The Lost Backlog of Summer 2014 #11: Mawaru Penguindrum

mpd03aSeeing as I had no confidence in the summer season, I decided to invent a backlog of shows to watch from one of three different areas. The eleventh anime on this list was Mawaru Penguindrum, which aired in the summer of 2011. I had previously watched the only the last episode back in a strange period for this blog. I watched the show over a period of a few days, and these are my thoughts on it.

Like many people who have watched Penguindrum, I was a little confused by what exactly it was trying to be. This show happens to be the first one I’ve completed that was directed by Ikuhara Kunihiko, so I went in with the little knowledge of how his directorial style was though through the grapevine and that last episode, I knew it was full of symbolism. I think I ultimately came out of it thinking that this was a show that was ultimately torn between trying to be fun to watch and taking on deep issues. I’m not at all convinced it succeeded at either.

mpd16aSo the story itself revolves around the brothers Takakura, Shouma and Kanba, who one afternoon take their terminally ill younger sister Himari out to the aquarium one day. They watch the penguins, Shouma buys her a funny looking hat, then she collapses and dies in front of the penguins. Then at the hospital, the hat finds its way onto her and she’s alive again under mysterious circumstances. Under the control of the hat, Himari transforms into a different person and whisks whoever is around to another world where she orders them to do her bidding. Of particular interest to her is the Penguindrum.

At this point, the cast of characters starts to get a little crazy. There’s the three penguins that are invisible to everyone else that provide much of the comedy. Oginome Ringo, is an occult girl with an important object in her possession. She’s madly in love with a teacher at the brothers’ school, Takara Keiju, who is in a relationship with the stage actress Tokikago Yuri. There’s also Natsume Masako, a girl who is trying to crush something at all times if it has to do with Kanba. These characters are progressively crazier than the previous ones, but they play important roles in the story.

mpd06aThat story can really be broken into 2 parts. The first is really the most heavily comedic section and it lasts until roughly the end of the 11th episode. It’s mainly Shouma doing things with Ringo to try to get the diary that she possesses that he thinks is the Penguindrum, while she’s trying to get with his teacher. Kanba, on the other hand, is making money in mysterious unspecified ways while being a ladykiller until Masako goes after him since they have a long-running history. I actually liked Penguindrum the most at this part, but it wasn’t really trying to achieve anything by simply being fun.

So with that in mind, the 12th episode began with the story of what happened to the Takakura’s mysteriously absent parents. I can’t put this a better way than to say that it’s a thinly-veiled re-enactment of the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway with bombs instead of sarin gas. I think the best way to describe the rest of the show is with the following sentence: Life is unbelievably cruel to those who do not deserve cruelty and the best thing that people can do is to do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of those they love even at the cost of their own existence.

mpd12aKanba and Shouma spare no effort in trying to save Himari’s life throughout the show. The former even turns to the remnants of their parents’ organization for money to pay for treatment. Shouma, on the other hand, is caught in the terrible position of trying to save everyone but doing a terrible job at it until the very end. However, through all of this the show continues to try to be funny. I think it became a little too much as Masako was trying to tell Himari her true past while the pair of them exchanged forehead lens flare with each passing shot. And that last episode proved to be ultimately quite depressing with a second viewing as well.

What did I get out of really watching Penguindrum for the first time? It is completely possible to symbolize the larger meaning of a story out of existence. Simply layering symbol on top of symbol to try to disguise that you really want to have a story about the children of those who commit terrible acts means that the symbols themselves become more important than the story. The giant statue that was symbolic of Yuri’s father’s power doesn’t matter once it’s actually Tokyo Tower. “How did it become that?,” is not the question I should be asking after seeing that scene. Then there’s the Child Broiler portions which was about the children in society with no hope, yet is portrayed in such a childish way that it’s pretty dumb now that I think about it.

mpd24eThat’s not to say that I think Penguindrum is a bad show. I think it just got caught in the trap of telling a story with the wrong tone and set of characters. It’s as though Schindler’s List had Liam Neeson randomly punching people like he does in films nowadays, and with a laugh track at times. I think it should still be applauded for the concepts it tries to tackle despite that. I would still recommend this show to some people depending on the types of shows that they do watch, but with the caveats that I’ve stated before. Finally, there’s the one measure that really counts. After watching this, I’m less likely than I was before to try to watch Utena.

Next Week: A group of bespectacled young men form a social organization for the purpose of achieving their shared dream.

One thought on “The Lost Backlog of Summer 2014 #11: Mawaru Penguindrum”

  1. Ultimately whether you felt Penguin Drum was successful as a show or not is irrelevant to the implicit questions raised by the concept of this series of articles. Here I think Mawaru Penguin Drum really shines. Again, I’m not challenging the assertion that Penguin Drum might have failed at what it attempted to do. What I think is important is that it had ambitions that far exceed anything attempted in the recent anime season, and those ambitions are a partial answer to the questions you have left unstated.

    Now Penguin Drum might have been more successful if it attempted merely to be a harem rom-com with occasional battle scenes; that certainly is an achievable goal. It could have succeeded at being a show in which a group of adorable girls/boys did things adorably. As you say in the article, it tried to do something more difficult.

    I don’t want to try to define the implicit questions this series poses, as I think it is your right as the author to define those for yourself, but I will say that some questions that are raised in my mind include:
    “How many shows with the same basic premise do we need in any given season?”
    “People had been proclaiming that MOE was the cancer that would kill anime; did that already happen? Are we now witnessing the after-life of anime? Some sort of zombie-season?”

    and, of course:
    “Am I imagining it or did anime shows used to be more interesting than this?”

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