The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Mawaru Penguindrum

Title: Mawaru Penguindrum
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Company: Brains Base
Format: 24 episodes
Dates: 3 Jul 2011 – 23 Dec 2011

Synopsis: Takakura Kanba and his twin brother Shouma live together with their younger sister Himari in a small, multi-colour painted house. However, their parents are missing and Himari has been sick for many years and is close to death’s door. Kanba and Shouma resolve to make Himari’s last days happy. A trip to a nearby aquarium one day is abruptly ended when Himari collapses and is rushed to hospital, where she dies soon after. However, in a strange twist of fate, a penguin-like hat purchased from the aquarium’s souvenir shop magically brings Himari back to life. But this hat is anything but charitable, giving the brothers a virtually impossible task in exchange for keeping Himari alive.

The Highlights
Directing: Ikuhara Kunihiko‘s style is audacious; defies convention with flair at every turn.
Story: Wrapped up in symbolism and thematics; a puzzle that will take a long time to completely solve.
Mood: Swings constantly but effortlessly between comedy and suspense.
Plot: Towards the end, almost every episode finishes with a game-changing cliff-hanger.
Music: An excellent and eclectic soundtrack; the ARB covers are outstanding.
Ending: Cathartic and (to be sufficiently vague so as to not spoil it) inspired.

What describes Mawaru Penguindrum? Surreal. Audacious. Revolutionary. Forget about comparing Mawaru Penguindrum to any other anime. This is a series with scant regard to concepts like convention or expectation, and the idea of trying to shoehorn it into an established genre is almost laughable. After a twelve year directorial hiatus since his last anime, Utena: The Movie, Ikuhara Kunihiko has made the most victorious of returns with an anime of ambition unmatched by anything I’ve seen in the last ten years.

Penguindrum‘s story is wrapped in what feels like countless layers of symbolism and thematics and the timeline is non-linear, almost to point of being erratic. I’d be lying if I claimed to understand all of it, just as I’m convinced that people will continue to find motifs, symbols and references deliberately left by Ikuhara within the show to be interpreted and discussed years from now. The themes that Penguindrum covers, some directly and some a little more obliquely, are numerous and include things like fate, family, atonement, rape, death and meaning in a nihilistic world, all of which are treated in unconventional ways. And despite its abundance of ideas, it never feels like a scattershot either, giving each concept enough time to develop before honing in on its primary two themes in the latter episodes. Penguindrum never commits the offense of using its surreal presentation to obscure a story light on content. This is an anime that’s packed with meaning.

With that said, Penguindrum‘s bombastic style, which complements the rollercoaster plot, is appealing of itself. Ikuhara has gone to town with the visuals; cartoonish penguins, starry sparkles, scarlet theatre curtains that drape the screen… and a transformation sequence set to a cover of ARB‘s “Rock Over Japan” so vibrant and fabulous, it must be seen. The mood swings madly at times; some episodes are equal parts biting comedy and agonizing suspense and the majority of them end with a mind-blowing plot twist or game-changing cliff-hanger. But whatever’s taking place, the visuals and directing always serve the scene, often in ways that are flamboyant enough to demand your attention, but without detracting from what really matters. Each of Penguindrum‘s aesthetic elements, from the animation to the artstyle and characters designs to the music, can be described as audaciously eclectic. I have to nitpick to find flaws, and while the animation does become a bit inconsistent in some of the latter episodes, and the voice acting isn’t particularly exceptional outside of Horie Yui, from an artistic and creative point of view, this show is packed with an immense amount of flair and ambition.

Penguindrum is, at times, a difficult and even exhausting anime to watch and not everyone will like it (as seen already from the fierce debates that it’s ignited) but it is, for mine, a must see, if only to witness what happens when an anime maker of supreme confidence pushes the medium to its boundaries. Simultaneously witty and surreal, and keenly aware of its intentions to be unlike anything else, Penguindrum is incredibly unique and the type of convention-defying series that I desperately crave to see more of in anime. Its cathartic ending is a final reward on top of an experience I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. When Suzumiya Haruhi(1,2) came out, it was immediately obvious that anime was changed forever, but the crystal ball is much hazier when it comes to predicting how the industry as a whole will react to Penguindrum. If it wanted, anime could go back to business as usual after this, but it would be a great injustice if it did so.

The Rating: 9

Reviewed by: Sorrow-kun

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