For precocious fourth-grader Aoyama (Kana Kita), life is a sum to be solved, and he has the notebooks to prove it. The young hero of this squeezably adorable debut from Hiroyasu Ishida – whose new animation house, Studio Colorido, he co-founded with the ex-Ghibli animator Yojiro Arai – is constantly scribbling in jotters, trying to crack the mechanics of his quiet suburban existence.
When the film begins, he knows he has 3,888 days to go until adulthood, is certain a Nobel Prize lies ahead, and has even calculated himself a bride-to-be, in the nameless pretty young woman (Yu Aoi) who works as an assistant at a local dental clinic. So when a flock of penguins materialises in a field near his home one morning, he can’t just point and coo: he has to find out where they came from, and why on earth they ended up in his neighbourhood.
The penguins’ appearance is just the first mystery of many to present itself in Ishida’s film, which plays something like Twin Peaks crossed with Studio Ghibli’s 2008 film Ponyo: cute kids and cuter creatures, juggling eerie cosmic upheaval with the lower-level turmoil of small-town childhood.
The penguins’ arrival is connected to the pretty young woman, as is the sudden presence of a large ball of water hovering in a forest clearing which Aoyama and his classmates Hamamoto (Megumi Han) and Uchida (Rie Kugimiya) go to examine during the long and lazy summer afternoons.
Hormones buzz as insistently as the cicadas in the trees: Aoyama finds himself captivated by the young woman’s breasts, even though he understands they are technically no different from his mother’s, and somehow this becomes just as preoccupying as the extraordinary happenings around town.
The animation itself is bewitching, from the cute charm of the (human and penguin) character design to some keenly observed physical humour and some truly visionary set-pieces, including one sequence in which the penguins make a haywire dash through town, with Aoyama and the young woman borne along on the black and white tide. There are strong overtones here of both Ponyo’s famous showpiece storm sequence, and also Ishida’s tremendous 2009 short film Fumiko’s Confession, which he produced at 21 years old.
The film was adapted from a book published in 2010 by Tomihiko Morimi – whose earlier novel, Night is Short, Walk on Girl, was recently made into an animated film by Masaaki Yuasa. But it is impossible not to sense a parallel between Japan’s national reckoning with the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the children’s own grappling with the various bizarre goings-on around town – most obviously the ever-swelling threat of the giant ball of water in the woods, which they pointedly nickname ‘the Ocean’.
Not that Ishida is simply playing allegorical join-the-dots here: in style and substance alike, Penguin Highway glows with the fine-grained strangeness of a dream, and on a number of occasions we see the characters themselves teetering on the edge of sleep, heads nodding forwards, eyelids flickering shut. Its ready embrace of ambiguity, not to mention Aoyama’s breast-related musings, probably rule it out for much younger viewers.
But for almost all ages, this is a heart-warming, imagination-tickling joy – and a film that should put Ishida and Colorido on every anime fan’s to-watch list.