Mawaru Penguindrum Anime Review
No two people on this Earth are exactly alike. If this weren't true, then world peace would have been easily achieved not long after the inauguration of civilized human settlements. It follows that many people have different ideas concerning the origin of the universe, the rules of it, and might question why there are even rules in the first place. In reality, nobody is really right or wrong because no one in the history of all time has been able to decipher the answers to these questions, since they are something far out of mortal reach.
Along with these ideas comes the question of fate. As in, are our actions pre-determined? Does free will actually exist? Does everything happen for a reason? The answers to these questions are subject to a large amount of deviation from person to person. Some are firm believers in "destiny," while others would see no purpose in a life where everything was set in stone from the moment that the first prokaryote came into existence. Undoubtedly, there are assets and detriments to both of these world views, but denizens of the latter group are often much more logical in their approaches, making it a priority to investigate if they are actually more correct than their opposition. The stalwart anime known as Mawaru Penguindrum pursues this inquiry with an admirable endurance, along with some other relevant extrapolations.
Mawaru Penguindrum, (known in English publications as Penguindrum) is a 24-episode anime series aired in 2011 and animated by Brain's Base, the company responsible for the Durarara!! and Baccano! anime adaptations. Penguindrum has an original narrative written by Kunihiko Ikuhara and Takayo Ikami. The story follows Kanba and Shouma Takakura, two bothers who seek to keep their ill sister, Himari, alive by following the orders of an alter ego of their sister being brought on by a mysterious penguin hat.
The role of main protagonist in Penguindrum is sort of split two ways between the Takakura brothers. The first of them, Shouma, is a moe-looking character who seems like he was taken directly from a visual novel, in which he is the protagonist of. The reason he is visual novel-esque is because he falls under the "nice guy" archetype and will usually settle for the standard definition of "morally correct." The narrative of the series isn't really about him, and he is a sort of everyman who represents the likely thoughts of the audience. His character feels shallow until the final few episodes, but this is countered by the fact of the entire remainder of the cast being considerably more conflicted in their thoughts.
Shouma's brother, Kanba, is near the opposite of his male sibling, as he is controversial in a lot of his approaches to certain problems. He would much rather stick with his pre-conceived notions about a certain topic than attempt to reach a new understanding of the environment around him. The few things that are dear to him are the main cause of his behavior, making him a very "hard-to-reach" person since it is difficult to break through all of the metaphorical barriers he has set around himself that prevent others from actually convincing him of anything.
The final Takakura sibling, Himari, is defined by her attention to minute detail and her pretended ignorance of anything negative. She's most comparable to the "loving mother" archetype in this regard. Her second personality, brought upon my a magical penguin hat, is more of a commanding and logical persona than that of her usual self. This alternate persona of hers also has a knack for never being joyous, making her fabulous garb, presence, and ability to make her clothes fall off for no apparent reason feel ridiculous at times.
Alter ego Himari also likes to do this a lot.
Ringo Oginome is a female student about the same age as Kanba and Shouma, but doesn't actually go to the same school as them. In a way, she is the main protagonist of the first half of the series, since many of the events are shown from her point of view, and the audience is given a lot of insight into her thoughts as well as how she came about conceiving them. She's a firm believer in fate and makes it her objective to make sure than everything that she believes should happen will happen. Other than this, Ringo is just some ditzy but charming girl who fails to comprehend a lot of the things that are obvious to the other characters.
As for supporting characters, there is Keiju Tabuki, one of the teachers for Shouma and Kanba, Yuri Takakago, Tabuki's love interest, Masako Natsume, a woman with unknown ulterior motives that is obsessed with Kanba, and Sanetoshi Watase, a mysterious man interested in the Takakura siblings. All of these characters manage to have significant details to them that are comparable to the four main characters, graying out the major conflicts throughout Penguindrum. This ends up making the show stand as a drama between conflicting ideals - each with equally good reasons for their conception, rather than a flat clash between two powers, where one is obviously made to be favored by the viewer over the other.
Let me go out on a limb here and make something clear that will (probably) contradict your expectations of this show. By this, I mean that Penguindrum is not a set-up for some kind of double incest ending that takes influence from both the endings of OreImo and Y Tu Mamá También (oh my gosh, I just vaguely spoiled the ending of two completely unrelated titles during the same sentence, and there's nothing you can do about it).
Instead, this series centers more on what normal people would see in sibling relations, examining the actual meaning that someone being related to you by blood actually entails, if anything at all. This is shown through the sort of unconditional love that the three main protagonists have for each other, and when this unconditional love is challenged, Penguindrum goes places with its subject matter that few other works of fiction have attempted.
Upon finding the magical penguin hat that cures Himari's mortality, the three siblings are given three penguins that don't resemble any real-life penguin species. These penguins, being invisible to everyone except the Takakura siblings, emanate the personalities of each sibling in exaggerated ways. For example, Kanba's penguin is as daring as his master, with a signature band-aid on his face to match. Kanba's penguin also has a habit of looking at pornographic material, a gag (I'm not sure if you could even call it that) that gets quite old by about the umpteenth time it appears.
Each penguin seems to infinitely follow in the wake of the person that they impersonate, often having side humor while the human characters are conversing. I found this feature to be a bit distracting from what was actually important. Perhaps Brain's Base could have gained something by having these comedic encounters occur on their own, rather than drawing the viewer's attention away from the narrative during critical dialogue. The penguins ultimately add nothing to the plot, excluding the early episodes, but they did help in emphasizing certain parts of the characters.
As for the genre of this show, I think that many online sites incorrectly label its primary genre as comedy. The definition of comedy is stated as: "a play, movie etc. of light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion." Sure, there's a few light-hearted overtones in Penguindrum, but these are far overshadowed by its serious tendency. There's also no adverse circumstance in this title, as the writing doesn't favor any of the characters over the others (though it does a decent job at making you believe so early on). I feel that it would be much better fitting if it were defined as a drama with comedic elements.
I find the show's use of self-reference to be appealing, as there are many points at which it plays on its ideas of "destiny" by having characters coincidentally appearing in the same area at the same time. This is also a reference to the ages-old cliché of characters just happening to be in the right place at the right time to advance the plot. Penguindrum uses this to place more emphasis on its central theme of fate.
During the first arc, the story focuses greatly on Ringo Oginome and her obsession with being in a relationship with Keiju Tabuki, even though he already has a significant other and is much older than her. At first, Ringo appears to the audience as deranged for doing this. However, when we are eventually shown her reasons for doing this, it gives us more than enough reason to empathize with her. This leads me to believe that Ringo is the best-written character in the series, due to her internal conflict that was derived from a relatively logical perspective. She shows us just how harmful someone's ideals can become to them, though they may have every reason to think that they are being realistic.
However, I did have a problem with Ringo's low amount of screen time in the second half. Yes, I understand that her character was resolved at this point and there wasn't much else to add to it, but I think that more detail could have been put into how much her way of thinking changed after her big realization.
As for the conclusion, I've heard many complaints concerning how it is "too cryptic" or "they didn't explain everything." This is of course due to the many supernatural elements that enter the veins of the narrative during the final few episodes, whilst they had only existed in the bones of the plot prior to this time. Yes, there are a lot of concepts that go without explanation here, but to me this is the writers adding more metaphor and not just a result of laziness. You see, many of the world's issues have conflicting sides to them which haven't been resolved to this day. Why should we expect a work of fiction to do the exact opposite of this, with no conceivable plot-related reason for it to do so? Moreover, I don't think that a narrative with fantasy components needs to explain its rules in full detail, as long as this coincides with the relative circumstances that surround it.
I also think there is a lot to gain from not giving the audience everything, as this often leads to them developing ideas about the narrative on their own. Factors such as this are important in making visual, non-interactive media more than just spectator events.
Animation & Sound
The animation of this series seems like a parody of studio Shaft, using odd-looking scenes, overlaying text, and having an overall abstract feeling. The non-story relevant characters appear as moving drawings that look like the signs on male and female restrooms. I don't know if this is meant to be another metaphor, an excuse to have a lower budget, or something else, but these things that are essentially moving restroom signs are hard to ignore. I don't have a likening for the animation style, since the lavish use of dark colors makes everything feel "heavy" in a sense. There's no real setbacks in the animation quality, but I just don't think the murky pallet is suitable for an unreal setting.
The opening songs are done in an alternative rock style. They not only fit the themes of the series, but are also very entertaining on their own. The remainder of the soundtrack doesn't leave that great of an impression, but it also didn't sound atrocious. Penguindrum does have an English dub, though you'll either have to stream it illegally or order it online to actually hear it. The only legal place where this series can be streamed (which is where I watched it) is Hulu, which I've grown to have a great discontent for, due to its incessant "need" to bombard viewers with two minutes of commercials three times over the course of one episode. There's not much to say about the Japanese cast, other than that they talked.
This fan-made trailer explains the gist of Penguindrum reasonably well.
Mawaru Penguindrum is in no way a bad series, as it accomplishes nearly all it set out to do in ample time. The characters and story are interesting and fullfilling, and the animation and sound departments do nothing other than enhance the narrative. Some might have a problem with the vagueness or confusingness of this show, which I find understandable. However, I suggest that you at least try to watch this series, no matter if you belong to this indignant party or not, since it was definitely far from a waste of time for me.