Penguin Highway, a 2018 animated feature based on the Tomihiko Morimi novel, represents the best and worst of anime. On the one hand it boasts a richly developed and wonderfully imaginative story that boasts both clever ideas and a warm, all-ages approach. On the other hand, those good qualities are periodically punctured by ‘fan service’; a specifically Japanese phenomenon where female characters get crudely sexualised for an adolescent male gaze. It is not common to all anime, but it is certainly prevalent enough to even make of the medium’s most accomplished works to become a tedious case of ‘it’s great, but…’
Aoyama (Kana Kita) is a precocious boy with an obsession for scientific research and a crush on the Lady (Yu Aoi), an unnamed woman who works at the local dental clinic and who trains Aoyama in chess. When a group of penguins unexpectedly manifest in his small inland town, Aoyama gathers his friends and puts his research talents to use in solving the mystery of where they have come from.
Penguin Highway has an easy-to-describe premise, but a constantly unfolding and complex story. It manages to balance a child-friendly focus and viewpoint with a fascinating science fiction element that is both smart and easy to follow. It works as well as it does because the centre of the film is on its characters, and each is developed with a sense of both comfort and dignity. Everybody receives a modicum of depth; even the school bully Suzuki (Miki Fukui) is more than he first appears to be.
Aoyama is the most fascinating of the film’s characters. The film never states the case outright, but there is a very strong argument that he lies somewhere along the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He struggles both to express his emotions, and judge the emotional responses of others. It is a fascinating portrayal if so, and it is great to see him so patiently and lovingly nurtured by his parents.
Unfortunately it gets badly hammered by the film giving Aoyama a jarring obsession with the Lady’s breasts. He talks about them, and enthuses on how they make him feel. While that could maybe be incorporated into his character in a productive or interesting way, director Hiroyasu Ishida doubles-down by applying an aggressive male gaze to the breasts themselves. Individual shots of the Lady’s heaving bosom abound, and feel intrusive, out of place, and deeply childish. Fan service is a skin cancer on the body of anime, adding little in the way of positive story or production design in return for titillating a niche (albeit big-spending) audience of Japanese otakus and shut-ins. It is certainly possible to overlook the sleazy edges of anime films and TV series and pretend it does not exist, but it certainly makes a fair amount of the material impossible to recommend without inadvertently suggesting one is something of a pervert.
It is a pity: Penguin Highway looks absolutely stunning, with a familiar blend of hand-drawn and CGI animation and a vivid use of warm, summery colours. At 118 minutes it feels a little over-long, but that is mostly all in the film’s unnecessarily lengthy denouement; a few judicious cuts and the rest of the film would fly past. This is mostly a wonderful animated film with a lovely sense of charm; no, I didn’t like its obsession with boobs either.