No matter when Miyazaki decides to step down permanently (never probably), the spirit of Studio Ghibli is bound to live forever, with the impact the company and the Japanese master’s productions had and continue having being visible quite frequently in the whole spectrum of the anime world. “Penguin Highway” is a testament to the fact.
The story is based on the homonymous novel by Tomihiko Morimi, whose works include “Night is Short, Walk on Girl” and “The Eccentric Family” and revolves around Aoyama, a schoolboy who is very bright, headstrong, and with the general, inquisitive mentality of a true scientist. As fourth grade has just ended and summer vacations are upon him, he has to face a number of adventures.
The first one comes from a rather unusual event, since a number of penguins appear in the town, all of which seem to follow a specific route (the title’s highway). The second revolves around a dentist assistant (quoted as One-san in the film) he has befriended, who teaches him how to play chess and Aoyama seems to have a crush on (along with a tendency to stare at her boobs). The third one has to do with Suzuki, the bully of the class, who has the constant tendency to pick on Aoyama and his “sidekick” Uchida, particularly after the two start investigating the origins of the penguins. The last one involves Hamamoto, the best chess player in the classroom, who, after being beaten from Aoyama, reveals a discovery of her own in a valley hidden near the town, and also her feelings for our young hero. As a bubble made of sea starts threatening the whole area, the origin and purpose of the penguins takes a completely different meaning, while a love triangle is shaped and a number of characters reveal their true nature.
Hiroyasu Ishida directs an anime in the style mostly established by the aforementioned in the prologue, mixing fantasy with reality, through a story mostly involving children but actually carrying messages that are addressed to adults. The coming-of-age aspect is the basic one, mostly revolving around love and maturing through consequences; however, the element that steals the show is how Ishida portrays the scientific procedure through the inquiring minds of his young characters, who, in this aspect, appear much more mature than their age suggests. This element benefits the most from the fathers of the two “central scientists”, Aoyama and Hamamoto, whose ways of dealing with their offspring’s “quirks” could be teached as an example of proper parenting.
Lastly, I felt that the presence of penguins and the sea bubble functions as a metaphor for the consequences of global warming, and the fact that if this phenomenon persists, a number of countries are going to be in dire situations due to the raise of the sea level (some already are).
Apart from the above, Ishida included a number of action scenes, which revolve around the children in the beginning and the penguins later, with the first ones focusing on realism and the second on fantasy, in a style much similar to video games. Add to that a subtle but intelligent sense of humor and some school drama and you have the backbone of the film.
The drawing of the characters is a bit simplistic, with all of them having occidental characteristics, but it seems Studio Colorido held the deeper level of detail for the background and the various settings, which are exceptionally drawn, in the vivid-color style so frequently met in anime movies. The animation is also quite good, both in the realistic motion of the characters and the ending extravaganza, which is the most impressive scene in visual terms.
The voice acting is also quite good, with Kana Kita as Aoyama and Yu Aoi as One-san being the ones who stand out.
“Penguin Highway” is a very enjoyable anime that manages to tackle a number of serious issues under a coming-of-age layer. Fans of Ghibli and Miyazaki are bound to love it.