The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

Penguin Highway: A Review and Reflection

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” –Albert Einstein

Aoyama is a fourth-grader with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and spends his days making detailed observations of the world around him. With a strong sense of confidence, Aoyama encounters a lady working at the dental clinic, whom he takes a liking to. His effort to impress her lands him a conversation, and she consents to instruct him in chess. When penguins begin appearing in his town, the lady tasks him with solving the mystery of the penguins’ origins, and Aoyama sets about applying his own brand of logic and reason towards seeking a scientific solution to this fantastical phenomenon. With his best friend Uchida and the equally-inquisitive transfer student Hanamoto, Aoyama continues to work out how the lady and penguins are connected, discovering a mysterious orb that he dubs the “ocean”. From observations made while he hangs out with the lady, and also his own experiments, Aoyama finds that while he can identify patterns (such as how the lady can only conjure penguins under clear skies and that her well-being diminishes the further away from town she is), he is no closer to solving the mystery: the enigma surrounding this orb deepens when the Lego probe with instruments that Aoyama, Hanamoto and Uchida sends into it vanishes. After a typhoon rolls over the area, and the orb expands, Aoyama and the lady enter the orb to rescue researchers from the university, including Hanamoto’s father, who became trapped in the orb while investigating it. Upon finding the researchers, the lady destroys the orb and bids Aoyama farewell, but not before he confesses that he’s fallen in love with her. After she disappears, Aoyama’s life returns to normal. One day, while relaxing at the local cafe, he sees a penguin, runs off outside and finds that while it has disappeared, the Lego probe he’d sent into the orb previously has returned. This is Penguin Highway in a nutshell, a 2018 film about the boundless curiosity and impermanence of youth, and whose home release only became available in 2019.

While Penguin Highway has Aoyama attempting to ground his observations in the realm of science, it soon becomes clear that the whole of the film takes place in a world where the laws of Newtonian and quantum physics simply do not apply. Matter is freely transformed without adhering to the Laws of Thermodynamics, and the lady herself appears to be an embodiment of the world’s mysteries given human form. With a whimsical, fantastical setting, Penguin Highway speaks to how children perceive the world; while adults have a very procedural, structured way of approaching problem, children often have alternative insights precisely because they are not bound by the same methodologies that adults have. Aoyama, while longing to be an adult and exhibiting the logical and deductive skills of someone much older, shows audiences how there are some phenomenon, miracles, in the world that can defy explanation by conventional means. Even he is baffled and impressed with the sights that he witnesses: unable to formulate a hypothesis on why, Aoyama is taken on a ride with the lady, and comes to discover a new feeling – one of love, as he becomes drawn to the mystery that the lady represents. Penguin Highway suggests that, while adults often dismiss children as thinking in simple terms, their unique outlooks on the world are as complex as an adult’s, even if they cannot structure or organise their thoughts to the same extent. Consequently, the thoughts of children can be quite wondrous when one takes the time to consider them, and this is what Penguin Highway aims to convey. While the structuring of Penguin Highway is turbulent, it captures the raw curiosity of children as they attempt to work out the things they experience in the world.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • To give an idea of how busy things have been in the past while, I watched Penguin Highway halfway through back in late February, on a Sunday afternoon where my ISP went down. I had some work-related matters to deal with that day and left for the office so I could attend to those items. I finished the film post-F8 – after the conference ended, I had a chance have a coffee at the heart of San Francisco, drove the Golden Gate Bridge, and even had lunch (fried chicken and barbecue brisket) at the Facebook Campus in Menlo Park. On my last day, I had some of the best (and biggest) ribs I’ve ever had for lunch under a beautiful afternoon sun after visiting the Armstrong Redwoods State Park. Penguin Highway opens with a monologue from Aoyama, who wastes no time in establishing his superior intellect (“I’m smart, and I know I’m destined for greatness”). At his age, I was knee-deep into the natural sciences and history, reading every book I could get my hands on, and drawing out everything I learnt.

  • Aoyama is very bright, and able to deal with Suzuki (the class bully, Penguin Highway‘s equivalent of Calvin and Hobbes‘ Moe) with a dose of wit; at the dentist, he convinces Suzuki that the latter has an unknown, lethal disease, frightening the living daylights out of him. However, Aoyama’s thoughts also wander towards how attractive the woman working at the dental office is; the lady catches him checking her out when they first meet, and he blushes in embarrassment. Aoyama’s matter-of-act temperament draws her interest and she begins spending more time with him, instructing him in how to play chess.

  • Penguins begin appearing in Aoyama’s town: the name broadly refers to aquatic flightless birds of the family Spheniscidae, and the ones seen in Penguin Highway appear to be Pygoscelis adeliae, the most widespread of the penguin species. The penguins’ sizes in Penguin Highway are consistent with those of P. adeliae, although their bills are different. With their habitat being coastal Antarctica, P. adeliae possess adaptations to deal with the frigid conditions and lack of fresh water: it is unsurprising that their appearance in Japan would be quite surprising.

  • In revenge for Aoyama’s stunt at the dental clinic, Suzuki manages to catch Aoyama, whose attempts to escape fall short: he is tied to a vending machine, and the lady appears. After she frees him, she helps him pull his loose tooth, during which she creates a penguin. Such a phenomenon easily catches Aoyama’s eye, and the lady declares that her existence is a bit of a mystery, leaving him to try and solve it.

  • Using the scientific method, Aoyama manages to work out that the lady can only create penguins under clear skies, with bats being spawned in darkness and nothing happening during overcast days. The same techniques are applied (albeit with modifications to suit their needs) in various disciplines; when I debug software, I aim to only manipulate one variable at a time to ensure that an outcome is not caused by another factor. In Penguin Highway, however, the world hardly appears to conform with the laws of thermodynamics, and so, while Aoyama might be able to draw a correlation, causation cannot be so readily concluded.

  • The artwork in Penguin Highway is of an incredible quality, bringing life to Aoyama’s world. From details in the lighting to the choice of palette for a given scene, Penguin Highway‘s visual components add a considerable amount of immersion to the story. The cool of a rainy day, or the rush of wind can be felt as vividly as though one were present in the scene in person – on a rainy day, Aoyama visits the lady’s apartment, and the grey-blues of the day give a sense of gentle gloom.

  • Aoyama’s feelings for the lady begin from physical attraction: he outright admits to staring at her chest more often than he’d like and despite his stoic nature, never objects to spending time with her. Feelings of love in children are as authentic as those adults feel, and I imagine that this is common. For me, I had a bit of a crush on my art instructor/yearbook club advisor in high school, as well as my science instructor during my first year of high school. I expect that these feelings manifest from a combination of the physiological changes that adolescents go through, as well as taking interest in mature individuals that act as role models.

  • Aoyama’s father gives him an alternate perspective on things: he uses a small bag to motivate the notion that by inverting the bag, he is in effect, holding the whole universe in the bag, since relative to the bag’s exterior, the universe surrounds the interior. It’s a clever metaphor, akin to Stephen Hawking’s analogies and explanations for how multi-dimensional spaces might work. This explanation foreshadows the phenomenon seen later in Penguin Highway.

  • Hanamoto is on par with Aoyama in terms of intellectual curiosity and is skillful in chess. She invites Aoyama and Uchida to check out a mysterious phenomenon that has appeared in a clearing in the woods. While Suzuki has taken a liking to Hanamoto, she is more interested in Aoyama for being her peer in an intellectual capacity and is keen in having him help out in trying to work out the recent string of events.

  • It turns out this phenomenon is a wormhole that resembles a suspended sphere of liquid water – Aoyama and the others are quick to christen this sphere as the “ocean”. Its physical properties are completely unknown, beyond the fact that its surface reflects light from its surroundings. Over time, Hanamoto, Aoyama and Uchida collect various observations from it, learning that its size changes over time. While Penguin Highway makes extensive use of the scientific method, it is erroneously considered to be a science fiction story: the definition of science fiction is loose, but in general, it refers to stories that deal how human society reacts to advances in science and technology.

  • Since Penguin Highway does not have a societal component, the presence of the scientific method alone is not sufficient for the film to be considered as science fiction. Penguin Highway is better classified as a fantasy-adventure, following Aoyama’s journey and expressing the components of childhood curiosity in a visual manner for audiences. Aoyama is seen here running to a meeting with his friends, and the normalcy of the neighbourhood is apparent; it’s a beautiful summer’s day, and the blue skies invite exploration.

  • Summer is long associated with endless opportunity to explore, or else simply relax. Besides their research activities, Aoyama, Uchida and Hanamoto also partake in summer activities, such as sharing ice pops and visiting summer festivals. We’re now pushing towards the halfway point of May and are nearly halfway through spring – the days are lengthening, and I am now head home after a day’s work under sunshine. The weather, which has been persistently clinging to winter, has been remarkably nice of late, and I am hoping that the summer this year will be marked by beautiful days punctuated with a good rainfall at regular intervals.

  • During the summer festival, Hanamoto’s father shows up. He’s a researcher working with the local university and has taken an interest in the phenomenon that Hanamoto is studying, as well. During the summer festival, Aoyama and Uchida run into Suzuki and his cronies; Suzuki is interested in what’s going down between Aoyama and Hanamoto, and Aoyama quickly deduces that Suzuki is developing a bit of a crush on Hanamoto.

  • I admit that Penguin Highway was a bit more difficult to write for – I normally write about an anime series or film based on what messages a particular work aims to convey using the experiences the characters go through. By experiencing a disruption, characters mature and respond in a particular way, speaking to a life lesson that can then be discerned as a theme. Penguin Highway does not follow this particular approach and therefore, needed to be viewed with a different mindset in order for its theme to be identified. One review stands out as claiming that there is a substantial philosophical component in Penguin Highway, but fails to identify what this is.

  • The reason why this reviewer cannot identify what philosophy is being presented is simple: there is no overarching philosophical element in Penguin Highway to identify. It comes across as being disingenuous to readers when reviewers for larger sites make factitious claims that an anime is “smarter” than it is, and I make it a point to never do this with my own discussions. Penguin Highway is not a film intended to make audiences feel smarter, but strives to present a very specific picture about children and their curiosity. As their understanding of the orb’s properties increases, Aoyama, Hanamoto and Uchida decide to send a Lego probe into the orb. It is promptly absorbed into the orb and becomes unretrievable.

  • After Suzuki and his gang appear, Aoyama boldly claims that Suzuki must have feelings for Hanamoto and earns a beat down for his cheek. The lady appears and uses her penguins to scare off Suzuki and his gang. When the penguins try to interact with the orb, the orb reacts adversely and begins shooting out water that damage the surroundings. Hanamoto is shocked to learn that Aoyama had not shared this with her: Aoyama claims to have done so to keep the lady safe, and this moment is a subtle reminder of how dissemination of information in academy goes, with secrecy being a part of things as academics work to be the first to present their findings.

  • Aoyama is very blunt in his manner, and when he asks to suspend all investigation into the sphere after spotting a Jabberwock (inspired by Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky, a poem about the killing of a creature), Hanamoto loses her cool, accusing Aoyama of doing this because he’s got a crush on the lady and her physique. Aoyama is unfazed by this and openly admits this. As a bit of trivia, there are articles written from two years back that assert that staring at someone’s mammaries increases longevity. The precise mechanism behind this is not well-understood, but some hypotheses suggest that it increases positive thinking.

  • During a bright summer’s day, the lady decides to take Aoyama to the coastal town in her memories despite Aoyama being no closer to solving the question of who she is. However, as the lady travels further from their original town, she becomes weaker, eventually collapsing on the train station. Mysterious entities begin spawning into the platform, but these dissipate over time, and the pair agree to return home. Wondering if diet could be anything, Aoyama feverishly decides to stop eating to see if the results can be replicated, but falls ill in the process.

  • While trying to sleep off his cold, Aoyama’s dreams are turbulent and confusing. Because the mechanisms behind dreams are not understood, the reason why we have repetitive dreams while ill is similarly poorly understood: some speculate that the sheer amount of energy the body has diverted towards fighting illness leaves the brain in a state of producing stranger, more limited dreams. When Aoyama wakes up, he finds the lady by his side. Frustrated by his lack of progress and the events around him, Aoyama allows himself tears.

  • Aoyama recovers the next morning, and learns that the orb has grown to a gargantuan size. Earlier, Suzuki and his gang were interviewed by scientists to learn more about the phenomenon around town, but these scientists have disappeared. He, Hanamoto and Uchida plan on sneaking out after an evacuation order is issued, and are confronted by Suzuki’s gang: they decide to help out, as Suzuki wants to get back into Hanamoto’s good books. Never one to hold grudges, Aoyama readily agrees, and the gang come in handy for helping Aoyama and the others eluding patrols around the school.

  • After Aoyama appears to have escaped from the pursuing law enforcement officers, he runs into the lady but come face-to-face with more patrols. When it looks like they are cornered, the lady summons a veritable army of penguins to get them back into the forest, towards the orb. The spectacle is nothing short of impressive, and there are hundreds of penguins on the screen at once: the sight is comparable to the scale of the final fight in Avengers: Endgame, which I just had the pleasure of watching mere hours ago. This is not a talk about Endgame, so readers should not expect any spoilers here.

  • As the penguins carry Aoyama and the lady through the city streets, the world becomes increasingly surreal, foreshadowing the film’s complete departure from anything resembling reality. While Penguin Highway retained a largely realistic world throughout its run, as the climax approaches, this is discarded. I’ve heard comparisons for this scene to a similar moment in Hinata no Aoshigure and Fumiko no Kokuhaku, which featured a likewise chaotic scramble towards their ends: I have seen the latter, but not the former.

  • After a wild ride into the forest and upon entering the orb itself, Aoyama and the lady find themselves resting on a raft of penguins, watching the sunset in a strange world. The sort of events in Penguin Highway can only  be explained with magic approaching those conferred by entities like the Infinity Stones, and for me, I feel that approaching Penguin with the expectation for adventure, rather than instruction, is the most appropriate way to get the most from things. If and when I am asked, Penguin Highway makes extensive use of the Space and Reality stones to drive its events.

  • After entering a town where buildings float and defy physics, in a world that appears as though it were the sandbox environment for a game developer, Aoyama and the lady find the missing researchers. They decide to close off this world, even if it comes at a great cost to the lady. The setting feels infinitely peaceful, with its vividly blue skies and vast ocean. I’ve been referring to the lady only as such because she has no given name, and is referred to as onee-san throughout the movie, accentuating her enigmatic presence.

  • It’s been a week since I returned from F8, and it’s been remarkably busy, hence my low number of posts. On Tuesday, I spent the evening catching up with an old friend: we swapped stories over ramen at a local restaurant (their daily special was a pork ramen so hot that I felt the effects for the whole of the next day), and then I stepped out for lunch on Friday at a restaurant that I was sure was a furniture store, and where every item on the menu, including their Swiss-mushroom burger, was six dollars. In the aftermath of F8, there’s a great deal of work to do, and while travelling has been fun, I have enjoyed settling back into my daily routine.

  • The page quote comes from Albert Einstein, who is best known for his work in relativity and contributions to quantum mechanics. The events of Penguin Highway tend towards the creativity that Einstein described as being essential for tackling new problems – approaching problems from the realm of what could be possible, rather than what already is, allows minds to envision new solutions and approaches in ways that purely using existing knowledge cannot.

  • By the film’s end, it becomes very clear that Penguin Highway is more about imagination than about knowledge – existing reviews out there similarly identify imagination as being one of the biggest strengths in the film. Back in the real world, the orb collapses, releasing a torrent of pure water that flows through the city streets. Penguins that the lady have conjured run about, popping the water spheres in the streets, and bemused, Hanamoto’s father can only stare at what occurs. In the aftermath, Suzuki and his gang return to the school, while a tearful Hanamoto embraces Aoyama upon finding out that he’s alright.

  • Aoyama’s farewell to the lady is an emotionally-charged one: with the source of her power gone, she prepares to head off. Aoyama’s forward manner allows him to openly declare that he’s in love with the lady, and she embraces him warmly before stepping out into the evening sun. After she leaves, a new status quo is reached. Aoyama is still more or less who he was before, firmly believing he is a genius destined for greatness, but subtle changes are seen: Hanamoto teaches Suzuki to play chess, and the hostility between Aoyama and Suzuki’s group seems lessened.

  • After thirty screenshots, I feel like I’ve given a modestly succinct collection of my thoughts for Penguin Highway. Overall, I enjoyed it for its portrayal of what youth feels like – the adventure that Aoyama goes on during the film’s run is a reminder of what my days in primary school were like. I used to spend a great deal of time drawing, reading and making sense of the world. While I’m nowhere as brilliant or verbose as Aoyama, I think that even now, a bit of that childish desire to know and understand everything endures in me.

  • We thus come to the end of this talk for Penguin Highway, which I think has the internet’s first proper collection of screenshots. With this one in the books, along with Avengers: Endgame, I look ahead into May. I have finished Yama no Susume‘s second season and have passed the halfway point of Valkyria Chronicles 4, which I’ve enjoyed so much that I’m considering purchasing the DLC for it. On DLC, I am also looking to buy the season pass for Ace Combat 7. In addition, Gundam Narrative will release on May 24, giving me a chance to watch the continuation for the events of Gundam Unicorn, and I will naturally be writing about this. Finally, I will need to get my Nagi no Asukara review off the ground at some point: I understand that there is interest in this series from readers.

The art and animation of Penguin Highway are a major contributor to its thematic component; while the theme initially appears to be about the limits of intellectual curiosity (seen in Aoyama’s persistence in attempting to apply logic in piecing together cause and effect), the visually stunning transitions between the real and fantastical appear to emphasise childhood wonder and excitement about the world as a whole. As a result, Penguin Highway is unique in that the deliberate choice of artwork and animation forms a part of the message the film aims to convey, and that in its absence, the theme would have found itself much more difficult to discern. This is likely why there are so few discussions on the thematic elements in the film: most existing reviews are from newspapers, which tend to focus on the enjoyment factor instead, and I’ve not seen any other reviews on the movie. The theme in Penguin Highway encompasses more than the outcome of its narrative and character growth: sight and sound come into play, as well. Penguin Highway therefore comes across as being less of a story and more of an immersive experience whose engaging presentation outweighs the story’s weaker cohesion and direction. Although I do not believe that Penguin Highway is suited for anyone looking for a good mystery or will be useful for those seeking to understand the philosophical ramifications of how children think, the film earns a recommendation for viewers who are open-minded towards a highly visceral and visual romp through the mind of a child – I hope that more people would give Penguin Highway a watch, and look forwards to seeing what others make of the film.

2 responses to “Penguin Highway: A Review and Reflection

  1. Moonlitasteria June 1, 2019 at 15:10

    Tempted to read through this whole post, but have to refrain since I haven’t gotten to it yet. Glad to hear that your thoughts are mostly positive. Honestly, I am still a bit behind on some of the movies you recommended a while back due to life issues, but working my way through them as of now.

    Like

    • infinitezenith June 2, 2019 at 14:57

      I hope you will have an opportunity to watch Penguin Highway in full and that this discussion didn’t spoil it for you.

      Real life’s like that: I empathise, since my own anime intake and posting output has dropped quite a bit over the past little while. The movies that I’ve watched more than make up for it, and I hope you’ll enjoy them very much, as well.

      Like

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