Mawaru-Penguindrum

Mawaru-PenguindrumType: TV Series
Episode Count: 24
Genre: Fantasy / Drama
Vintage: 2011

Version reviewed: Japanese Subtitled
Date of Review: 21 May 2013

Grade: A

Twelve years after Adolescence Apocalypse, Kunihiko Ikuhara has returned to directing. He hasn’t lost his touch.

Plot Summary
Left behind by their parents, brothers Kanba and Shoma live alone with their sickly younger sister Himari. On one special day they have set aside for Himari, they visit the local aquarium when an event occurs which will change all of their lives forever. Himari is suddenly not herself: “I hereby inform you, you two who shall amount to nothing! You will acquire the Penguindrum!” She tells them why they must find it, but how can they find this “Penguindrum” without even knowing what it is? So begins a story of fates intertwined. Not only those of Kanba, Shoma, and Himari, but also others who they have yet to meet.

The Review
It may not be quite as grand as Revolutionary Girl Utena, but Mawaru-Penguindrum is a very worthy successor to it. Penguindrum is an entirely new story, but series creator and director Kunihiko Ikuhara can’t seem to help referencing his previous work in various ways (though Utena was technically a collaborative project; Ikuhara was just one part of Be-Papas). There are parallels to several aspects of Utena: Chu-chu and the ascension sequence to the duels to name but two. Also as in Utena, music plays an important role in the narrative. This could come across as trying to copy something which has worked before, but here it is original and becomes new again. Those who have not seen Utena won’t be missing anything, but those who have can draw the parallels.

So if you haven’t seen Utena, can you still fully appreciate Penguindrum? Of course. What you’ll find here is a story which weaves through reality, abstraction, and symbolism, is highly visual, and doesn’t spoon-feed anything to the audience. One must pay attention as the story progresses. There are many layers here, something which multiple viewings will reward.

As for the visual aspect, Penguindrum makes extensive use of computer animation, though it is blended with the digital 2D animation so it doesn’t draw any unnecessary attention to itself. The appearance of the animation is very clean with lots of hard lines and rendered environments at times, but it never crosses the line into going for a faux 3D effect. Much of what is accomplished visually in Penguindrum would  be either extremely difficult or nearly impossible with traditional cel animation. In this respect, Ikuhara is using digital and computer animation as a part of the storytelling process. It’s not just used for convenience, but to convey the story’s message in a very deliberate and specific way; it is artistic. There are some other aspects to the show’s visual presentation which are quite interesting and creative, but I won’t go into them so as to preserve the impact of the show for those who wish to see it.

Mawaru-Penguindrum is a daring series with depth. It’s a surreal drama peppered with humor; after all, there are multiple penguin mascots in the cast kyu-kyuing their way into whatever situation they can. Penguindrum is a feast for the eyes, ears, and mind. Utena fans will be on familiar ground here, and everyone else can catch a glimpse into Kunihiko Ikuhara’s world. The return of Ikuhara to the director’s chair is most welcome, and he hasn’t missed a step even after more than a decade.

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