Penguin Highway: An E.T. for the Otaku Generation

There’s a scene in Hook, Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film about Peter Pan returning to Neverland, where an exasperated Peter asks his son, “When are you going to stop acting like a child?” The boy replies, “But I am a child.” Peter, now grown up, has forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, and it’s only later by regaining a child’s joy and innocence that he’s able to save the day and undo the damage that adults have done.

In Penguin Highway, a delightful anime film released in North America this year by Eleven Arts, a great mystery is at hand, one that no amount of genius adults can unravel. In fact, the more involved they are, the worse the situation becomes. It takes a group of precocious children led by Aoyama, a genius elementary schooler, to solve an intergalactic puzzle and make a rapidly collapsing world right again (NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD).

The movie, based on Torihiko Morimi’s novel and manga, begins with a most unusual occurrence as penguins suddenly appear up in a sleepy, Japanese suburb, seemingly drawn to a nearby creek leading into a forest. The inquisitive Aoyama, armed with a mind set on scientific methods and inquiry, investigates. He’s at once an inexperienced child and far more mature than others his age, frequently speaking the truth and doing what he feels is right no matter the consequence. In fact, he seems more mature than a beautiful dental assistant never given a name in the film, who is quick-tempered and not all-together responsible. Her mystery extends past her name, though, as Aoyama soon finds out that the “Lady” is the one bringing the penguins to life when she tosses coke cans in the air, which transform and fall back to the earth as cute animals. But she creates other, more nefarious creatures, as well.

The Lady’s connection to the penguins, and even more so to a massive, watery bubble in the heart of the forest that functions as an energy source of some kind, draws the attention of local researchers, including Hanamoto, the father of another inquisitive youth (a classmate of Aoyama’s who harbors a crush on him). But it’s the children in the film that discover the energy source first—when the researchers become involved, things spin out of control as the bubble grows and absorbs parts of the town and even people, including the older Hanamoto, and creatures who feast on the penguins, whom the Lady refers to as jabberwocky, begin to appear.

The situation Aoyama and his classmates find themselves in is otherworldly, but the path from tranquility to an end of innocence is a universal experience. Who of us doesn’t remember some landscape—a rolling hill, simmering blacktop, or in my case, untamed desert—where friends gathered and dreamed the world away, without worrying about work and schedules and the stressful adulthood ahead, playing and imagining like the future was an open book? For Aoyama and his friends, Uchida and the younger Hanamoto, that place is an open plain in the middle of the forest where the bubble resides. A secret path leads to the clearing, and there is magic in the air, both of the kind triggered by childhood imagination and the scientific sort, as the group conducts research (including sending a model spaceship into the bubble). But the magic is tainted when adults, brought to the scene through a fatuous betrayal, destroy the serenity.

That destruction brings to mind a Spielberg film other than Hook. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Elliott, a boy living in California, discovers the eponymous alien with whom he bonds. Their relationship forms through meetings in secret clearings, the keeping secrets of from mom, and a telepathic connection that develops between the two. It is a child’s fantasy as a child would dream it—a hurting boy from a divorced family forms a special connection with an unimaginable being.

Aoyama’s home situation is more stable—his father is his mentor and his relationship with his mother and younger sister are wonderful—and so while he doesn’t tell his parents explicitly about what is happening, Aoyama is not necessarily keeping it a secret from them. However, he develops bonds with those he does tell, just as Elliott does when sharing the secret of E.T. with his brother and sister; Aoyama, too, has confidantes who are the only ones to know of the other-worldly experience happening—at least at first. It becomes untenable to keep such whispers quiet; in both films, the truth is discovered by scientists tracking down aliens and by other children who are at first at odds with the protagonists—the friends of Elliott’s brother in E.T. and Suzuki and his goons in Penguin Highway—but later become accomplices and friends, forming alliances against the adults.

And then there’s this: Elliott isn’t the only young boy to have his own extra-terrestrial.

The film’s most stunning revelation isn’t the unusual creation of the penguins or the existence and material of the bubble (it’s a bending of space-time): it’s the origin of who created them. The Lady isn’t a lady at all—she’s an alien, one who seems to exist to prevent the earth from being swallowed up whole by the bubble phenomenon. But she doesn’t understand her existence—in fact, the Lady thinks she’s human all along until Aoyama has his eureka moment, connecting the dots (or stars as it were). This “adult” alien is neither malevolent nor manipulative; she simply cares for Aoyama and spends quality time with him, inciting budding feelings of love within the boy. While Elliott dearly needed a friend in E.T., Aoyama finds his first love, connecting with her through chess, dental work, and conversation rather than through a telepathic bond.

As the film reaches its conclusion, the Lady saves the town (and perhaps the entire world) through her penguins, who eat the bubble. But since the bubble is a source of energy for the Lady, the penguins she creates dissapear, and then after a wave goodbye to Aoyama, so does she, preceded a bit by a line that again echoes the little brown alien, and particularly his most famous words as she states, “It’s time to return home!”

Aoyama does have a final opportunity to say goodbye, receiving a hug from the Lady before she walks out to a field and simply vanishes. It’s a difficult end for the boy, and for the audience—having entered the mindset of a child, we understand how hard it is for him to lose her. All the more in E.T. with the final encounter between Elliott and his friend, who gives the boy a hug and says, “I’ll be right here” as he touches the child’s forehead, before entering his spaceship and flying away.

I cried when I watched the ending of E.T. as a child; so did my own kids when I showed it to the them for the first time. But even in the sadness, there’s hope: A spaceship can travel anywhere, and rumors over the years of a sequel to E.T. tell us the same, that he might one day return to see his friend, but even if not, we know that their adventure has set Elliott, already a kind, pure-hearted boy, on an excellent and good path in a life that could have gone astray because of the choices of adults. For Aoyama, the path may be even clearer, as he explains in a final narration that one day he will find a way to meet the Lady again, and because we’ve seen his genius, we believe that it will happen and that, as an adult, he will be able to find love with her. But the conclusion of Penguin Highway equally reminds us that even if not, the adventure by itself was worthwhile. Like E.T., the finale includes a shot of a spaceship—the test one that Aoyama and his friends sent into the sphere—but the message is the same. The relationship between boy and alien was the most valuable of journeys, one of hope, mystery, love, and friendship, in thanks to a visitor from the stars.



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