Three siblings, twins Kanba and Shouma, and the in-and-out-of-the-hospital Himari who's in poor health, live together at the Takakura home. One day, when the siblings are out on a trip to the aquarium, Himari collapses. The doctors state that there is nothing they can do for her any more, but then, a miracle occurs... Himari is revived from death! Unfortunately for the brothers they soon find that miracles come with a price, Himari only lives because of the power of a bizarre penguin hat which demands that the brothers obtain the mysterious artefact, 'The Penguindrum', before the hat's power runs out and they lose Himari forever.
It's hard to put my finger on Mawaru Penguindrum. It is what it is and what it is, is something that is sadly too uncommon in animé i.e. something I can't put my finger on. I like the feeling in all honesty. There is nothing inherently wrong with things being like other things, most of my other favourite shows of 2011 are not strikingly unique or inspired in concept and comparisons are easy to make even if those shows remain great examples of their types. That aside, MP is not like other shows and the only shows it bears similarities to are the shows that are also aren't like other shows, when you cut it down to its barest essentials. Do you follow? No? Good, you shouldn't - I'm going to put out a disclaimer here and tell you straight out that I will be talking about the content of this show as little as possible. Why? Because genuine surprise and uncertainty in a show is too rare for me to dare spoil and that is what the experience of watching Mawaru Penguindrum lives on and I would love for you to have that for yourselves. I'll try my best to explain my comments but forgive me if I mention things off-hand and don't explain them, watch the show and you'll see for yourself.
In any case, disclaimer aside, MP is not a show that holds back. From its simple, powerful palette of colours to the vibrancy of its animation and music, it is an onslaught of aesthetic appeal and might. Some shows toy with symbolism but MP isn't playing around. From the very beginning, the symbols and ideas that will hold court over the show's twenty-four episode runtime such as the apple of opening sequence step forward plainly and come dramatically to fruition. Such oddities like the focus on underground train stations are apparently meaninglessly until the meaning behind it falls like a hammer and we are left a little dazzled but our view of the show much clearer. The well-drilled lexicon of the show with all its talk of fate, family and penguindrums, we come to know as if taught by a schoolmaster, preparing us for the story ahead. MP is a world unto itself and it rejoices in its genesis.
MP is a fun series. From its silent slapstick pratfalls found in the little penguins' antics (yeah, there are penguins, it's hardly the weirdest thing in this show) to its general light-heartedness, the show, even in its darkest moments, is a warming experience. I have found a lot of 'serious' animé (a group in which I would include MP despite its humour) to be cold and po-faced - even if they do have lighter moments, they do not lift the series out of its settled, morose state. They are dour series that just so happen to have happy bits in whereas I felt MP was a happy series that just so happened to have dark bits in. It tackles its heavy themes seriously (Ikuhara, the director, is not one to take his eyes of the thematic ball even when he leaves it aside for a moment) but approaches them with a warmth that belies its harshness. It is wonderful thing in my opinion and another thing that sets apart MP from most other shows out there; it is easy to be morbid but inspiring instead? That is where MP excels.
But you want to know if it is good or not, don't you? My answer would have to be that it isn't always good but it is far too great for that to matter. I'll try to explain. Some things about MP are bad. Pacing is the issue, it's such an old problem in animé and I am starting to think that animé is only just starting, really, to get to grips with it. Some early to middle episodes are a little vapid compared to the latter half of the series (deliberately misleading some might say, you decide for yourselves) or the opening episodes despite still being a complete riot in terms of enjoyment. The heavy use of flashbacks slows the pace of the show to less than ideal too, holding back the movement of the plot for sometimes an episode at a time to fill in the gaps, but even that said, being a little bit light-weight and irrelevant on the odd occasion and being little bit on the slow side in terms of the plotting do little to stop the dreadnought of quality that carries this series.
One of the main things is it feels relevant, a product and a reaction to the real world of now. This is the kind of show that questions the nature of the family in the relationship of the three Takakura siblings, dealing with loss, coping with forces beyond your control and a great deal about the effects of social alienation right from the siblings to even the mysterious Sanetoshi (a conniving bishounen who appears later on in the show, just in case you forgot you were watching a show from the creator of Utena) and all these things seem so fitting considering the economic struggles that world and particularly Japan are facing. The characters and their struggles got under my skin until I felt the tears form in my eyes when they were in pain or my lips smile when they triumphed. Ikuhara has a skill with characters that I have noticed in Revolutionary Girl Utena too, they might not have the depth of many other great shows but they are intense, loveable and even though they live in a madcap world, they remain so infinitely relatable. It is as if the challenges they face are universal, representative of something normal and emphatic - not just something we can interpret at a cerebral level but at a personal one. MP has characters that live in us rather than on the screen. The examples are endless; it is easy to find something relatable in Shouma's reticence to act or Kanba's destructive determination, their conflicting actions, opinions and decisions concerning their ill sister who is the centre of their lives and family - the differing motivation and methods they use to attain the mysterious 'penguindrum' that will apparently save her. Even though the characters and their situations don't often feel real (Himari is being kept alive by a magical penguin hat for goodness' sake), they are never shallow or lazily created - every member of the main cast seems to have a reason for being that not only adds to the plot but also adds to thematic weight and resulting pleasure and joy the series brings to its viewer.
The story, too, is incredible. It is complex enough to be interesting and special, with all its layers of narrative, side plots and diversions, but simple enough at its core never to get lost amid the show's quirkiness - no matter how many flashy fantasy sequences or odd metaphorical visions we are subjected to, the show never loses sight of its struggling trio and their story. To say too much would be a spoiler but throughout it is a show to leave you in doubt and I mean that in the best possible way. At its peak moments, the show never leaves you without questions to answer, without puzzles to solve and when we do get answers, it only illuminates the great breadth and depth of the show's heart, bringing yet more, deeper, questions that are yet more joy to solve and answer. Very few shows anywhere have more to them than MP, very few better conceived, it is the kind of show that will reward multiple viewings - not because of any trickery or cleverness on the makers part (even though it has its fair share) but because there is far too much to take in just the first time through.
Most things seem superfluous after that: yeah, it's beautiful, its soundtrack is gorgeous and blends seamlessly into every scene and, to the eyes, it never ceases to be vibrant and exciting. Its pacing is clunky at times and perhaps it leaves too much to the end and finishes without tying up all the loose ends but my goodness, does it deliver where it counts! MP is a show to love, even with its missteps; its passion, intelligence and sheer affectionate quirkiness make this a show to watch.
This is a magical show. It's not perfect but it hides its faults so well beneath the depths of its quality. Check it out. Take a star away if you want something straightforward but I'd still go for it, watching shows such as this is worth the risk. — Aiden Foote
Recommended Audience: Nothing explicit but a lot scenes are very sexualised (including the use of drugs for the purposes of some nonconsenting sex), thematically dark and occasionally violent. Nothing too terrible for adults but certainly not for kids.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source.
Review Status: Full (24/24)
Penguindrum © 2011 ikuni chowder,pengroup
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