Aoyama (voiced by Kana Kita) is an exceptionally bright fourth grader with a gift for science, a mature outlook on life and no small amount of confidence. He reasons that when he eventually grows up many women will want to marry him. Yet Aoyama has his sights set on a beautiful, voluptuous, nameless twenty-something dental hygienist (Yu Aoi) with whom he sparks a life-altering friendship in the midst of a strange incident occurring around town. For some inexplicable reason the town is besieged by random penguins. The small, cute and cuddly birds pop out of nowhere to wreak chaos wherever they go. Aoyama is surprised to discover his beautiful friend somehow holds the power to make the penguins appear and disappear at will. Determined to solve her mystery, Aoyama conducts a series of scientific experiments and ropes in his meek bespectacled pal Uchida (Rie Kugimiya) and even smarter classmate Hamamoto (Megumi Han) who might be hanging out with him for reasons besides just science. Together the kids learn that the random penguin pop-ups are connected to an even grander paranormal mystery involving giant bubbles appearing everywhere and opening doorways through time and space. As events spiral beyond the kids' control, threatening lives, Aoyama discovers something truly incredible that sets him on the path to true maturity.
Way back in the Eighties seminal anime sitcom Urusei Yatsura did an episode where a peaceful little town was invaded by an army of adorable, mischief-making penguins. It is uncertain whether the episode influenced author Tomihiko Morimi but Japanese readers immediately embraced his 2010 science fiction novel Penguin Highway as a modern classic. Brought to the screen by animator Hiroyasu Ishida, who made his name with the outstanding two-minute comedy short Fumihiko's Confession (2009), the Studio Colorido production is a surreal coming of age fable. Mixing heady philosophical ideas about humanity, nature and existence with slapstick humour and adolescent longing (including Aoyama's disarmingly honest fixation on the lady's large breasts) the anime is tantamount to a fusion of Andrei Tarkovsky and Looney Tunes. While undoubtedly alienating to some Penguin Highway's deft balancing act, shifting from outright silliness to tender observations of childhood interaction to delirious sci-fi revelations marks it as something special. Ultimately the penguin mystery is less important than its impact upon the emotional lives of its characters and their evolving relationships. Indeed the triumph of the film lies in its vivid character animation, crafting faceted personalities. Particularly the central duo of Aoyama, a child who believes himself mature enough to have all the answers, and the enigmatic nameless Lady who gently, patiently nurtures him to discover otherwise whilst remaining the greatest mystery of them all. Viewers able to embrace the foregrounding of character exploration over an urgent sci-fi mystery plot and tune themselves in to the film's peculiar wavelength will emerge highly satisfied. Even enchanted.