Penguindrum had the potential to be such a grand show. It was created by Ikuhara Kunihiko, who was famous for Revolutionary Girl Utena, and was directed by Shouko Nakamura, who was famous for Mushishi. These two should have been able to create a show that would revolutionize the way we portray anime, instead we got something completely different. We got Penguindrum.
Penquindrum follows the loving Takakura family as they spend their days laughing and singing with not a care in the world. That is until the young sister Himari falls suddenly ill and dies. While grieving over the death of their sister, brothers Kanba and Shouma find a strange penguin hat in her hospital room. As penguins were her favourite animal, they decide to place it on her head to say goodbye. But as soon as the hat touches her head, she is possessed by a strange force and springs to life yelling “Survival tactic!”
From this point on, the show follows the brothers as they obey what this strange creature commands of them; to find the Penquindrum. This quest is made easier with the help of three little blue penguins that are gifted to them. No one else can see or hear these little trouble makers, meaning they often make up as the comic relief for the show, and while at first their comedy is at the forefront of the show as being hilarious, it quickly fades away to make room for the complex and poorly constructed story.
Pause your intense reading of this review for a second. Think about where this story could go from here, all the crazy and out there adventures that could ensue.
All of those happen.
All of them. And that’s the shows biggest flaw, its lack of any grounded narrative. The show wants to be as bonkers as previous shows from the creators, that it goes to extreme lengths to be as edgy as possible. To give you an idea, here is a spoiler free run down of things to expect from the show:
Invisible penguins. Magical diaries. Stalking teachers. Magical talking hats. Drugging teachers to make them aroused. Penguin terrorist attacks. Morphing into animals. Putting a soul into multiple objects. Over the top Sailor Moon transformation scenes. Kidnapping and torturing children. Brainwashing slingshots. Gods playing chess and using people as pawns in their game. Secret libraries deep underground. And last but not least; underage lesbian bondage rape.
Yeah, it tries to do everything. And if the show was a much longer and less obscure show it may have worked. But Kunihiko has a very unique way of telling a story where everything is symbolic and everything on screen represents something the audience isn’t meant to understand yet, this just creates confusion and a lot of misunderstanding between the anime and the viewer. Using this form of storytelling for an anime as complex as this is like giving someone Crime and Punishment and saying “You can only read every fourth word”. It makes everything needlessly complex as it constantly cries “Look at me! I’m edgy!”
Apart from sometimes being needlessly confusing, the artwork in the show is beautiful. The scenery and use of contrasting colours create such a wonderful mood for the show, as if it were a child’s dream come to life, which then slowly grows grayer as it becomes a living nightmare. Secret penguin faces are hidden throughout the world and make looking the scenery more entertaining than the actual show at times. The use of walk sign stickmen for background characters adds to the idea of only the main characters being important, and that they are the only ones worth watching. This may have been their idea, or it could have been a way to hide the fact they had no budget, but I prefer the former idea.
The dub for the show is a mixed bag. Some actors fit their parts very well, such as Blake Shepard as Shouma and Monica Rial as Himari. But then there are the actors that do a fine job only some of the time. Take Illich Guardiola as Kanba, for the majority of the show he’s lifeless and stilted, but during the final six episodes his emotions ramp up and every line he delivers is incredibly high octane and intense. It’s as if they dragged the old ARD director out of the recording booth and replaced him with someone who knew how to get actors to express emotion. Overall the dub is passable, but the original Japanese voice cast have a much better way of expressing the fear in the characters.
In the end, Mawaru Penguindrum was a letdown. It was a cluster of too many ideas that made the show too sporadic and difficult to understand. What makes it worse is the lacklustre unexplained ending that leaves the viewer unfulfilled with more questions than they had the episode before. The show is worth checking out for the beautiful artwork and comical penguins, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to continue after episode 6. As past episode 6, it becomes a loud and jumbled mess of an anime.
Other anime recommendations
Beautiful artwork: Redline
deep and unique characters: Angel Beats
Dark story with mystical twist: Mirai Nikki
Mawaru Penguindrum is available now on DVD from Manga UK and KAZE