One day, the residents of an exurban Japanese town wake up to find a field full of penguins. Aside from some gossip, the people in the town essentially dismiss the arctic birds as a fluke. Our 4th-grade protagonist, Aoyama, and his friend, Hamamoto, do some research—impressively coordinated, observation-based research, carefully following the scientific method.
Because of his research, Aoyama is the only person in town to discover that his favorite dental hygienist is making the penguins. From soda cans. And Penguin Highway gets stranger from there.
Wide swaths of readers (and viewers—it was made into a critically acclaimed anime in 2018) consumed the story as science-fiction. It won the Nihon SF Taisho Award in 2010, more or less the equivalent of the Nebula Award in the US. But I think it’s more rewarding to think about Penguin Highway as a work of magical realism.
Wendy B. Faris defines the genre: “very briefly, magical realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed.” Penguin Highway meets her five criteria:
- Its magic is essentially “irreducible.” Even though the book proposes a kind of explanation, it isn’t one that comes from the ordinary rules of the universe. Aoyama’s scientific investigations ultimately turn up many “hows,” but very few “whys.”
- The realism in the world of Penguin Highway is really real. Aoyama’s is a normal, exurban Japanese town.
- Readers hesitate between “two contradictory understandings of events.” Especially at the beginning of the novel, we ask ourselves, “How much of this are we supposed to believe is actually happening?” The main characters are kids, after all, and kids are often unreliable narrators.
- At the climax of Penguin Highway “we experience the closeness or near-merging of two realms, two worlds.” But no spoilers.
- Finally, the novel brings up questions about time, space, and, to a much lesser extent, identity.
The reason I want to defend Penguin Highway as a piece of magical realism is because I think we get a better sense of author Tomihiko Morimi’s mastery this way.
We’ve come to think of magical realism as an especially appropriate post-colonial medium. Many of the genre’s most important works are, at least in part, political in nature. Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is, among many other things, a stinging rebuke of European and American intervention in South America. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a loose allegory for the partition of India. In Beloved, Toni Morrison presents a community almost torn apart by the long-standing trauma of slavery.
The history of Japan and colonialism is, of course, complicated. Unlike most of its nearest neighbors, Japan has never been a foreign colony and was only briefly occupied by the US after World War II, from 1945-1952. Nevertheless, Japan has also been fertile ground for magical realism. The most visible Japanese writer today in the West is almost certainly Haruki Murakami; many of his most notable works—Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84, Killing Commendatore—are fine examples of the genre.
But post-colonial or not, from Japan or elsewhere, magical realist texts often share similar concerns. New versus old. “Western” versus indigenous. What we gain versus what we leave behind. Isolation. Loneliness. Marginalization. The tone of these works is often melancholic, remorseful, occasionally reproachful.
Penguin Highway takes up virtually none of these concerns. It’s almost entirely apolitical. Aoyama is about as sure of his identity as any character I’ve ever encountered. He isn’t lonely at all—and the magical events draw an even closer-knit community with him as the center. Old Japan is neither destroyed nor resurrected. The novel is simply a tale about a normal city that experiences a series of fantastical events.
And yet, it is a work of magical realism.
The real is magical in Penguin Highway because the novel is a joyful celebration of the possibilities of life. It is rich with what Franz Roh, the art critic who coined the term magical realism, describes as, “the possibility of feeling existence, of making it stand out from the void.”
Our hero is only in the 4th grade. He takes exploring the drainage ditch behind his school as seriously as he does solving the mysteries of the lady and the penguins. To him, they are all marvels. His attitude reminds us that there are discoveries to be made in the realistic world—why shouldn’t some of those discoveries also be magical?
That’s what makes Penguin Highway such an uplifting read. It reminds jaded readers of just how wondrous our world can be.
Credo, Kevin. “The Magical Realism of ‘Penguin Highway.’” The Crescent Magazine.
Faris, Wendy B. “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.
Napier, Susan J. “The Magic of Identity: Magic Realism in Modern Japanese Fiction” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.
Roh, Franz. “Magical Realism: Post-Expressionism” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community.
More by Tomihiko Morimi: The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl