Aoyama is a fourth grade prodigy with a crush on his Dentist’s wife. When penguins start popping out of thin air like Mr. Popper is visiting Aoyama’s hometown, the enthusiastic researcher comes out of him and traces the penguins back to the wife. He sets his mind on exploring the fantastical events that surround this woman as he battles bullies, rival researchers, and young love.
Aoyama is serious about two things: science and breasts. Our little scientist counts the days until he is a grown up, actively learns every day so that he can become a great person, and learns chess from his Dentist’s Wife. He wants to be better at chess than the other science oddity in his class, Hamamoto. Where normally he sticks to his studies, he develops a connection with the Dentist’s Wife and feels drawn to the mystery surrounding her. We see another level of passion come out when it comes to his relationship with her. He is willing to skip out on other responsibilities, ignore other people, and occupy his mind with her more than he is with any other people. Yet, this love for observation and studying never goes away. He reminds me of someone with an unscratchable itch. No matter how much attention he pays to the wife, his need to conduct himself scientifically cannot be met.
The Dentist’s Wife is the center of the entire show and they don’t even give her a name. We also never see her husband, which is weird. But when you start to look into this woman, lots of things seem weird. She works as she pleases, she has days or weeks where she goes missing, she teaches chess at odd hours of the day, and does pretty much whatever else she chooses to do as long as there is an air of mystery to it. She is easily the most captivating character through her soft voice and happy personality. It seems clear immediately that there is something important about this woman and the show does a fantastic job at getting you to crave interactions with her. Aoyama’s interest only makes you want to explore her character more and spend whatever short time we have on her, but the mystery surrounding her always makes her feel out of reach.
Uchida is our eccentric scientist’s quiet and awkward assistant. He is constantly falling into puddles and streams, getting caught in awkward situations during experiments, and struggling to keep up with Aoyama. It gets a bit ironic, or perhaps fitting, that the sidekick is often more observant than his teacher when it comes to understanding relationships. This makes him relatable in a way that other characters in the movie are not, because observant viewers can see the same hints that Uchida picks up on. Regardless of him being a fairly forgettable character, his character is so chipper and innocent that you can’t help but hope for the best for him in his imaginary life.
Hamamoto is the daughter of a university researcher and quite the scientist herself. While Aoyama is busy with the Dentist’s Wife and his research around the penguins, Hamamoto has found and is studying a phenomenon of her own. This girl wakes up, eats breakfast, kicks her classmates butts in chess, and studies world bending anomalies before starting all over again. Hamamoto is passionate about her research and likes Aoyama, a lot. She is fiercely competitive about her research as well. Several times she is intruded on and she appreciates that very little. It felt like Hamamoto played a role only in the middle of the film. I had an appreciation for her character and the tension that she created, being both a rival and a friend to Aoyama, but she seemed discarded at the end of the movie when I wanted her to be most involved.She was knocked out of the movie a little too soon, especially in the most important moments.
Suzuki is the school bully that no one likes but everyone has to deal with. That child that is so loud and obnoxious that it is amazing that a swift roundhouse kick is not delivered to his head by any of the adults in his life. Of course our bully comes with two dim witted cronies, as per standard. Yet, there is a twist! How could we have foreseen that the bully has a soft spot for the smart girl in class that he won’t ever push around? While maybe Suzuki offers little more than a puddle of depth to the show, his place in the plot is important and he sets up some of the best scenes in the show, albeit always unintentionally.
The characters are massively carried by the interactions between the Dentist’s Wife and Aoyama. Our side characters had some impact on the plot, as we would expect, but ultimately they never really created any space in my heart for themselves. Our core four people were enough to get me along and I enjoyed spending time with them yet, beside our core two, I wanted a little more depth from the cast.
The last third of the movie makes everything worth it. The first two thirds show, a tad boring, and pretty impactful in general. It was in these two thirds that I was not really sure how I was supposed to feel. It felt like we were blindly looking for something with no real goal or direction. We were scientists simply observing a reaction instead of conducting our own experiments. It took until the last third of the movie to realize the nature of the show, that we are working with and against the reality bending events that are happening around the town and people could be in danger. But realizing that there are steaks in the main plot in the last third of the show is too late. Or, it would be if the final third of the movie was not so impactful. The final third makes up for all the pacing issues from the beginning, all the neutrality and over-exploration of connections that did not mean much in the end, it made up for everything. The ending was the breaking of the characters, the healing of the same characters, the exploration of the most fantastical elements of the show and the conclusion of the relationship between Aoyama and the Dentist’s Wife that we needed to desperately to walk away from the movie and feel excited enough to tell our friends about it.
Anyone that has spent time around young children knows that they thirst for knowledge. Kids want to know everything about everything around them. They push the limits, they write and say exactly what they think, and they explore constantly. There is a magic to this innocent curiosity and I often feel like I have lost that in my own life. I meet so few people in my life that have that curiosity as well. One of many reasons that I have so much respect for Randy is that he does have that curiosity. If he wants to learn something, he puts forth a lot of effort to learn. He makes the multitude of things he pursues look effortless and it makes me jealous that people like him and characters like Aoyama can commit themselves like they do. I have a theory that so often anime is set with younger characters because it allows writers to use this childhood curiosity that is so fun to watch. Penguin Highway takes advantage of that by really centering the whole plot of studying the oddities that are occurring in the city around this childhood curiosity and the issues that it can create.
Science fields can be a cutthroat place. There is not often a lot of funding, jobs can be scarce, and there is lots of pressure to get results out of your work. When I did some research trying to identify epilepic seizures using machine learning in high school and felt this pressure. The project was not funded other than for the doctoral student’s living expenses, but there was great pressure to produce something for our partners at a local hospital. We were fortunate enough not to deal with competition, but Hamamoto and Aoyama were not so lucky. Not only was there the internal pressure to get results from the things they were studying, but there were people investigating the penguins that threatened to push our duo away from their research because, you know, adults don’t really let kids do professional research. I really liked how this was approached. Homamoto’s father was presented as a looming threat as a number of university researchers started to converge on their findings. This was around the time that the mood started to shift and the movie really kicked into another gear. The idea that research is owned by a person or a group for the sake of profession clashes so perfectly with the pure scientific childhood curiosity of Aoyama and Homamoto. You genuinely feel like the other researchers are an issue in the story when, realistically, they are trying to solve the same issues as the kids.
It should be no surprise to you all that I am firmly in the camp that science cannot explain everything. Aoyama is firmly in the camp that science can explain all the questions that he has. So along with the race to find out what is going on, there is this hidden question for Aoyama of, “Can I solve this puzzle? Can science explain what is happening here?” I have plenty of friends that are on either side of this conversation but I’ll be honest, I don’t even root for science to solve all of life’s mysteries. I love progress, don’t get me wrong, but if there is no mystery, what is there to pursue? There would be a whole group of people who would simply lose their will to be if we had nothing to endlessly pursue. The scientific pursuit is one of the most beautifully futile things humanity has ever attempted, and maybe it is better if it stays that way.
I have some pretty major issues with the pacing. Movies tend to have the issue that they force the beginning of the story down your throat. They often don’t develop the relationships that are needed to make the ending that they invested in worth the watch. Penguin Highway has the opposite issue, it takes too long to get to the substance. I almost never put a movie down. I want to watch it in one sitting. I want to be pulled into the experience and forget about the world for a couple hours. I put down the movie twice. The first hour feels so slow. I loved how the characters developed but I felt like they could have done it with more action. I wanted something to happen. We had been given this incredible world filled with mystery and intrigue but all information was being held hostage. There was no sense of progression until things completely destabilized in the last phase of the movie. I think that this destabilization could have been drawn out a bit. We needed the oddities of the world to be a little more intrusive in the story to make them feel like they had an impact. Without that intrusion, we can just accept that something unique is occurring. This leaves us wanting to find a way to fit that into a larger story without any effective way to do so.
What really pulled me to watch Penguin Highway was a scene where Aoyama and the Dentist’s Wife were scooped up by a flock of penguins sliding down the street as the police chased them. It was the first thing that Randy asked me about once I told him I had finished the movie. That scene, which was part of the last 25-ish minutes, starts off this wild ride of surreal animation that is truly amazing. I never thought I would see whales, floating houses, penguin hordes, and coastal cities in this movie, but it was delivered very nicely. Penguin Highway has a way of sneaking up on you with a unique color palette that feels vibrant and pastel at the same time. The characters are rather plain, which was not my favorite, but they play an important role in the mysticism of the production. I think an argument could be made that this movie deserves a four on animation, but there was just something that kept me from wanting more anime to look like this. The colors are unique in a way that I think is only appealing because they are, in fact, unique. Yet, the personality of the animation really came alive most in the last twenty minutes. Had those moments not existed I could have easily seen this being a much lower three in my mind.
There are days where I walk out of work and I feel like the day was just like every other. I wonder how many days will be the same. What will it take to change something? If I change something will things get better? It makes you crave that something would just happen to you. Something magical, something mystical. Perhaps a chance encounter with a special person. Perhaps the discovery of a reality bending object. Anything to break from the normal. Penguin Highway is that fantasy. It captures the childhood fantasy of science being the study of fantastical phenomenons and makes it a reality. You walk out of the mundane town and walk into an encounter with world bending situations and phenomena. We feel the need to reevaluate everything we see, question the connections that we have already made, and hypothesize what comes next. This kind of world truly has limitless opportunities, stories, and perspectives and was a pleasure to live in for the duration of the movie.
Music is created at the intersection of the story’s world and emotion. We are given a truly amazing world, but the emotion for most of the movie is muted and muddled. This rolls over into the music as well. The general air of the movie is this curious exploration of the world that leads us to incredible places, so we would expect the music to reflect that. But the soundtrack is split. We are given light and hopeful marches that make you want to run out into the world, Thorough style, and explore. These feel like the true nature of the movie. Then we are given these slow and dangerous ballads. My mom loved taking me to the symphony growing up. These ballads feel more like something I would hear from an old english play adaptation where some great tension is upon us. But the movie never really created stakes until very late in the movie. The amount of the soundtrack that was taken up by these dark songs clashed with the mood of the movie, which felt overwhelmingly neutral. There are some great songs here and the soundtrack has to be some of the best rainy day albums I have heard in a while, but it was not quite integrated with the mood of the movie as often as I wanted it to be.
|Category||Points Given||Points Possible|
|I am interested in the characters in the story||4||6|
|I liked the emotion the story made me feel||4||6|
|The story brings up interesting ideas||5||6|
|I felt the pacing of the show was appropriate||2||4|
|The animation in the show is beautiful||3||4|
|I am interested in the world that the story takes place in||3||3|
|I felt that the music added to the story in a meaningful way||2||3|
Penguin Highway has it’s issues. There seems to be a lack of direction and tension creation early in the movie that makes it slow. However, the amazing relationship between the two main characters, the wondrous city, and the ideas explored in the final third of the movie make up for all the flaws of the beginning. If glimpses of fantasy poking through the fabric of reality interests you, Penguin Highway might be one of the best examples that I have seen so far.