Penguin Highway

Contrary to the infamous song lyrics, we know how magnets work (you can see the details in James Lincoln’s video “How do Magnets Work - PHYSICS!”) In our present title, precocious schoolboy Aoyama wants to know, How do penguins work? When a group of penguins are sighted in the midst of a field in a small Japanese town, then vanish as a truck transports them away from town, it’s a question that naturally presents itself, and Aoyama isn’t waiting for the anchors on the nightly news to figure it out.

A 118-minute movie based on a 2010 light novel and released in Japan in 2018, the subtitle given on the Eleven Arts website for this year’s American release, “Penguins are just the tip of the iceberg,” is well said. This is science fiction, and 10-year-old Aoyama hearkens back to American boys of the post-Sputnik era who, as portrayed in fiction, yet also in real life, dreamed of rocketry and breathed the scientific method. So when the Antarctic flightless birds appear along the route he walks to school, he naturally enlists the help of classmate, past collaborator and friend Uchida. They can get a little ahead of themselves at their age, and while it’s clear their explorations and experiments are not just play, their zeal ably, movingly captures the adventurous spirit of boyhood.

But, as so often happens in science, looking into one mystery only reveals a one more perplexing. The anomalous penguins seem connected with a mysterious stream they’ve failed so far to follow to its end, and then, to a still stranger something in a field just beyond the woods on a hill. How do they all fit together? In all this Aoyama is still a child, for whom the ways of love are a new thing, and he has to go to elementary school, have his baby teeth out, and accept the last word from his father on many things. Fortunately, new girl in class Hamamoto rivals him in intellect and may aid in unraveling the mysteries. She becomes a potential rival for an even bigger presence: the dental assistant at the practice Aoyama visits, a busty and kind-hearted Onee-san who may be the key to the whole mystery. At least, according to one hypothesis. Add in a pesky bully who may also have an eye for Hamamoto, and Aoyama will need to use all his wits—and, as his father wisely reminds him, a little imagination—to get to the bottom of this iceberg.

The phenomena look flatly paranormal at times, but the scientific frame is never abandoned. In contrast to such references to concepts from physics as, for instance, Schrödinger’s Cat in To aru Majustu no Index (A Certain Magical Index) and entropy in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, here it does not reek of ornamentation or an attempt at fabricating depth in the plot, but informs the spirit of the anime, and is indispensable.

Endnote: There is a good amount of chess in this movie; Aoyama, Onee-san, and Hamamoto are all avid players.