I’d give anything to have been a fly on the wall when Kunihiko Ikuhara, famed creator of Revolutionary Girl Utena, was explaining the premise of his most recent series to his production staff. I can picture him standing there in his alligator-skin pants, the animators, voice actors, and screen-writers assembled in front of him. The atmosphere in the room is tense, excited. Everyone is looking forward to working on a new masterpiece that will become as famous as Utena.
“So there are these three teenage siblings.” Ikuhara says at last, having become briefly entranced by the sight of a passing UFO. “Two boys, Shouma and Kanba, and a girl, Himari.”
The staff members nod cautiously. This sounds a lot more mundane than they were anticipating.
“But it turns out that Himari is terminally ill with an unspecified disease!”
Ah, that’s more like it. A classic scenario, rife with emotion and drama. Some of the staffers with a weaker disposition begin to tear up.
“One day they go to the aquarium and buy Himari a penguin hat…. but then she suddenly drops dead!”
Gasps fill the room. One of the animators faints and tumbles backward out an open window. Shock turns to violent sobbing at the thought of the poor, innocent maiden swept away in the prime of life.
“The two brothers are distraught over the death of their sister……”
There is much gnashing of teeth and tearing of cheap cotton-polyester blend shirts at the emotion of the scene. Several staffers begin to beat the ground in despair.
“…. but it turns out the penguin hat contains an alien being that brings her back to life!”
The crying stops abruptly. The staff members look at each other, blinking in confusion.
“The hat possesses Himari and offers to extend her life on the condition that the brothers locate the Penguindrum, which is the diary of a neglected high-school student named Ringo.”
Everyone stares at Ikuhara in bewilderment, but he remains unfazed. In fact, his facial expression has not changed once throughout the entire presentation.
“Also, the hat gives them three magic penguin assistants, who are invisible to everyone else”.
Silence. Ikuhara stares into the middle distance, apparently not aware that he is speaking to a room full of people.
“Well that’s about, oh, a third of the plot set-up. We’ll go over the rest later. Good luck!”
He throws a small paper ball at his feet, causing an intense flash of light. When the production staff’s sight returns he is gone, rose petals fluttering to the ground in his place.
I’m guessing that’s roughly how it happened.
Penguindrum is weird with a capital W. In a medium that already has a reputation for being zany and out-there this might be the zaniest and most out-there show ever made while still attempting to tell a serious, coherent story. Don’t let that put you off, though. There’s a genuine heart beating underneath Penguindrum’s strange, strange, neon-coloured exterior.
For roughly the first half of Penguindreum we watch as Shouma and Kanba scramble to locate the titular object through trickery, guile and outright theft in an effort to save Himari. Hijinks ensue. I went into this series expecting bewildering symbolism and head-spinning visual metaphors (and we’ll get to that, don’t worry) but for a lot of its first half the show operates as an extremely funny, constantly entertaining screwball comedy. A lot of this is down to Ikuhara’s willingness to throw zany background events into almost every scene, mostly by using the three penguin helpers, whose antics never fail to amuse even as they provide a sort of non-verbal running commentary on the character’s personalities and feelings. At times the show devolves into surreal fantasy segments to illustrate the inner workings of the character’s minds- particularly that of Ringo, who has a tendency to launch into deliriously over the top daydreams concerning her obsessive-to-the-point-of-insanity pursuit of an adult crush.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Penguindrum doesn’t take itself seriously, though. There’s genuine human emotion underlying the craziness, often very affecting emotion. Over the course of its 24 episodes Penguindrum peels back the layers of its character’s pasts and psyches, revealing a tableau of loss, loneliness, abandonment and broken childhoods. I don’t want to suggest that the series gets into Evangelion-level psychological brain diving, but it’s certainly not fluff, and when the show stops joking around and gets serious it can deliver some devastating emotional gut-punches. The core story of a family trying desperately to stick together under the crushing weight of the past and the myriad ways it can irreparably colour the present is almost always at the forefront, even during Penguindrum’s crazier detours.
I say “almost” always because there are times when the show gets a little too carried away with itself. Threads of Penguindrum’s comedic element are woven into even the most serious scenes, creating frequent dissonance as to what the viewer is supposed to be taking seriously. Penguindrum very much plays by its own rules and if it decides it’s going to have two characters stage an important conflict by jumping into a hot spring and firing ping pong balls at each other, well, you’re just going to have to play along. For the most part Penguindrum manages to walk the incredibly narrow tightrope between its comedic and dramatic elements without tipping over into incoherence, but there are moments when it comes perilously close to the edge. In particular, a scene mid-way through the series involving ghostly possession and a deadly sushi-eating contest very nearly made the entire story unravel for me.
At about the halfway mark Penguindrum shifts gears dramatically, refocusing the story in a way that makes much of the previous set-up obsolete. Heavy elements of metaphor are introduced as characters begin to move through sparse neon-tinged allegorical spaces that may or may not exist in literal reality. As the series progresses the line between the metaphorical and the real begins to blur until it’s difficult to tell what, if anything, is to be taken at face value- if perhaps the entire show is simply a symbolic web meant to convey some deeper truth or meaning. It’s during these moments that Pengruindrum simultaneously is at its most transcendentally brilliant and it’s most frustrating.
Let’s start with the good. From the moment it hits the ground Penguindrum begins building a sort of metaphorical vocabulary of repeating images, phrases and iconography and this only continues as the series progresses. Episode after episode introduces new concepts up until the very end, leading the viewer to ask questions that would cause anyone listening in to back away slowly such as “why does he bleed penguin-shaped rose petals in that scene?” or “what is the significance of the chisels?” or “what happens to the kids who get sent to the Child Broiler”? There is a single rosetta stone moment in which one of these metaphorical constructs is directly contrasted with its literal inspiration, but in every other instance Penguindrum demands that the viewer actively engage with it rather than just passively allowing the story to wash over them. It demands strict attention and a willingness to interpret its imagery carefully and intelligently. This is challenging to be sure, but also immensely rewarding. Watching the series unfold is like witnessing the construction of some towering machine made out of thousands of whirling, misshapen parts that don’t seem as though they could possibly combine to make anything coherent- but then they snap together suddenly, brilliantly in a series of “a-ha!” moments that will make you want to run out into the street and start babbling about apples and fate to the first person you meet. Taking on the task of interpreting Penguindrum’s dense symbolism doesn’t quite require that you lock yourself in a room and plaster the walls with arcane diagrams and barely-coherent scribblings, but, well, you could, and I’m not entirely sure it would be a worthless endeavor.
Having only watched the series once I will fully admit that I don’t understand a lot of it, and what I think I understand I could very well be completely wrong about. There are many elements of the show that remain a mystery, odd little phrases or themes that crop up just often enough to indicate that they clearly have some meaning. What is the concept of the “frozen world” trying to get at, why do shards of glass feature so heavily in many scenes? The idea of people being stripped and humiliated comes up from time to time, initially in a few throw-away comedic scenes, which seems to tie into Himari’s clothes exploding off during her penguin hat transformations. This was important enough to feature prominently in the big emotional finale, but I can’t for the life of me work out what it’s supposed to mean. And yet, it’s not like so many self-important anime series that throw out a lot of cryptic nonsense to disguise the fact that the writers are making the story up as they go along. There’s something there, I’m just not intelligent or observant enough to figure it out.
Which isn’t to say that Penguindrum is nothing more than a sort of narrative rubik’s cube to be solved. Even if you don’t care to dig below the surface, its more abstract elements could still be enjoyed as a sort of audio-visual opera, just one where the lyrics are written in a language you don’t understand. There are moments of absolutely sublime beauty here, where characters recite heartfelt declarations against the cruelty of fate in pastel virtual mind-scapes and dramatic speeches lit by mysterious off-screen spotlights are made as the score swells to a crescendo. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety to any of it, and whether you find these scenes lame or totally fucking awesome will likely depend on your tolerance for cheese of the highest order, but if this sort of soaring emotional melodrama appeals to you you’ll likely want to re-watch the series immediately upon finishing it just to get another hit.
Ikuhara evidently had a lot of ideas since making Utena in the late 90s and he appears to have tried to include all of them in Penguindrum, leading to the show’s biggest flaw: there’s simply too much of it. There are too many ideas, too many themes, too many characters. There is a main thematic through-line to the series, a thread you could follow all the way from beginning to end, but there are lots of other, smaller threads that are just as important to the overall structure but don’t appear to be directly connected to that main through-line. Rather than attempting to tie them all together into a unified whole Penguindrum just switches focus constantly, one minute absolutely dead-set on the theme of “invisible” children who have been abandoned by the world, then fate and destiny, then the prison of the self as a limiting factor for personal growth, then punishment and retribution for the sins of the past, except maybe that’s connected to one of those other things? Family, childhood, destiny, magic notebooks, scarves, terrorism, um, pop stars? Add to this a cast that’s not large but in which each character is fully fleshed out with their own tragic backstory, development arc and retinue of crytpic iconography and you get a sprawling mess of a show. That the series manages to wrap up in a satisfying manner in spite of all this is a minor miracle, but I can’t help but think it would have been twice as effective if it had been more focused.
This is a flaw, and it’s a big one, but don’t make the mistake of rejecting Penguindrum because of it. That the show is a big messy ball of weirdness and insanity is part of what makes it so unique in the first place, and while it could have been executed more gracefully that doesn’t change the fact that it’s unlike anything you’ve probably seen before.
Ultimately Penguindrum’s greatest triumph is that it gives you more than just about any other anime series I’ve ever watched. It’s uproariously entertaining but more than mere entertainment, a beguiling labyrinth of metaphor and symbolism just waiting to be decoded by the inquisitive viewer who isn’t afraid to take a trip down the rabbit hole. The show is batshit insane but offers moments of genuinely stirring emotion, all presented with some truly beautiful imagery.
Underneath all of that, Penguindrum is a story of how we become lost to the world and what it means to be found. It’s about the sacrifices we make to welcome another person into the joy and pain of life and the price we pay to help each other escape the cage of the past. That such heady themes are presented using the vector of magic penguin hats is, for my money, an act of genius.
Penguindrum isn’t for everyone. The sheer weirdness on display is going to turn a lot of viewers off (and for the love of God, do not make this your or anyone else’s first anime viewing experience) and the mid-series shift from literal story to surrealist metaphorical mindscape may be jarring for those not prepared to think about what they’re watching. Personally, I enjoyed the ride immensely and felt a pang of heartache when this particular train reached its ultimate destination.