Mawaru Penguindrum Episode 1 – Real Good Thing
Dang it, Kunihiko Ikuhara—it’s because of you that I broke the promise I made to myself not to watch any shows about high schoolers this season. This is Ikuhara’s first anime project in over ten years, since Revolutionary Girl Utena: a critically-acclaimed late 90s anime that I’ve always meant to watch but never quite got around to.
Utena has something of a reputation for taking a hard turn towards Crazy Town. Since I recently applied for citizenship in Crazy Town, I figured it was my civic duty to check out Penguindrum.
It’s already pretty clear that Penguindrum is not going to disappoint in the crazy department. The show is about Himari Takakura, a sickly teenager who dies of a mysterious illness, but is then resurrected as part of a survival strategy enacted by a being inhabiting the hat of a Rockhopper Penguin Himari got at an aquarium immediately before dying.
Her brothers, Shoma and Kanba, flip out, of course, especially when they are sent a mysterious package containing three penguins that are visible only to the three of them. They’re even more bewildered when their sister’s hat possesses her, insults them, and then instructs them to find the Penguindrum if they don’t want their sister’s life to be forfeit.
It’s not, in short, a series that makes a whole lot of sense right off the bat. We’re given some characters painted in pretty broad strokes—the sick girl, the philanderer, the effeminate male caretaker—some anime conventions (orphaned main characters, superdeformed antics, penguins), and then a bunch of weird stuff happens.
The show is carried along by its own energy, a manic spirit that careens from strange event to strange event with no time for you to sit back and evaluate things rationally. My brain was put on hold until the excellent song that plays over the ending credits had finished, then it kicked back on and I realized that Penguindrum is a colorful, well-made show that seems brimming with quasi-philosophical subtext.
The main thread seems to be the old argument over free will. Shoma rails against the notion of fate in the introduction: arguing that a life we’ve been predestined to lead is meaningless, and that only a cruel and merciless God would condemn man to live the life of suffering that he leads.
Kanba continues the thread at the end of the episode, once against raising the question of suffering, and comparing the concept of fate to the instincts encoded in animals, which seems to be related to the hat spirit’s obsession with “Survival Strategy”. The preview of the next episode reveals that we’ll soon meet someone who loves the idea of fate, and the notion that everything happens for a reason.
It’s not anything groundbreaking, for sure, but this is only the first episode, and still way more than most shows attempt. If it gets out of Philosophy 101 I’ll be surprised, but impressed.
The show’s visual design is bright, cheerful, and very cartoonish. Characters go super-deformed at the drop of a hat, reactions are over the top and every scene meant to be emotionally arresting is infused with so much hypermelodrama that it can be off-putting. It fits well with the show’s reckless energy, though, since everything else is equally frenetic and intense.
Given how energetic and likable the show wants to be, it’s surprising that it also comes across as sleek and mysterious. I was reminded of the role-playing game Persona 3 in terms of visual design, both in the Shinbouesque visual cutaways are modern and high-contrast, and the lithe bishounen heroes wearing modish clothes and hair. The direction also plays up the mystery at times, with quick cuts and an obsession with close-ups that reminds me of David Lynch.
The rest of the time it’s pretty standard, though, which I guess is my biggest fear about Penguindrum: I’m worried that the depth and weirdness are going to be overshadowed by the comedy antics and philosophical woolgathering. For now, though, it’s fun enough that I’m willing to go along for the ride.