Review: Mawaru Penguindrum

[Synopsis]: On an outing to the aquarium, the twin brothers Takakura Shouma (Kimura, Ryouhei) and Takakura Kanba (Kimura, Subaru) are alarmed by the collapse of their terminally ill, younger sister Himari (Arakawa, Miho). Though she is rushed to the hospital, she passes away quickly after arriving. Himari is then revived and possessed by a strange entity that tasks the two brothers with finding an enigmatic item called the ‘Penguindrum’ in order to save Himari’s life and alter their fate.

[Characters]:

The cast of Penguindrum, though small in number, each exhibit great purpose and meaning as they are introduced and additional information is provided about them. Almost every character lends themselves well to the narrative of the show while reinforcing the themes present all throughout tremendously. At times the character drama and the eccentricities of some of the cast seem at first outlandish and bizarre yet they ultimately remain relatable characters and avoid both melodrama and perhaps more importantly, over-obvious archetypes entirely. Because the show repeatedly reveals the hidden traits and motivations of its characters it runs the risk of allowing its cast to act unrealistically or unbelievably in the retrospective and comes close in a few places however never truly transgresses in this way and the resulting characterization of the cast comes off as highly complex and compelling. Nobody is as they first appear and the continuous reveals constantly shift the loyalty and perception of both the characters and the viewers.

Takakura Shouma, the younger of the two brothers, is tender and caring and more outwardly emotional than Kanba though he is plenty emotional in his own way. Shouma pushes back against Kanba’s sometimes tactless and brash behavior and doesn’t believe that the end justifies the means to the same extent as his brother. Kanba, who contrasts quite notably with Shouma’s personality, is far more headstrong on top of being flirtatious and a known womanizer. He often appears more serious than Shouma and seems to carry weight of the world on his shoulders which fits well with his heavy sense of responsibility, especially to his family and Himari. Though the two brothers act quite differently they get along well and are bound tightly by their shared familial love for their sister. Kanba ultimately offers a little more depth of character than Shouma who struggles for narrative purpose partway through the show however both brothers are ultimately both quite compelling characters and their ever-evolving backstories keep them interesting all throughout the story.

The Takakura brother’s sister, Himari, is calmly composed and cheerful and like Shouma is very kindhearted despite her terminal diagnosis. From very early on it becomes quite obvious why the brothers would go to the extent that they do to save her as her innocent and adorable nature makes her more than endearing. I also think that her voice actress, Arakawa Miho, deserves a special mention as her performance was both distinctly unique and spectacular – pushing an already lovable character even further. Though outwardly happy she at times gives insight into her more serious thoughts which keeps her characterization fresh like many other characters and presents an interesting dichotomy between her mindsets. Himari’s friend and the acquaintance of both Shouma and Kanba, Oginome Ringo, receives a great deal of attention in the first half of the show as its plot closely concerns her. Though she does not exhibit the same level of character intracacy as the Takakura siblings she is compelling in her own right despite acting mainly as a comedic character in the first half of the show. While the compelling nature of the rest of the cast is mostly tied to the complexity of their characterization, Ringo’s lies in her narrative relevance and presentation – she offers an interesting personality and though her fantasy-lust and deranged nature may at first feel grating, she developmentally finds her place in the story and becomes more bearable because of it.

Though one would not initially think that they would deserve a mention in this category, I feel that the trio of penguins who accompany the Takakura siblings are very much justified in receiving an acknowledgement here. At premise one might worry that the seemingly random, comedy-relief penguins would be more distracting and intrusive than they are however they are actually handled spectacularly and are actually fairly distant from the immediate drama of the show – their antics transpiring either at appropriate times or in diminutive ways that don’t take away from the story at hand yet providing some lighthearted juxtaposition. The way in which each Penguin somewhat mirrors their respective sibling is additionally interesting and enjoyable; Himari’s penguin constantly knitting and playing with her while Kanba’s and Shouma’s look at dirty magazines and eat ravenously respectively. Though this is for the most part a comedic trait of the penguins, Penguindrum finds ways to utilize them in creative ways – allowing for changes in the penguin’s mimicry and behavior to reflect the changes taking place in the characters themselves.

[Art/Animation]:

As if it weren’t enough that the cast of the show was as fun and entertaining as it was, Penguindrum additionally offers stunning visuals in a variety of ways. Though the cinematography is highly visionary and the effective use of symbols is intensely pervasive, perhaps the most notable element of Penguindrum’s visuals is its color palette. The show is explosively colorful, utilizing very vibrant selections to present a beautiful environment and aesthetic while simultaneously at times undercutting the otherwise warm and bright aesthetic with paler, darker colors in times of tension and drama. This technique works wonderfully for the show and its art quality is consistently thrilling all throughout. Due to the extreme prevalence of especially vibrant colors, some of them, namely some of the shades of reds, can become a bit tired after a while but I didn’t find this distracting or even a truly negative aspect of Penguindrum’s aesthetic given its innumerable visual successes.

Outside of the general presentation of the show, the character designs are diverse and are often as creative as the colors and scenery that surround though some are more crudely inventive than others. Penguindrum has a great many fantastically bizarre settings and environments within which the story unfolds and the manner in which it presents both a change in location as well as flashbacks I found highly artistic and interesting. Ringo sports a great selection of gag faces throughout the first half of the show that lend enormously to her comedy however I found her fantasy, cut-out delusions a bit tiresome after a stretch as their purpose is quickly realized early on in their usage and thankfully they expire fairly quickly in relevance to the entirety of the show.

[Story]:

Though Penguindrum succeeds both in presenting a compelling cast of characters and gorgeously artistic visuals, it is most undoubtedly in its narrative and more importantly its themes that it succeeds to the greatest extent. Despite its somewhat cartoonish aesthetic, the subject matter of the show is more adult than it may at first appear. While outlandish at times in its presentation and design, the show’s drama remains grounded and understandable. Penguindrum provides a large number of mysteries early on given the way in which it conducts itself – constantly providing character revelations causing the viewer to reassess how the character had behaved up until that point and perhaps even more often presenting a scene that makes little sense at the time and withholding its ultimate implications and context until later. The manner in which its narrative unfolds is very much artistically driven and provides both an incredibly compelling means of telling the story while also keeping the plot itself increasingly interesting as it progresses. Though the story has many incomprehensible elements and plot points, it never strays far from its premise, allowing it to remain cohesive while addressing more obscure convoluted material.

Penguindrum possesses an extraordinarily strong thematic sense of itself that I can hardly compare to any other show given the shear multitude and depth of its symbols and themes. The symbols of the show are offered very straightforwardly as to be quite accessible yet their implications run so far and wide that they feel inexhaustible even after devoting a great deal of thought to them – the thought-provoking nature of the show was what I found to be the show’s greatest strength and appeal despite its numerous other areas of success. The metaphorical and symbolic elements of the show at times became blurred with the truly fantastical elements present in the narrative however I don’t feel that this was entirely a negative thing – blurring the lines between the metephorical and what literally took place is quite an interesting thing to read into and discern and lends itself well to the artistic tone of the show.

From apples, classic symbols of knowledge and punishment, to trains and institutions – from penguins and birds, to cages and boxes, Penguindrum presents an endlessly fascinating list of symbols that yield especially compelling realizations in relation to the story being told. Though it is fairly light in these things in the first half of the show as it explores Ringo’s drama and the brother’s search for the Penguindrum, they become far more prevalent in the latter half as the show dials back its comedic elements in favor of more sincere drama. I especially enjoyed the metaphor of the ‘Child Broiler’. Though its themes are similarly widespread, concerning nature versus nurture, the ramifications of family, and the loved versus the scorned, Penguindrum’s most recognizable theme is that of fate which is introduced in the show’s opening monologue and paralleled in its second episode. If all things are fated then what is the point if we cannot divert the outcome? If all things are fated, then all things, no matter how bad or miserable, happen for a reason. The show offers a number of different viewpoints of fate and its role in the story tends to tie each theme and symbol together.

Perhaps what impressed me most about Penguindrum’s themes and symbols was that it is exactly the kind of show that might typically lose itself amongst its cryptic reveals and artistic presentation – too often do shows of similar determination stop at merely idle musings instead of pressing on to further question or even resolve the subjects that it initially tackles. Though Penguindrum does not offer all of the answers to the questions that it poses and is highly up for interpretation in a number of areas, it is for the most part, entirely cohesive thematically and never needlessly discussed something without effective purpose. Furthermore, it maintains a fairly intelligible narrative despite its exceptionally ridiculous nature and complicated undertones – some of its visuals are downright bizarre and some of its metaphorical recounts desperately want for real world parallels however the story itself and the plot at hand remains immediately digestible which I found to be an incredibly impressive balance of artistic storytelling.

[Music]:

The soundtrack was very enjoyable and lent itself excellently to each scene. The music was highly varied in both its use and appearance and I thought it was especially good at introducing strain and tension through repeated sounds and rhythms. The soundtrack also felt surprisingly flexible, at one moment soft and sentimental and in the next bearing down on the characters and the viewer.

[Final Thoughts and Rating]: 

For me, Penguindrum dances on a knife’s edge in a number of ways – from how its continuous character reveals threaten to damage their retrospective actions to the way in which it balances its themes and metaphorical elements against the literal plot of the show constantly at risk of forgetting itself amidst its own obscurity and ridiculousness. If I had to cite any legitimate qualms about the show I would say that Natsume Masako’s backstory felt slightly mismanaged due to the comedic nature in which it was told – it somewhat cheapened what could have been sincere character drama and when it came time to rely on it later on it didn’t feel nearly as strong as it might have otherwise.

I liked a large number of the characters however I can’t say for sure whether I care much for them with the exception of Himari beyond their association to Penguindrum – they are excellent characters in relation to the story however not the most memorable or strong in comparison to those from other works. I would attribute this odd strength of character to their ability to become thematic vehicles which only lends them strength within the context of the narrative they act within.

Rating: 9

I gave Penguindrum a 9 because I found its means of storytelling incredibly provocative, its symbols and themes highly entertaining, and its visuals both fun and artistic. Despite the show’s outlandish aesthetics and plot developments I couldn’t help but enjoy their crudeness alongside everything else because of how well everything was managed. I found the show’s interpretive and open-ended material to be incredibly compelling and their presence gave proof to a fantastic vision driving everything forward.

[Recommendations]:

Though Penguindrum’s subject matter at times concerns romance I don’t feel that it was all that interested in that genre aspect and woulnd’t recommend the show for that reason unless the prospective viewer was interested in the other areas of the show as well. It has strong mystery elements and is definetly worth a watch for those looking for a show that will keep them guessing and reassessing. The show doesn’t spell out much of its resolution or even some of its more obscure points outright and so for those who find this kind of tactic taxing or unenjoyable they may want to steer clear of the show. For those that enjoy interpretive and thematic works, I think Penguindrum is a unique pleasure.

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