Penguindrum – One by One The Penguins Steal My Sanity

mawaru key

I don’t know what a Penguindrum is. Not exactly. We’re never told in clear terms. That’s the type of story this is. A lot of it is up to you. It’s not the type of story that lends itself well to a summary. It’s not that clear and not that simple and mostly, it’s not that kind. It’s a story about the brutality of love and the selfishness of pain. It’s a story about how really truly caring about anything at all is bound to lead to suffering. It’s a tale that left me gently and utterly devastated. And it’s a celebration of family and friendship and the possibility of overcoming trauma and freeing oneself from the chains of the past. Penguindrum is a pretty story with a lot of delicate sharp edges and if you look at it from a certain angle it’s complete nonsense. How’s that for a summary?

I’ve been dreading this review. I’ve put it off for a few days now. That’s not like me. I’m starved for blog content. When I actually have a show t review, I jump on the opportunity. Not only that but I genuinely have a lot to say about Penguidrum. On average, I tend to take between one and two pages of notes while I watch a series. I ended up with a little over 9 full pages for this one and there were episodes that just had me staring at the screen unable to gather my thoughts enough to write anything down at all. Maybe that’s the problem really. It’s intimidating and overwhelming. Where do I even start with an anime like this? Maybe I should go with the one sentence that was repeated on just about every page of those notes.

Penguindrum ep 1-4 (12)

so happy…so innocent…

Penguindrum is a masterpiece. It’s odd and deeply allegorical and the pacing is peculiar. It won’t appeal to everyone. It’s o.k. if you don’t think that Penguindrum is a masterpiece, we can still be friends. But if you do think Penguindrum is a masterpiece, then we are already friends.

I’m still a bit at a loss on how to go about this, so tell you what. Let’s go through my notes together and whenever I stumble on a thought worth sharing, I’ll tell you about it. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure I don’t go on for 9 pages.

One of my very first notes is: There’s something softly bleak in these images. It’s beautiful. Everything or almost everything in Penguindrum is imbued with meaning. Designs and colours are deliberate and purposeful. The way the animation changes in certain episodes is meant to convey something. Every sound and every inflection seems to be an inherent part of the narrative. It weaves and comes together as a singular piece.

Penguindrum ep9-10 (26)

it was pure folly for me to attempt to review Penguindrum

Whether you actually like the art style or not is of course completely up to your tastes. I did. But the story gives you plenty of incentive to pay close attention to every detail. Penguindrum is the type of anime you need to see multiple times to discover all its little aspects.

I keep talking in my notes about the striking visual elements. Most notably it the stylized stick figure mob characters (that I also appreciated a lot in Sarazanmai). Anyone that doesn’t have a direct impact on the story is a stick figure. It’s smart because it reduces the workload on animators and artists but it’s also dripping with symbolism. ll those people simply don’t matter. It’s not their story!

Not only that but it also serves to highlight that all the characters in the story are rather selfish or more accurately, self-centred. Without ever explicitly stating it, the narrative reminds us how both pain and joy have a tendency to deeply focus us on ourselves. The world around disappears when you’re in love or when you’re in mourning. And people become just stick figures.

Penguindrum ep12 (7)

I’ve had days like this

I noted that all the important characters had died before the start of the story. It’s a bit depressing in context. But it’s true. What I meant is that all the circumstances and most of the events of Penguindrum are driven by the actions and decisions of people long gone. The remaining characters are simply doing their best to bear the heavy burdens of a legacy that they had no part in. In many ways the have very little agency, hence the repeated themes of destiny and fate. These characters are aimless and have been brought to a point where they can no longer afford their own morality.  The people in Penguindrum are neither good nor bad. They aren’t virtuous or degenerate. Most of them are just very desperate and that distorts the world around them. Penguindrum is a story about people destroyed by their own ideals.

I wrote down that everything in Penguindrum is in 3s… All the romantic arcs are love triangles. The Takakuras are 3 siblings, so are the Natsume’s in fact. Ringo is trying to fix her little family with her father and mother. Double D started out as Triple D! Arguably everything was set in motion by Tabuki, Yuri and Momoka. This means all the relationships are just a bit more complicated. It’s not a simple give and take between two people. There’s a careful balance to be maintained.

The thing is, Penguindrum is about relationships. In many ways, it’s about overcoming abusive relationships. As such the connections between the characters are more important and better developed than the characters themselves. That’s where the point of the story is.

Penguindrum ep11 (20)

it’s complicated

Of course, when we mention abuse, it’s difficult to not think of parental relationships. That’s also the case here. Parents are important in Penguindrum and for the most part, they are horrible. They range from casually neglectful to downright cruel and physically abusive. Most of them are separated and none of them have faces. Except that is for the Takakuras. The main characters’ parents, gone by the time the series starts. They are kind, supportive and loving. They care for and are proud of their children. They are quite attractive, both of them. And they are monsters. Irredeemable monsters that cause the most harm and pain in the entire story.

I always wondered why they were the only ones granted the luxury of identity. Why the story treated them so much more kindly. I guess it’s because monsters also aren’t just one thing. They can be great in many ways. They can be us…

I haven’t given you a proper summary and if you haven’t seen the show, you are getting a probably very distorted idea. On the surface, and as most summaries will tell you, Penguindrum is about brothers Kanba and Sho trying to save their very sick sister Himari. And Himari comes up a whole lot in my notes. It seems I wrote down the same thing in different ways on a few occasions. I guess it must have really hit me. Himari is a literal damsel in distress. She is dying of a disease and she cannot cure herself. Her brothers adore her and are trying everything they can possibly think of to find a cure and more mundanely, to pay for mounting necessary medical bills.

Penguindrum ep24 (23)

who wouldn’t want to save her?

As far as the plot is concerned Himari is a “goal”. She is the thing the hero has to save and if the quest is successful, she is the happily ever after reward. And yet despite this, the narrative treats her as an actual person. She makes decisions and has feelings of her own. On more than one occasion it’s her actions that bring about definitive change, a power not given to anyone else. Narratives rarely offer this much respect for their plot device characters and in the end, it really made me care a lot more about Himari than I would have otherwise.

Kunihiko Ikuhara doesn’t choose very happy stories in general. And he doesn’t shy away from the less pleasant truths even if he does wrap them up in brilliantly coloured surrealism. However, ultimately for me, Ikuhara’s stories are always hopeful and Penguindrum is no exception. It might be bittersweet but the sweetness is unmistakable and lingers on your tongue. For all the tragedies and hardships the characters have endured, it leaves us with an image of two happy brothers planning their next adventure and quoting the Galactic Express. I really like a Night on the Galactic Express… Penguindrum tells us that it is possible to surmount any tragedy but it takes a lot of work and sometimes some sacrifice. However, as long as you can think of something worthy of sacrifice, then your life isn’t empty. We might amount to nothing but for someone at some point, we can be everything.

Penguindrum ep23 (35)

it’s just a little dusty in here

Before even starting the first episode, I wrote down, it’s impossible for this show not to disappoint me. I have long been a fan of Revolutionary Girl Utena. I once described it to a friend as a show that haunts me, and I meant it. Just by itself, that one anime had made enough of an impact for me to be interested in Ikuhara. When a blogger friend called Penguindrum a spiritual successor to Utena I was sold and my expectations went through the roof. But I couldn’t find it anywhere at the time.

Time passed and I stumbled on to Sarazanmai. I’m a bad blogger and a carefree anime fan. I watched it, adored it and didn’t find out it was Ikuhara until after I had finished it. With two shows on my favourites list now, the already ridiculously high expectations I had for Penguindrum became unsustainable. I broke down and got HiDive almost entirely for Penguindrum. There were other shows on the service I wanted to see but honestly even if there hadn’t been, I still would have gotten it.

An entire streaming service for a single series. That’s how much I had built up this show in my head. It was unfair and simply unrealistic to expect this out of an anime. Penguindrum is a masterpiece.

Penguindrum ep24 (30)

it made me love apples

One of the last notes I have is on Mawaru. The actual title of the anime is Mawaru Penguindrum but for some reason, most people drop the Mawaru. I do so as well. Maybe because I find Penguindrum really fun to say. I tried on several occasions to find out what Mawaru meant. I thought it might be the name of a train station or district in Tokyo because of the importance of trains in the story. After some digging, however, I found out that it roughly means going in circles. Recurrent cycles. That is extremely fitting. I feel bad for continuously forgetting to add the Mawaru part.

As expected this review turned into a bit of a mess. There was no way to avoid it. These are really just little crumbs of what Penguindrum (Mawaru) brought out in me. They are the smaller ones, easier to tame and make into something I can actually show you. Most of the big crumbs just end up a knotted mass of feelings and thoughts that squeeze around my heart and make me feel a little warm. I’m not very good at expressing my feelings. And when a show means a lot to me, I get very bad at explaining why or why you might like it.

I guess if I have to just get one thought across it would be: Penguindrum is a masterpiece.

Penguindrum ep 1-4 (23)

Favourite character: The thing is, the characters aren’t exactly characters. They’re more like ideas and concepts. Another way to say this is, I really liked all of them, even the ones I’m not sure existed.

What this anime taught me: An apple a day.

Sometimes you can only find Heaven by slowly backing away from Hell.”

Suggested drink: Appletini

  • Every time we see floating stars – take a sip
  • Every time they have a family meal – get a snack
  • Every time there’s a Survival tactic – hold your breath
  • Every time they travel in the subway – blink, they do it all the time
  • Every time we see Double H – Clap
  • Every time anyone mentions fate or destiny – take a sip
  • Every time the boys break the law – tsk
  • Every time we see a family portrait – I’m not crying you’re crying
  • Every time Ringo is underwater – take a sip
  • Every time it’s raining – get some water
  • Every time something is fabulous max – take a sip
  • Every time anyone does something for Himari – understand
  • Every time Himaru puts her hair up – take a sip
  • Every time we see an apple – check the snack situation
  • Every time Himari is knitting – take a sip
  • Every time Sanetoshi gets applauded – join in
  • Every time there is a stair or elevator motif – wonder why there were so many in Utena as well but none in Sarazannmai…

Penguindrum ep24 (52)

I don’t think I have ever kept this many screencaps of a series I wasn’t doing episode reviews of. It’s just so visually poignant. If you want to see like 500+ pic, and who wouldn’t?, you are cordially invited to my Pinterest

In case I forgot to mention it, Penguindrum is a masterpiece.

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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19 Responses

  1. WCRobinson says:

    This review has put this on my to-view radar! Sounds intriguing.

  2. It’s interesting that you said you thought your review was a bit of a mess.

    After watching Penguindrum, I thought your review was concise and crystal clear. It unfolded in a way that pays respect to the series.

    No series has more taxed my vocabulary than this one. Masterpiece is a fitting word for it. And like some of the literary masterpieces before it (for some reason it puts me in mind of Antigone), the show left me despondent. Even as my mind sung its praises, my heart wanted to get away from it. It just hurt to watch the back 12 episodes.

    I doubt I’ll ever review it. But I’m glad I watched it.

    Absolutely loved the OP and ED.

  3. ManInBlack says:

    The penguins ruled this one! 😀

  4. 7mononoke says:

    I love this anime as well and it great to hear your thoughts on it. 🙂

  5. Krystallina says:

    Had to skip this one for now because this one’s on my list, but can’t wait to come back later since I can tell your thoughts moved other commenters.

  6. Dawnstorm says:

    I liked this one, but I didn’t get into it as much as I did with Yuri Kuma Arashi or Sarazanmai (haven’t seen much of Utena yet). Some of the clearly deliberately and carefully crafted repetitiveness got on my nerves. It’s been a while, and I’m sure if I watched it now, I’d get more of it. It’s a very rich show.

    I was quite excited when they announced the show. The concept art was colourful and gave nothing away (and included a teddy bear rather than a penguin). I knew what “mawaru” meant because of the opening of School Rumble, of all things. But it turned out a little too heady for my taste. Still a great watch, with some stunning sequences, though.

    • Irina says:

      I quite enjoy repetitiveness and I admit there is a lot of it. Less than in Utena. I assume this was an eccentricity that declined in later works.

  7. Thank you. I’ve had this one on my list for a while, but only sort of vaguely. This sounds like something I would really like!

  8. Scott says:

    Thanks so much for writing this.

    I have an interesting history with Penguindrum. Mainly from the anime club watching it ten years ir so ago and me not being ready for this or other Ikuhara works at that time. Then again, I didn’t even know who he was yet and didn’t become a habit until 2015 or whenever Yuri Kuma Arashi came out.

    I was scared away by a lot of things and just didn’t get it yet, so I feel like I have to dig into this one again at some point. Maybe after I complete some other things on my list because I feel ready to do this one finally.

  9. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    I’ve always felt that melancholy (and even despair) is a much purer, more refined and more nuanced emotion than joy. For me, the most moving and beautiful art is that which leaves me shaking and crying, something which has given me beauty but demanded a piece of my own soul in return. You’ve definitely piqued my interest in this series. Thanks

    • Irina says:

      I’m nit sure I agree. Joy is rare and complex. I suppose it’s difficult to portray unlike the more visual emotions of glee and despair.
      I love this show, I do hope you give it a chance

  10. ashleycapes says:

    This sounds fascinating – I don’t know if I’m ready for that level of bleakness of late, but the show is most definitely now upon my radar, cool

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