Mawaru Penguindrum: Just pretend that serious thing never happened

Mawaru Penguindrum is one of those rare anime that doesn’t have some form of source material. It was created by Brain’s Base, the same studio behind Durarara & Baccano. The co-writer and director was Ikuhara Kunihiko. You may not know his name but you probably recognise his other works. He created and directed Revolutionary Girl Utena and served as the director for large segments of the Sailor Moon anime. I have to say, this sounds promising. So far, the two anime I’ve seen from Brain’s Base have been at least decent and Ikuhara does amazing work. If they screw this up I’m going to be sorely disappointed. So, let’s proceed with cautious optimism.

Story:

Our tale opens with three siblings, Shouma, Kanba and Himari. The three are living on their own since their parents went missing and things aren’t going very well. Himari is dying of an incurable disease and her brothers have been told that she doesn’t have long. They decide to do everything they can to make her final days happy and take her to an Aquarium that they all used to love going to. It’s there that Himari collapses. She’s rushed to the hospital where she dies only to quickly come back to life and start adopting odd mannerisms whenever she wears a penguin hat. She brings her brothers to a strange psychedelic space that even Lewis Carroll would find excessive, calls them worthless low lives and tells them that they’ll have to find something called the “Penguindrum” to save their sister’s life and things only become crazier and crazier from that point on.

As usual, let’s begin by looking at the series’ faults. The biggest one is that it’s fond of bringing up really serious issues for dramatic moments that don’t tie into the plot in any substantial way and are never brought up again after they happen. The primary examples being scenes where someone will very nearly be raped and the next episode they’ll interact with the person who made the attempt as though nothing happened and it will just go completely unaddressed for the rest of the series. Which just begs the question of why something as serious as rape is being brought up at all if they aren’t going to bother doing anything with it. Really, any source of drama should have some plot relevance instead of just being there for a cheap shock moment but there’s something particularly terrible about using such a grotesque crime, and the number one cause of PTSD, in such a tawdry fashion. There are also quite a few humorous moments that fall short, mainly because they’ll try to pull off humour at parts of their cheap shock scenes or really close to them which results in a tonal clash. The romance elements in this are absolutely atrocious. Most of it involves incestuous undertones, stalking and/or some other factor that makes it really skeevy. The problem being that a lot of it is played as uplifting or otherwise positive instead of having some self awareness of how messed up the situation is. Although, in all fairness, they do always show rape as being a terrible thing, even if they never bring the attempts up again after they’re done with.

Let’s move on to the positive aspects. I will give the series credit on three points. The first is that the premise is very creative and had a lot of potential, even if that potential was largely squandered by meanderings into the realms of pointless irrelevance and general stupidity. I’ll also give credit for having some legitimately good dramatic scenes, when it’s actually doing plot relevant stuff and can refrain from trying to inject humour into it. The series also does have some funny scenes, when it’s putting them in at light-hearted bits instead of trying to cram them into really serious moments. So, the series does manage some good bits during the rare stretches when the writers were on their Ritalin.

Characters:

The characters are, largely, not bad. Every single one does suffer from the writing’s general lack of focus, but in terms of characterisation and development they aren’t bad characters. They are, however, pretty standard with little, if anything, unique to define them. There are some really good familial scenes with Shouma, Kanba and Himari. They still aren’t very complex characters, though and there are times when the series takes those bonds into creepy territory which does weaken that aspect.

Then we have the penguins. Those of you who have seen Utena might remember the little purple monkey that existed solely for comic relief but was bearable because he largely stayed in the background and did, in all fairness, have some funny moments. Now, imagine that same basic character with a more prominent role and with four slight variations running around. So, now you have four largely pointless comic sidekicks taking up screen time and being highly obtrusive. I would like to tell you that at least none of them makes any attempt at sexually assaulting anyone, but one of them does, albeit in a much more mild form than most of the similar scenes in the series. Because tying someone up and forcing kisses on them without consent is still a type of sexual assault.

Art:

The art is really good. Ikuhara’s fondness for symbolism that’s extravagant and kind of bizarre is fully on display. The visuals are highly engrossing and appealing to look at. The character designs are very reminiscent of Utena. For example, Natsume Masako looks similar to Arisugawa Juri in terms of hairstyle, facial structure and even expressions.

Sound:

The actors in this really put a great deal of effort into their performances. They do deliver their lines as over the top or seriously as the current scene demands. I appreciate the effort they’re clearly putting into it and I won’t say that any of them were bad, but I really can’t call them good performances either. Due to the tonal issues, A lot of scenes require them to fluctuate from serious to exaggeration in the space of a few sentences and it just sounds awkward. There aren’t many scenes that let them show any subtle emotional range. Most just have them fluctuating between extremes. Honestly, the music is the one thing I didn’t notice tonal problems with. Maybe it does fluctuate during those horribly executed scenes and I was too overwhelmed by everything else to notice but, as far as I can recall, the music was really good.

Ho-yay:

There’s certainly some. One of the attempted rape scenes is between two characters of the same sex. There’s also a case of two female characters being portrayed as having had sex, consensual too as rare as that is for this anime and there are some scenes that definitely come across as homo-erotic, usually between girls. That being said, it isn’t a huge part of the anime since a lot of the focus is on Shouma and Kanba. As such, the ho-yay factor is going to be a 5/10.

Final Thoughts:

This anime is a classic example of style being valued over substance. It has some amazing visuals and it has some good scenes both dramatic and comedic and it does portray familial bonds pretty well. But taken as a whole, it doesn’t hold up. The narrative is an unfocused mess with tonal problems and lots of dramatic moments that serve no purpose to the plot and come across as pretty offensive and demeaning towards serious issues. Because it’s one thing to address serious issues and quite another to bring them up and then do bugger all with them. This series chose poorly and took the latter route. In the end, every good scene is over-shadowed by two or three bad ones and my final rating is going to be a 3/10. Next week, we’ll ignore the requests for a moment because it’s time to take another look at that franchise, in the name of the moon.

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