Few anime are as weird or wonderful as Mawaru Penguindrum, just think of the number of series you’ve seen with rockets, teddy bears, a pink stairway, penguins, and a girl in a cool costume all packed into a minute and a half with moe-fied rock music playing in the background.
If that video didn’t give you an idea of what Penguindrum is about, here is the plot summary from MAL:
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 nothing can be done for her anymore, but then, a miracle occurs…
The series was written and directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara (creator of Utena), produced by Brains Base, and consists of 24 episodes. Mawaru Penguindrum is one of the most complex anime that I have ever seen. It deals with various themes such as family, revenge, incest, yuri, and most importantly, fate and destiny. Coupled with extensive use of symbolism and metaphor, Penguindrum proves to be a highly abstruse anime for those not familiar with classical literature.
As with many stories, Mawaru Penguindrum starts out with a quest: find the penguindrum in order to save Himari’s life. Soon afterwards, Mawaru Penguindrum takes on a format very similar to classical Greek plays, consisting of a tragic hero (or heroes), a predetermined future, and even something akin to a Greek chorus. I won’t spoil the series here, but if you pay close attention to the first episode, you will find that the ending is given away in one of the penguinhat’s statements. This is much like how the Oracle of Delphi predicted Oedipus’s future in Oedipus Rex at the very beginning of the story. With the viewer now aware of the ending, it is then the journey that must shock and entertain the audience with plot twists and sudden revelations.
While Greek plays had a chorus to help explain actions happening on stage, it would be a bit difficult to incorporate something like that into an anime. Instead, Ikuhara went with what I will call the Double H Train Ads. If you pay attention to the yellow screens on the train, you will always see a pink and blue girl, members of the idol group Double H, performing some silly actions. Take time to think about what they are doing, and you will realize that they are guiding you through the anime, sometimes helping to make sense of some of the more inexplicable scenes.
Anyone who watches a few episodes will probably wonder, what exactly do all of the crazy things in Mawaru Penguindrum mean? Well, to find the answers, you will first need to watch Revolutionary Girl Utena and take a few more literature classes. So as not to spoil anything, I will just explain a couple of the oddities in Mawaru Penguindrum: the elevator and the apple.
The elevator I’m referring to is the one that Tabuki takes Ringo and Himari on in episode 17. Tabuki’s purpose is similar to the vast majority of characters who rode the elevator in Revolutionary Girl Utena: revenge. In Revolutionary Girl Utena, characters ride the elevator to seek out the power to bring world revolution, only to have their own world “revolutionized” in the end. Tabuki was also “revolutionized” and realized the destination of his fate, returning to the elevator without accomplishing his original goals. Revolutionary Girl Utena references like this are littered throughout the series, making it a must-see before watching Mawaru Penguindrum.
If a certain holy book is to be believed, the apple represents knowledge and sin. With that in mind, all you have to do is look at who has an apple, and more importantly, figure out who has eaten one. Of course, this is not something that just comes to you; a bit of attention must be paid towards the actions of each character to figure out who the sinner(s) is/are. With that out of the way, all you really need to do next is wait for the punishment.
To anyone who is still lost after watching Revolutionary Girl Utena, I also recommend you read up on tragic heroes in Greek literature (Oedipus Rex is a good choice), the story of Adam and Eve, the Greek Fates, and the river Styx to gain a basic understanding of the references in Mawaru Penguindrum.
Enough literary babble though, I’m sure some of you are wondering about other things such as the animation quality. For the most part, the animation was good. A few poorly drawn faces made their way into the mix, but were barely noticeable. The bright colours and dark scenes really helped to bring out the drama in the story.
The music was surprisingly catchy without sounding too much like bubblegum pop. The different versions of the ending song and the number of different ending songs was also impressive, encouraging me to watch the credits all the way until the end. That proved to be a good thing in one episode where an important scene played out after the ending.
Mawaru Penguindrum is one of the best anime that I have seen. The complexity of the story and mix of humour are a good blend for anyone who likes deep stories but also enjoy elements that make up simpler anime. I recommend this series as an anime that every fan should at least give a try.
For more information on how Revolutionary Girl Utena and Mawaru Penguindrum are related, read my article on the similarities between the two. You can also check out my review of Revolutionary Girl Utena if you are interested in the anime but haven’t seen it.