Add to the off-the-chart screenings that are well on the way to being the major source of my film viewings, a Japanese Culture Center screening at Event George Street of Hiroyasu Ishida’s Penguin Highway/Pengin Haiwei the first time out for its Studio Ghibli graduate director.
It’s off kilter story line derives from a book by the author of “Walk on Girl, the Night Is Short” and this one asserts itself on all levels a whole lot better than the film of that did.
Ten-year-old Aoyama-kun is first seen in a downwards track in his hyper-organised room with the sign “Research Lab” on the door. He has calculated the three thousand days plus it will take before he’s an adult and can’t wait. His life is already complicated enough with student bullies, his fixation on dentist’s receptionist Onee-san and her big boobs, and his competition with Hamamoto, the chess player girl in his class who has studied the theory of relativity.
Then the black blobs that appear in the field turn out to be Adelie penguins, despite the fact that these are not found in Japan. Not incomprehensibly, this phenomenon intrigues him and he sets about applying researcher tools to account for it ... and he has a loose tooth.
Along with his best mate Uchida, our hero starts exploring the dark woods with the rusted-out car (notably Miyazaki) discovering that the chess girl has already found a mysterious hovering globe of water that reacts to their presence. Dentist lady gets him loose from the soft drink machine the bullies have roped him to, yanks the tooth and gives a logic defying demonstration of managing to fling a cola can that metamorphoses into a penguin.
And then the bully catches a Jabberwocky and the summoned scientists, including Hamamoto’s dad, get together with him to examine what the kids considered to be their property while a tsunami phenomenon threatens.
I don’t know that it would all qualify as anime - no spacemen, no explosions, no princesses - Japme definitively.
The piece is full of unexpected, endearing detail. The penguins’ appearance is greeted by a hissing cat, ants track the foliage, one bird swims upstream in the drain thwarting the angry domestic pets and the lead’s big brother (?) provides an account of the effect of including the world in a pouch by turning it inside out so that what was inside is now outside - kind of zen this.
The climax is a surreal scene of the lead duo on a blackbirds raft traveling the world they know re-assembled in gravity defying arrangements, an example of what make animation the right choice here.
We are not what used to solemn pre-teeners faced with their adult world or the determinedly not cute penguins. The only one they try to make a pet explodes when taken on one of those nice toon trains. There’s a different tone to this still child-friendly piece.
It has an acceptably simplified but recognisable Japme finish with bit of Tezuka in the character design, along with off-kilter touches like the absence of music on the titles. At near two hours the piece is too long but even at this length it deserves a place in the Japanese cartoon repertory which is moving closer to a central place in our experience of movies - think Gorô Miyazaki’s 2011 Up from Poppy Hill/Kokuriko-zaka karaor Hiromasa Yonebayashi & Giles New’s 2017 Mary and the Witches Flower/Meari to majo no hana.I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this one.