Mawaru Penguindrum Review
I hate the word "fate"...
I am a firm believer that a lot of anime (especially the good kind) can appeal to non-anime fans if they just give it a try. Thus, I find myself talking about it a lot with the non-anime crowd, and by "talking" I mostly mean "defending." One of the most common charges I hear is that anime is just too weird. And it isn't like these people are talking out of their asses. To say that anime isn't weird would be disingenuous, but is weird really a bad thing? Would you rather have yet another generic product full of the same tired narrative and visual conventions, or do you want something new and interesting that resists classification and cannot easily be put into a mold?
Enter Mawaru Penguindrum, a show that wears weird like a badge of honor, and not in a bad way. Co-written and directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara and produced by Brain's Base, Mawaru Penguindrum is 24 episodes of complete mindfuck. Don't let the bright colors, cartoony penguins, or chibi humor fool you - this is a serious show that deals with issues like child abuse, rape, murder, vengeance, terrorism, abandonment, and death. It is rife with symbolism and uses many interesting narrative devices and visuals throughout the series (I especially like the infographic elements derived from the subway system signage). In the vein of shows like Baccano! and Durarara!! (both of which were also produced by Brain's Base), Mawaru Penguindrum includes nonlinear plot elements (by use of interspersed flashbacks) and layered storytelling that slowly reveal the characters' backstories and relationships. The voice acting is all solid, as is the music, which is a tad eclectic but makes sense in context.
I guess this is the part where I am supposed to give you a brief description of the plot, but this is one of those shows that you can't just explain in one or two sentences. Himari Takakura is a terminally ill girl, and her two brothers, Shoma and Kanba, will do anything to save her, including going on a mission to find the mysterious Penguin Drum so that the spirit inhabiting the penguin hat they bought Himari at the aquarium and occasionally possesses her body will save her life. Confused yet? And I haven't even told you about the Survival Strategy and the rocket that opens up into a giant robotic bear to the beat of idol pop yet... Have I mentioned that this show is weird?
At its base level, Mawaru Penguindrum is about fate, and the various events in your life that set you down a certain path. Is your fate merely preordained or tainted due to events beyond your control, or can you act to change your destiny, and are you willing to pay the price for it?
One critical piece of advice I can give you if you are to watch this show is pay close attention. Unfortunately no one was around to give me this advice, so it took me a while to realize that almost everything you see is important. The opening credit sequence, for example, has plenty of little clues and foreshadows events that happen later in the show. So keep your eyes peeled, and never assume that things are just there to be weird. It all makes sense... Well, sort of. This is definitely a prime candidate for repeat viewings, and I know I will have to watch it at least once more.
It pains me to think that many people will walk away from this show after one or two episodes, shaking their heads and mystified by the Technicolor assault on their senses. Like I've said before, this show resists classification and blends together very mature elements with silly, charming comedy, so it's hard to anticipate where it is going. One of the things that draw me most to anime is that the genre lines are often blurred. For example, just look at a show like Elfen Lied, which combines cutesy characters and budding romance with horrific violence and the inhuman and merciless exploitation of children. This type of clash of content and age-specific genres often leads to some very interesting situations, characters, and storylines, and nowhere is this more present than in Mawaru Penguindrum. But there is a method to this madness, one that definitely has an impact.
To me, the worst kinds of shows (and this relates to any kind of content, not just anime) are generic and leave you apathetic. Mawaru Penguindrum is anything but generic, and love or hate it, it will not leave you apathetic.