The Slow March of Mawaru Penguindrum

Mawaru Penguindrum was probably the best anime I watched in 2011, and yet at the time it aired I didn’t write anything about it on the blog. This was intentional, as from the beginning I had a rough idea of what the show would be like, one where the surface didn’t quite match what was lurking underneath, the type of anime that would slowly feeding both legitimate clues and red herrings in such conjunction that it would become difficult to distinguish which is which. I didn’t want to jump the gun. On top of that, a lot of the “clues” weren’t there as if you could piece them out and form a conclusion. Instead, they acted as ways to expand some of the concepts and ideas being tossed about by the series, to further clarify information throughout the series. I didn’t want to blog about it too soon after because I felt like I would’ve been too caught up in processing Penguindrum like any other show. That is not a knock on other anime, as straightforward narratives and convention produce great work all the time, it’s just not what Penguindrum did and not what made it so great.

In finally writing about Mawaru Penguindrum, I’m choosing to do so without having rewatched the series since my first time through. Though it’s clear from even that first viewing that the show has a lot of meat to it that you can pick up by rewatching (a trait it shares with its older sister Revolutionary Girl Utena), I didn’t want my thoughts to be based too much on knowledge after the fact. So, I’m not going to blow your mind with any crazy close reading where I reveal all of the little hints in the series. Instead, I mainly want to talk about my own experience watching, and where I think the show went right.

Penguindrum centers around the Takakura family: brothers Kanba and Shouma,  and their sister Himari, whose life-threatening medical condition which requires a great deal of money to keep at bay. When she finally succumbs to her ilness, their lives change forever, but not in the way they expect. Moreover, as the show progresses, it’s clear that the present and the future aren’t the only mysteries. The siblings are introduced in Episode 1 as just being a slightly odd family, but they’re shown to have a past riddled with big questions. So what is the show about? Why, penguins, fate, and terrorism.

When it comes to introducing people to Penguindrum, “penguins, fate, and terrorism” is my go-to summary. The seeming non-sequiturs will often get them to ask more, but then that’s all I can say. It’s not so much that anything else would be too much of a spoiler, but that the way I would want to present that information wouldn’t quite do the show justice. I just want to give people that taste, as Penguindrum is an anime which, as I tried to make clear in the intro, does odd things with the information it does provide you.

Notably, the first half of the series appeared to be comprised of more wacky, self-contained episodes, with the character Ringo trying to fulfill her own bizarre mission of re-enacting the events of her deceased sister’s diary and the Takakura brothers trying (and failing) to get it for themselves. On the surface it could seem like the series was simply spinning its wheels, but while watching each instance of penguin comedy or stalker antics there was a constant, unsettling feeling permeating each scene, whether that was in the characters’ actions, or the mood of the story, or the little facts we learn about everyone and everything.

For example, though at first we assume that Ringo is just crazy and trying to re-enact her sister’s diary so that she can take her place in her family, when she accidentally crashes into Himari in exactly the way the diary specifies, it becomes unclear as to whether Ringo is in control of if it’s the diary. Just about every episode of the Ringo arc carries with it similar reveals concerning one or more characters, and so while the status quo is seemingly kept, we also continue to learn more and more about the characters, and in doing so sets up the second half, which I feel delivers on everything it promised in terms of resolving the core of the story and many of its details. In general, I am a fan of what I call “false filler,” or seemingly self-contained or repetitive episodes which slowly advance the story forward by filling in other details.

The twists in Mawaru Penguindrum are definitely surprising and hard to predict, partly because they’re not necessarily meant to be treated as the clues in a mystery novel, but that also doesn’t mean they come out of left field, or that their outcomes change the dimension of the story. I think it would be more accurate to say that Penguindrum had a consistent idea of what its nature was like, and it ended up revealing the truth about itself little by little, so gradually in some ways that often the information would seemingly contradict itself. But ultimately, it all comes together well.

That is, until Penguinbear.