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Literature / Penguin Highway

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Penguin Highway is a Japanese science fiction coming-of-age novel written by Tomihiko Morimi (The Tatami Galaxy, The Eccentric Family, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl) published in 2010. In 2018, it received a manga adaptation in Monthly Comic Alive and an anime film adaptation by Studio Colorido (Typhoon Noruda). Yen Press released an English translation of the novel in 2019.

Fourth grader Aoyama and a mysterious older woman known to him as Onee-san (Lady), who is a dental assistant and also Aoyama's first crush, seek out to discover the reason why penguins are suddenly appearing in Aoyama's quiet suburban neighborhood.


Tropes in this work include:

  • Adorably Precocious Child: Aoyama and Hamamoto. Aoyama observes and catalogs everything that catches his interest, making notes and drawing charts of his experiments. This ranges from the penguins, the Ocean, his baby tooth that fell out and Onee-san's breasts. Meanwhile, Hamamoto is introduced holding a book on the theory of relativity. They both seem to get it from their fathers, both of which are prominent researchers in their respective fields.
  • Alice Allusion: Jabberwocky is mentioned by Onee-san, who says that the Trope Image gave her nightmares. It relates to the seemingly-nonsensical nature of the penguins and Ocean. During the climax, when inside the Ocean, buildings and landscapes warp and connect together in bizarre ways, much like falling down the rabbit hole.
    Alice: "It seems very pretty, but it's rather hard to understand! Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas - only I don't exactly know what they are!"
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  • All Love Is Unrequited: Many of the romantic interests in the story are one-sided such as Suzuki's for Hamamato and Hamamato's for Aoyoma. Zig-zagged with Aoyoma and Onee-san's case, while Onee-San dosen't have the same romantic feelings for Aoyama that he has for her, she cares for him deeply.
  • Ambiguously Human: The dental assistant can turn objects into penguins, doesn't need to eat, and sickens if she gets too far from the Ocean. She has memories of living a normal life, but wonders near the end if they really happened.
  • Artistic License – Ornithology: Not in Japanese or English, but in French due to a gross mistranslation. The French word "pingouin" normally means "razorbill", a sea bird living in the Northern Atlantic − but the translation treats it as an equivalent of "penguin", whose actual French translation is "manchot". Thus during the whole movie you get gems like "razorbills live in Antartica" or "the Adélie razorbill". It is likely that since the confusion is frequent among French speakers anyway, the marketing department opted for the cuter word rather than an accurate translation.
  • Bitch Slap: Hamamoto delivers an impressive one for a nine-year-old girl to Suzuki, when he coughs up the secret about the Ocean to the researchers.
  • Bookends: The story starts and ends with Aoyama narrating his intentions as he does his morning routine.
  • Brutal Honesty: Aoyama admitting that he knows Suzuki is bullying him due to the latter's crush on Hamamoto and denies any "lovey-dovey" is going on. While the other two are right there. He then advises Suzuki to be more logical in admitting his feelings.
  • Buxom Is Better: Aoyama certainly thinks so.
    Hamamoto: "You only like her [Onee-san] because she has boobs!"
    Aoyama: "Yes, but the way I like her is separate from that."
    Hamamoto: "But you still like boobs!"
  • Cessation of Existence: It's left ambiguous exactly what happens to Onee-san once the Ocean is destroyed. It's true that she no longer exists in the "real world" but whether or not she and the penguins still exist in some capacity on the other side of the Ocean is unclear.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Hamamoto is immediately at odds with Onee-san the moment the two meet. Even at the prospect the penguin highway is connected with the Ocean, she refuses to work with Onee-san because she wants Aoyama's attention.
  • Crush Blush: Suzuki around Hamamoto. Hamamoto also blushes once or twice around Aoyama.
  • Daddy's Girl: Hamamoto and her father are shown to be very close. Her own academic inclinations seem to be modeled after him. When he disappears into the Ocean, she's absolutely despondent.
  • Eating Optional: The penguins don't need to eat. Neither does the dental assistant.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Discussed by Aoyama's father then later played straight.
  • Everything's Better with Penguins: And as it turns out, they play a big role in repairing the "sea" which is actually a big hole in the space-time continuum.
  • Gang of Bullies: Suzuki and his two unnamed cronies, who consistently hound Aoyama (due to the Love Triangle) and his friend. They're also shown messing with the other boys in class.
  • Good Parents: Aoyama's father is nothing but supportive of his son's exploits and gives him the means to continue his research. Aoyama's mother is also one in terms of looking out for Aoyama's health.
  • Groin Attack: When ambushed by Suzuki and cohorts, Aoyama more or less grabs/slaps Suzuki between the legs to make a getaway. Suzuki returns the favor when he catches Aoyama. Near the end of the film, Suzuki does the same move on one of the evacuation crew so that Aoyama can run to find Onee-san.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The dental assistant destroys the Ocean even though she may not be able to survive at the end. She disappears after, her ultimate fate unknown.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Aoyama wouldn't be the nicest guy out there, neither is he a jerk. Much of his emotions are hidden by his stoic persona. Though he has shown to care greatly about his friends and family, such as when he comforts his sister when she learns about death.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Aoyama and the dental assistant.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Suzuki is an arrogant bully who takes pleasure in picking on Aoyama. He shows his good side during climax when he helps Aoyama escape the school to find Onee-San.
  • Love Triangle: Aoyama has a crush on Onee-san while Hamamoto has a crush on him and Suzuki has a crush on her.
  • Magic Skirt: When she gets caught by one of the evacuation crew, Hamamoto gets held under one arm. Despite all her struggling, hitting and kicking, her skirt remains in place. However, this means nothing if you're standing behind her, like Suzuki, who suffers a minor freak-out before pulling himself together.
  • Mind Screw: During the climax, where reality is unraveling due to the Ocean expanding. Geography makes no sense, buildings and objects float in the sky, the world wraps around itself, paths lead to where they logically shouldn't and so on. And that's not getting into the whole symbolism around the theory of Relativity and what Onee-san, the penguins and the Ocean are.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: Penguins obviously don't naturally live anywhere near the suburbs, much less anywhere in Japan. Aoyama wants to figure out where these penguins are coming from.
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: A reverse variant when Onee-san notices Aoyama's eyes wandering up from the chess board a bit too often.
  • Nice Girl: Onee-San a is very cheerful and friendly-natured lady and pampers Aoyama almost like he were her son.
  • No Name Given: Everyone outside the research team and Suzuki. Even the dental assistant is only named Onee-san all throughout (Lady in the novel).
  • Not So Stoic: Aoyama has his moments. Besides being somewhat obsessed with large breasts, he's also occasionally dropped his facade, especially when under stress.
  • Pot Calling The Kettle Black: During Suzuki's introduction, Aoyama calls him arrogant. This is right after Aoyama's self-introduction describing how smart, amazing and popular he is/will be.
  • Power Incontinence: Onee-san doesn't know how or why she makes the penguins, it just happens. Aoyama's research is to explain her powers better. Though she might have just been pretending to not know to give Aoyama a mystery to solve. Alternatively, her memories were locked away until The Reveal. She also unconsciously creates monsters based on the Jabberwocky illustration, out of her desire to continue existing.
  • Precocious Crush: Aoyama, a fourth-grader, has a crush on Onee-san, an adult. This is much to the dismay of Hamamoto, who has a crush on him while he's fixated on an adult woman she can't possibly compete against.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Played straight by Hamamoto. Somewhat downplayed by Aoyama who has a chess teacher. Said chess teacher is Onee-san, who seems to be more of an average person than a genius like either of the two kids.
  • The Stoic: Aoyama is pretty unflappable and straightforward. Though there are times when he's obviously holding himself back from emoting. He's probably emulating his dad, who's pretty polite and staid.
  • They Would Cut You Up: Aoyama's major concern on keeping the origin of the penguins a secret is to protect Onee-san from becoming a test subject. He's very firm about that, whether or not that would actually happen.

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