Author Tomihiko Morimi is perhaps best known as the mind behind Tatami Galaxy and the Night is Short, Walk on Girl, but more recently you may recognise him for Penguin Highway. The film adaption of the book was released in Japan last year, with some select screenings held across the UK. Now publisher Yen Press has stepped up to release the original novel in English, the first of Morimi’s popular works to make it overseas. Does his work live up to the hype? Let’s find out!
The story follows intelligent fourth-grader schoolboy Aoyama, who spends his days researching anything and everything to become even more knowledgeable about the world around him. Summer is almost upon the small town Aoyama lives in and he’s looking forward to spending even more time exploring with his friends. However, when penguins suddenly appear in the middle of town, Aoyama might have found himself the perfect mystery to investigate over the holidays. No one knows where these penguins came from or why they suddenly vanish when taken from town, but if anyone is going to solve the mystery it’ll surely be our protagonist!
As it turns out, the penguins aren’t the only thing Aoyama has to research. There is also an intriguing woman (who goes unnamed) working at his dentist’s office. The woman appears to have the power to create penguins, but only sometimes when the right conditions align. Why are she and penguins connected? Aoyama ponders this question and soon embarks on an adventure of a lifetime in order to find out the answer.
The premise of Penguin Highway is surprisingly one of the most normal of any of Morimi’s books and it makes the perfect introduction to his work in English. The way the story is structured is almost like you’re reading Aoyama’s research notes for yourself, with each section being a look at one particular scene or day. Aoyama is a diligent believer of writing everything of importance down, so through these snippets we can follow his day-to-day life without being bogged down by anything of lesser importance. It’s the sort of writing I initially worried would feel disjointed, but it works out surprisingly well.
Penguin Highway does a fantastic job of walking the line between realism and outright fantasy. It’s hard to believe everything that’s happening around Aoyama and, given his young age, it’d be easy to write off as his imagination working overtime, but Morimi works hard to keep you guessing. You may want to write off the mysterious happenings of a young child’s own making, but there are just enough elements that nag at you, convincing you that there is more to this than meets the eye. It’s great storytelling, the likes of which we don’t often see brought to the West.
One of the things I really appreciated about this book is how easy a read it was. It was a compelling read for sure, but it was also easy to relax with in a way a lot of novels aren’t. The characters were fun, believable and full of Morimi’s signature charm. Aoyama is overconfident and often accidentally smug (he doesn’t always realise how his words come off), but that’s endearing in its own way. His personality may rub some readers the wrong way, but I think provided you remember he’s just a child, it’s easy to forgive some of his more annoying traits. Even if you don’t like Aoyama, then the nameless women should keep you reading. She’s cheerful, carefree and almost whimsical in personality, which works well in contrast to Aoyama’s more serious nature. The only real issue with the cast is that Aoyama is fascinated by breasts and often makes references to them, which are usually for comedic value. I found them funny but their inclusion does mean the book is somewhat unsuitable for younger readers, which is a shame, given the plot is otherwise very appealing to those of all ages.
I feel that it’s also worth noting that for people who have watched the film adaption already, the ending of the story works better here than it did in the movie. The final act of Penguin Highway goes by a lot faster in the book and that prevents it from outstaying its welcome the way it does in the film.
Penguin Highway comes to the UK thanks to Yen Press and has been released as an attractive hardback book. The translation has been handled by Andrew Cunningham and it reads well with each character having their own distinct voice. Yen Press is due to release Morimi’s The Night is Short, Walk on Girl in July and I hope these two are the first of many of his books to make it into English.
Overall Penguin Highway is a delightful, magical book. The West has long awaited the arrival of Tomihiko Morimi’s books and this title is well worth the wait. Penguin Highway offers a summertime adventure the likes of which we’ve not seen for quite some time – it’s fun, comical and well written. Certainly a release not to be missed!