Penguin Highway

By Tomihiko Morimi. Released in Japan by Kadokawa Shoten. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Andrew Cunningham.

For once, the book came first here. Yen has started a side business of publishing novelizations based on famous anime movies, but Penguin Highway was a novel turned into a movie. The prose is one of the best reasons to pick it up, as its narrator may be ten years old but he thinks that he’s a precise, logical scientist, and the book has fun with him sounding like this most of the time but sometimes letting the child come through. To Aoyama’s credit, he is pretty damn smart, though his two friends are no slouches either. I don’t remember doing quite as much scientific experimentation when I was their age, but then I was always more arts than sciences. The book helpfully is both, as the basic premise involves things such as eddies in the space-time continuum, but also has the sheer beauty, which must have looked great animated, of a can of Coke transforming into a penguin bit by bit.

As noted, Aoyama is smart and knows it, and tries not to get too egotistical but frequently fails, especially in his narrative headspace. He spends the days hanging out with best friend Uchida and fellow intellectual Hamamoto, avoiding the bullying of Suzuki and his two minions (why is it always one bully and two minions?), and getting his teeth cleaned as much as possible because he has a massive crush on the dental assistant, who is never named but is called “The Lady” throughout. Things are normal till one day, a bunch of penguins suddenly appear in a vacant lot. They don’t seem too bothered by being in Japan rather than Antarctica. Even more disturbing, a clearing in a local forest has The Sea, a giant sphere of water that seems to be influencing local topography. More things to analyze and write down, but also dangerous. And there are blue whales? And creatures that The Lady/Aoyama are calling Jabberwocks. Why is all this happening/ And how does it tie in with The Lady?

The plot is good, but Aoyama’s narrative is the best reason to read it. I started off the book laughing at him, as he sounded very much like a snooty fourth-grader, but as the book went on I really started to be drawn into his world. He is very smart about logical and scientific things, though when it comes to matters of the heart he’s lagging way behind, as even his best friend Uchida is able to see why Hamamoto is mad at him. For much of the book The Lady remains something of an enigma to us, and there are a few red herrings thrown around that are brushed off when the truth comes out (The Lady’s memories of her past, in particular). Also, loved Aoyama and Hamamoto’s dads, who both do their best to fully support their children so long as they don’t run into danger (which they do here, repeatedly).

The story ends on a somewhat bittersweet note, as with the best Japanese novels. It also has an afterword by famous manga author Moto Hagio discussing Aoyama and his tendency to be too clever by half. In the end, I don’t really have much to say about Penguin Highway except it was a really good book, and I’m glad I read it.

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