Mawaru Penguindrum Set 2 (Episodes 13-24) (Cert 18)
3 Discs (Distributor: Manga Entertainment/Kaze UK) Running time: 289 minutes approx.
The search for the elusive Penguindrum continues – sort of. When we left the last volume fragile Himari Takakura’s health had taken a turn for the worst; in fact she died. Again. Only this time the mystical Penguin Hat that magically rejuvenated Himari before doesn’t seem to work this time around. Is this sweet little girl finally lost to her two older siblings Kanba and Shoma?
Not according to flamboyant stranger Sanetoshi – a man who Himari once met in a dream – suddenly appears on the scene with a special serum he claims will save Himari. Unfortunately Sanetoshi is not an altruistic man and there is a price for this precious antidote which Kanba is tasked with meeting, opening up a further series of revelations about the Takakura parents, whose past we learned about in the closing of the previous volume, the shockwaves from which will resonate through to everyone involved in the mystery of the Penguindrum.
There are no two ways about, when an anime plot becomes complex it doesn’t do it by halves and when that plot was devised by Kunihiko Ikuhara, one is forced to expect things to get very involved indeed. Having spent the first half of the series setting up the plot and the characters, part two of Mawaru Penguindrum concerns itself more with the exposition and backgrounds of the characters, revealing their motivations and reasons of being caught up in this convoluted web of deceit and drama, rather than moving the story toward its natural conclusion.
Oh, we do get one but, for anyone who saw Ikuhara’s noted Revolutionary Girl Utena and the barmy denouement he gave us for that outing, can be assured of a similarly baffling finale to this oddly engaging series.
With the emphasis on flashbacks and surreal meditations, much of the development here is filling in the blanks left by the first series, while not really moving the story forward in most cases. We get a better understanding of what makes some of the characters tick while others are just as difficult to read as they were beforehand.
Typically, the backstories are laced with tragedy and in one instance, a deeply upsetting case of abusive mind control that was considered raw enough to warrant an 18 certificate from the BBFC for disc one of this set. They may all be a lively, colourful bunch of characters but they are all seriously damaged goods, intent on inflicting that suffering onto everyone else they meet.
Being bogged down with this non-temporal info dumping means the story barely moves forward at a satisfying pace, with many dreamlike distractions thrown in for good measure. These serve to shock the viewer with their impactful revelations but since they aren’t directly addressed, they instead have a placebo effect on one’s understanding of the story as a whole, essentially clouding the issue so you don’t realise that the conclusion is a rather batty, if bittersweet, one. But, at the risk of sounding flippant, that is Ikuhara for you.
Much is made of the central theme of destiny and fate, and behind the barrage of fanciful images and discordant personal histories, there is a chilling subtext about the treatment of Japan’s youth, here presented as the forgotten children. This is a serious issue in Japan at the moment with the current trend for school leavers and unemployed people to enter into a Hikikimori lifestyle (in which they shut themselves away from world and live off financial support from their parents) and thus are deemed the “lost generation”.
Ikuhara is pre-empting this problem somewhat with his idea of young orphaned children all locked in a large warehouse type facility where the truly unfortunate, considered worthless and unwanted, are offed via a brutal machine called the Child Broiler. It’s a chilling thought and a rather blunt message to send to modern Japanese society, but its impact is lost among the myriad of other ideas presented throughout the series.
All of this makes it sound like this release is bad. The truth is it isn’t and for those who were enchanted with the first volume, will find more of the same here too. The penguins are still around and provide a welcome comic respite from the bleakness of the flashbacks, while the visual aspect of the show, courtesy of Brain’s Base, maintain the high standard of lush, colourful animated ecstasy from before.
Where the problem lies is in the tonal and personality shifts of both the mood and the characters, some of which are pretty drastic, while the need to be clever with the plot twists and unexpected developments suggests Ikuhara found himself in over his head when figuring out the ending. There is nothing wrong with presenting an intelligent piece of work but when that work is too intelligent for its own good, the cracks begin to show.
Mawaru Penguindrum demands a lot from its audience and on the whole they are rewarded for that, but along the way we are asked to indulge the whims of its creator. From the often pretentious dialogue and the impenetrable plot developments to the surreal visual journeys and psychological manipulations, this is a show that relishes in its refusal to bow to convention – whether that makes this a success or a turn off will be a subject for much debate among anime fans I am sure.
For this writer it is refreshing to seem something that boldly flies on the face of the typical conventions of its medium and offer something different. The final act might get ensnared in its own indulgence and sprawling plot threads but overall this is an enjoyably subversive, thought provoking, if overly surreal journey that is worth your time if you like a challenge – and penguins!
Japanese Language w/ English Subtitles
Textless Ending 13, 14 & 16
Textless Opening 2
Textless Ending 19 & 20
Textless Ending 21 & 22
Ratings – ****
Man In Black