Posted by Armitage on 18 July 2019 with categories: Anime Reviews, Reviews by Armitage

You’re walking along in your neighborhood, going about your daily routine. It’s a fine morning. The sun is shining brightly. But suddenly, you see something strange. You squint your eyes; even rub them, to make sure it isn’t a mirage before exclaiming with excitement, “Oh, look. It’s a bird. No, it’s a plane! No no. It’s a…penguin?”

That is how this particular morning started for young Aoyama, who is the perfect embodiment of a child you would call wicked smart. Smarter than almost everybody in his class. Barring maybe Hanamoto-chan, but Aoyama considers her a bit too complacent. He is a self-proclaimed pupil of science. A true man of research. Well, actually just about 3681 days short of being a man (he keeps count), but you get what I mean. He is secretly in love with the dentist woman. Who is much older but that doesn’t bother him. His love isn’t the sexual kind. Yes, he does think about her breasts 30 mins a day but that’s for relaxation purposes. His sole reason for visiting the dental clinic is so as to get to talk with her for a little while.

One day, he is reading a Nat Geo magazine when the dentist woman comes up to him and scolds him for scaring off the class bully, Suzuki. She tears a page off of the magazine. One that has a picture of penguins in the Arctic. Aoyama decides to find the source of all penguins. The Penguin Highway that they take from the sea. He sets our on a scavenger hunt for clues as to the location of said Highway, along with his adorably fidgety sidekick and the one boy to definitely be protected, Uchida. The next day, Suzuki catches him to exact revenge for being made a fool and ties him to a vending machine. In due time, the dentist woman comes along for his rescue. She even offers to pull out his wobbly tooth and turns a cola can into a penguin to distract him. Yup, just like that. No big deal. And believe it or not, things only get crazier from there.

But that isn’t what this story is about. In fact it is quite difficult to point out EXACTLY what is about. And therein lies its charm. It’s like watching a coming-of-age story told by a child, making stuff up as he goes along because he’s on a sugar high. In a good way. It doesn’t adhere to a given story structure or a set of themes. The importance of family, the ever-present quest to belong and getting to terms with all joys and tragedies of living. Of life. And the fact that it ends. That’s not particularly tragic or comforting, whichever way you look at it. It’s just fact. There were two minor scenes that especially stood our in their poignancy.

The first, being one when the dentist woman is sleeping all carefree on the floor of her apartment and Aoyama is sitting right beside her. Just observing. And for all his fascination with her breasts this pre-pubescent kid doesn’t stare at them. In fact, they don’t even cross his mind. His eyes are fixated at her face. Observing its perfect shape. Marvelling at the tiny details that make her, her. He says that he cannot understand why but he wants to watch this perfect face laugh and just… exist. It’s such a pure emotion. And a reminder that children, even with all their flaws and countless tantrums are the purest at heart.

The second, and the one moment in the movie that really made me tear up actually just comes out of nowhere. Aoyama is lying in bed, thinking about all that’s been happening in the city when his sister rushes in, crying. He tries to console her and asks what’s wrong? She says that, “Mom will die.” Aoyama is instantly alarmed as to what has happened but his sister won’t tell. That’s when he realizes that what she means is that she will die, eventually. Like my mother and yours. And her mother before her. It’s just that when we are children, we are so full of joy and hope. Always carefree. Always happy. And as we grow up, we are met with the inevitability of death. And how we have no control over it. That’s what turns us into the sad people we become. Into adults. The realization that if you live long enough, people get old.

Now, I realize that I have just been rambling on about minor plot points while I haven’t really talked about the story at all. Thing is, there isn’t much of it. Talking about it would ruin whatever plot there is. And while I am myself someone who always enjoys plot-driven narratives more, this is one of those rare exceptions for me. Where the motifs and themes of a story carry it instead of the actual narrative. But of course, that by itself won’t be reason enough to watch it. We need something to hold our attention. For that, I can assure you the visuals here get the job done and then some. Everything has a dreamy water colour palette and some frames are so well put-together that Makoto Shinkai would be proud. It all just looks absolutely gorgeous.

Lastly, the sound. And let me tell you, I was watching this movie on my laptop like I mostly watch stuff. But after around 10 mins into it, I stopped and actually copied it on a pen drive to see it on my TV. Just so I could hear it in surround sound. And it is worth the effort! The sound design is so immaculately curated, you actually feel like you’re inside, fully immersed in this world. Everything sounds crisp and believable so much so that you forget it’s animated. It’s amazing. You have to see it for yourself. Hear it, I mean.

So, yeah. That’s that. My review of Penguin Highway. Thanks if you read it all the way through. If you didn’t, here’s a TL;DR – Go watch it on the biggest screen you can find! If the story doesn’t blow you away, the visuals and sound design definitely will. Have fun!

PS: If nothing else, we at least got our new slogan for world peace: ‘When you get angry, try to think of breasts. They calm the mind.’ :)

4 Responses

  1. Avatar evafan says:

    Looks great. Gonna watch. Thx for writing about this.

  2. Avatar evafan says:

    Incredible movie. A movie I always wanted Ghibli to make, yet they never quite did (from those I have seen anyway).

    Fascinating, nostalgic and gripping to the very end.

    I almost feel like the author made it for me specifically. Like that scene where the little sister comes to the boy at night and cries because she realized her mom is going to die (in 50 years). That actually happened to me when I was that age (though it was my life that had me concerned) – I wasn’t even sad – it was simply a cathartic moment for me and I still remember the dumbfounded reaction from my mom trying to reassure me that I’m not going to die.

    There was so much goodness here.

    The grounded world.

    The boy’s parents that made this seem like a realistic family with minimal interactions.

    The smart boy, his personality and the depiction of his struggles and the way he tackled them rationally, yet emotionally (without realizing), creating an enjoyable dissonance for a more mature audience.
    The inescapable force throwing him into the vortex of love every time she looks at the dentist woman.

    The smart girl and her emotions on full display in some of the scenes – her frustration when the boy notices the mature woman more than her and she compares herself to her and understands the gap, her anger at her friend’s betrayal – forcing her to act emotionally, her love for her parent when she faces the realization he may be dead.

    And so much more… like, everything. Aaaah.

    Random notes:

    This is a mature take on adult-child relationship mostly from the point of view of the child.

    I liked how most of the movie was about smart kids doing their all to deal with normal problems and to overcome the fact that they are kids, realizing the futility of their efforts – even the smartest kid is still a kid.

    The dentist woman was similar to Haruko from FLCL and her situation with the boy was also very similar. The dentist woman, like Haruko, is an object of fascination, of love, yet represents future world that is unwilling to accept him, yet. She is out of reach and a source of ambivalence – he is drawn to her, yet he must always face that gap between them, his immaturity, his guilt, his weakness that is not his fault. She even had little of that coarse voice and free personality. Uf.

    I loved the sharp high pitched sound representing the boys fever.

    • Armitage Armitage says:

      Hi, there!

      I appreciate you taking your time out to reply about your thoughts on this movie. It’s always nice to talk and discuss about things you like with fellow admirers :)

      I could totally understand how you related to some parts of the story more strongly and differently than me. The movie tackles so many themes, about family, growing up, the ever-present quest to belong and does so with such a child-like wonder that as a viewer, it’s impossible to watch and come out of it without feeling something profoundly honest and specific to you. 

      I find myself appreciating it even more as time passes and I am able to reflect on it more.

      Surely, one of my favorite anime movies of all time. ^_^

  3. Avatar evafan says:

    “it is quite difficult to point out EXACTLY what is about.”
    Yeah. Dealing with circumstances and own emotions would be my answer. In the end everything in this movie comes down to that. Not the love, nor succeeding nor maturing.

    “It’s like watching a coming-of-age story told by a child”
    Yeah, though Id say coming-of-age implies some sort of development, so I would rather call this a slice of life.

    “Mom will die.”
    That was an incredible scene. Like the girl’s behavior is understandable and really good, for instance she didn’t want to tell her mom, because she didn’t want to make her sad and worry her.
    But the boy perceived this in multiple layers. He consoles his sister and deals with the implications of what she is saying. He also attempts to stay true to the image he tries to fit – rational person who can overcome all. “All living beings will die” he says. His thoughts also go to the woman he likes, the idea of her disappearance is what struck him the most. It’s not articulated, but it’s there in the context, clear from previous scenes.

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