature than he actually is. His greatest weakness is the fact that the person who is most fooled by this is Aoyama himself. It is a Dunning–Kruger effect where he does not have the emotional intelligence to recognize how much emotional intelligence he lacks. Therefore he is usually so intelligent so assumes all of his deep thoughts on relationships are actually super mature and grounded in logic.
You see this especially with any of his interactions with Lady, Hamamoto, or Suzuki. Hamamoto is just as brilliant as Aoyama but she is only slightly better with social wisdom than Aoyama. This means that Aoyama is totally unaware of how childish his crush on the Lady is. He completely misses that Hamamoto has a huge crush on him. He just assumes that they are intellectual buddies. While they are friends because they are the smartest kids in town who can speak as equals he misses any romantic dimensions to their friendship. At the same time he also totally misses the fact that one of the main reasons Suzuki hates him so much is because Aoyama has captured the attention of Hamamoto. Aoyama might be able to decipher time-space anomalies he is thick as a brick when it comes to matters of the heart.
Penguin Highway was directed by Hiroyasu Ishida. The Tatami Galaxy and Night Is Short, Walk On Girl were directed by Masaaki Yuasa who has a very unmistakably unique and dynamic style. The Eccentric Family was directed by Masayuki Yoshihara and pops in its own way even if it is a bit more restrained by a TV show production schedule. The Kousuke Kawazura character designs also set The Eccentric Family apart. Penguin Highway does not feel exactly like the work of anyone else adapting the work of Tomihiko Morimi. That said Studio Colorido brings out some really striking set pieces during key moments while still having very good-looking scenes when things are more relaxed. So while Penguin Highway has a more generic anime film feel it is executed in the best possible way. It feels like a movie that takes advantage of being a theatrical release in all the best ways.
So I get it. If you only have a cursory experience with anime this might seem like a slightly more elegant version of the stereotypical Weird Japanese Thing that tries to be smart but relies on oddity and fanservice to cover over deficiencies in actual complexity but that is not the case. Much like Tomihiko Morimi’s other novels, there is a lot more going on under the hood. The depth is not illusory. Penguin Highway distinctly has the feel of anime. That is why his novels keep getting adapted as anime. Despite some of the awkwardness of Aoyama’s and The Lady’s relationship, there is some more profound that generic light novel anime #227. It is not just one of those stereotypical weird “Japanimation cartoons.” Penguin Highway is a visual and narrative treat that stands alongside the other anime based on the work of Tomihiko Morimi.