Mawaru Penguindrum Set 1 (Episodes 1-12)(Cert 12)
3 Discs (Distributor: Manga Entertainment/Kaze UK) Running time: 290 minutes approx.
Fate, destiny, family, love, death. romance, stalking, diaries, alien hats, curry and penguins. These are either the key components of an esoteric new anime series or the case study from heaven for Sigmund Freud. While a case could be made for both it is in fact the former. Allow me to elucidate.
The orphaned children of the Takakura family – would be Casanova Kanba, sensible Shoma and their terminal ill sister Himari – find their lives turn upside down following a visit to the local aquarium. Himari takes a turn for the worse but miraculously the penguin hat bought in the gift shop revives her. Of course this miracle is not without its price – the hat appears to be an alien being that periodically inhabits Himari’s body, even changing her appearance from a sickly little girl into a scathing dominatrix tyrant.
In this form Himari instructs her older brothers to hunt down the Penguindrum. What that exactly is and what it does she doesn’t know but they have to find it. The only clue they are given is to find a schoolgirl named Ringo Oginome. Does she have it? Probably. At least the family have their own penguin each, which only they can see, to help them with their quest.
Perhaps this all sounds just a little bonkers but learning this show is the creation of Kunihiko Ikuhara should hopefully put things into perspective for you. His most famous work is Revolutionary Girl Utena, a mind bending outing that embraces the surreal and throws logic out the window. Mawaru Penguindrum is Iknuni’s (as he is also known) first work since Utena but his taste for the eccentric certainly hasn’t subsided in that time and noted animation studio Brain’s Base certainly had their work cut out for them to bring his unique vision to life.
The plot, as you can imagine, tends to wander off kilter taking in many sub threads while dropping small hints of what is to come. The central concern is about fate and destiny, whether our lives are governed by it or it is just a superstitious concept. With the various tragedies they’ve had to contend with, the Takakura boys refuse to believe in fate, while Ringo on the other hand is totally sold on the idea.
Her story is driven by the destiny she believes is in the words written in the diary she treasures the most – the same diary which could be the elusive Penguindrum. Ringo is currently embroiled in “Project M” and the diary is her guidebook, with various stages needing to be fulfilled in order for her to win the heart of school teacher Keiju Tabuki, whom she is stalking, going as far as sleeping under his house just to be close to him. One problem though, Tabuki is dating beautiful stage actress Yuri Tokikago.
In following the demands of the possessed Himari the Takakura lads ingratiate themselves to Ringo, with Shoma getting the closest and soon find themselves unwilling participants in project M. But elsewhere a mystery assailant who is a dab hand with a bespoke slingshot that fires dangerous memory wiping balls is out to torment the boys and get her hands on Ringo’s diary too, for she has a “Project M” of her own to fulfil.
If you think that sounds complicated just try watching it. Ikuni isn’t concerned with trivialities such as straight narratives or simple plot, he takes the Eric Morcambe approach: all the right ideas but not necessarily in the right order. Just as a particular development begins to gain some ground, we are whisked off into a flashback for some very helpful is mistimed exposition.
Equally many scenarios play out in wonderfully inventive but decidedly abstract fantasy worlds that the cast seem to adapt to without batting an eyelid. Of the most fanciful are Ringos’ daydreams concerning the love triangle between Tabuki, Yuri and herself which takes the form of a joyfully colourful pastiche of a historical French romantic stage play! Oh yes….
The concept of fate and destiny has its layers carefully peeled away as the show progresses with a number of revelations seemingly supporting the idea which a follow up development will then dispel the notion. Even with the heavy emphasis on humour and whacky comedy this premise is never far away from consideration, no matter how daft or absurd the presentation gets. Whereas Utena was a serious work Ikuni’s tongue is firmly in his cheek here to the point of bursting through the side of this mouth and just as well as this show would suffer were it a po-faced serious drama.
Arguably the comic highlights are the three penguins that impose themselves on the Takakuras shortly after they buy the hat. Numbered 1, 2 and 3, they pair off with a family member each and do their bidding, when not emulating the actions of their master. For instance, when Himari is knitting No 3 is knitting too. Rest assured, no matter how serious a scene may be the penguins are more than likely to be doing something humorous at the bottom of the screen or in the background. Honestly, they deserve their own show!
Mawaru Penguindrum is a show one can rattle on about for an eternity and still not scratch the surface of what it is about, the details of the plot, the presentation, its intentions and it success and failures. It is fresh and original, keeps you thinking and permanently engaged yet won’t be for everyone. It demands your full attention but takes liberties with it, which is part of the excitement this show generates.
With a loaded first half the second volume needs to deliver big time to tie up the various threads and provide a satisfying conclusion. If Utena is anything to go by, we could be in for a big surprise.
Bonkers or brilliant – you decide!
Japanese Language w/ English Subtitles
Disc 2 Only:
Textless Opening Song
Textless Closing Song
Ratings – ****
Man In Black