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Dec 25
2012

Mawaru Penguindrum [Anime Secret Santa]

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So a month or two ago, I signed up for the Secret Santa project over at Reverse Thieves. It was exciting joining something like this, since I felt it would give me the chance to check out some shows I might not otherwise get to see. I was a little worried at first that I might be given several shows I would have a tough time deciding between, but it turned out that wasn’t the case in the slightest. The first of three shows I was assigned was Claymore, a series I know for a fact is good because I’m already reading it. I’ll try putting up a review later on for the manga, but as far as Anime Secret Santa goes it didn’t feel right to select it. The second was Now and Then, Here and There, which…no. Just no. I decided I wouldn’t watch this show a long time ago.

So that left Mawaru Penguindrum, a series that has been discussed with high regard by a lot of people and which I’ve been meaning to watch for a while now. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t watch this show when it first came out. Maybe there was nobody around who could describe it in an appealing way, since it is kind of hard to summarize Penguindrum in a way that portrays it well. Also, the first thing I learned about it was “lol penguins”. So I started up the series, fully aware that the combination of the above three anime being recommended meant the person who gave them to me clearly wants me to suffer.

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After trying several times and failing to give a full plot summary for this series, I can start to understand how hard it is to sell. There’s an overarching storyline about two brothers trying to save their little sister from dying, a girl stalking one of her teachers based on what she believes is her fate, and about a dozen other characters trying to fulfill goals of their own that I’m having trouble keeping straight. And all of this appears to center around a mysterious item called the Penguindrum which, contrary to my initial assumption, is not a drum with penguins on it.

Even that description isn’t entirely accurate, since it makes the events in the series sound a lot more mundane than they actually are. Everything in this series is interlaced with bizarre styles and touches, most notably the set of penguins that follow the main trio around everywhere. It gives the series a unique feel to it and makes things much more interesting, although it often detracts from the mood considerably when things are about to get serious and the penguins are still being penguins. Suddenly I understand why Evangelion got rid of Pen-Pen toward the end of the show.

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The story of Penguindrum can be one of the strongest selling points behind the series. Even at the very start, the numerous mysteries behind every little thing keep you going and wanting more. At the time of this review, I’m only 15 episodes into the show, but I’m still very curious how things will progress and what the deal is with most of these characters. My main concern right now is how smoothly everything will wrap up by the end, because at this point there’s enough happening that I’m concerned a lot of questions and plot points are just going to be sidelined by the end. But since I’m not finished, I really shouldn’t hold that as a point against the series just yet. What I wanted to focus on was exactly why I haven’t finished.

See, Penguindrum is not the kind of show you should ever force yourself to watch. It has a lot of dark, depressing elements amidst all the wackiness and odd set pieces, and watching too much at once is not recommended if you need to be around people any time soon. Anyone who has seen this show for more than a few minutes can tell it has a lot to say about philosophy and the human condition, and most of those things are not exactly positive ones. From what I’ve gathered, this is what some people love most about the series, but in the case of someone like me, it can also be a huge problem when it comes to getting invested. I know for a fact that Penguindrum has a lot to say, but it’s difficult to hear it properly when the show has its head stuck up its ass!

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This series is laced so heavily in messages and double meanings that it causes any attempt to portray the characters realistically to suffer as a result. Part of what makes tragedy work for most people is that there needs to be some way to connect to the people suffering, but that’s difficult to do when the problems they go through feel so unreal. The balance between the real and surreal elements did feel a lot better early on, since Himari’s backstory was my favourite episode because it felt like a real story. As things went on, it started becoming harder to relate to things because it was difficult to tell what was real and what wasn’t. For me the show hit the wall during Yuri’s backstory, when I questioned if a person like her father could really exist and realized I didn’t know if I was supposed to be asking that. Should I be taking things as they’re told or purely be looking at the symbols used? Or some strange mixture of the two? I honestly couldn’t tell, and I knew I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the show unless I could straighten that out.

So what does this mean for Mawaru Penguindrum? I think it means you need to be in the right mindset when you go into it. There’s a lot to take in, and if you try going into the series blind you probably won’t get much out of it aside from a few headaches. I’m not going to say I disliked the series or anything, but if I’d forced myself to keep going, I’m sure I would have. I can definitely see people getting a lot more out of the show than I did.

Highly Recommended: Majors in literary analysis, anyone who understood more than half of the Utena movie

Recommended: Shojo fans, SHAFT fans, anyone who understood more than half of Star Driver

Not Recommended: Anyone who watched Utena purely for the swordfights

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/ 11 Commentsleave a comment /

  • Wilco says:

    I know you had a deadline to make but I would like to see what you final thoughts after you watch the full series because that made me cry manly tears.

  • *puts on criticism gloves while grinning wickedly*

    I've distilled your complaints against the show down to the following key points:
    1) Tone dissonance; penguins and silly/absurdist elements don't carry the dark mood.
    2) Weak characterization; the characters' personalities don't seem entirely plausible.
    3) Dark themes feel insincere because of the above two problems.

    My rebuttals:
    1) The surreal comedic elements are actually part of the story's theme. In much the same way that the meandering plot of Cowboy Bebop is actually about how the characters (Spike especially) are trying to run away from the things that haunt them, the absurdist story elements are there to convey the concept that's stated in the series' opening: "unmei ga warau" (fate is laughing). These characters are the playthings of the universe, and Ikuhara is portraying that metaphor literally. Also, the penguins do hint subtly at their respective characters' needs and vices.
    2) The trick I always come back to when trying to understand the characters in symbolic stories is this: motivation. If that still holds true, then I'm fine with the characters being portrayed through a fantastic/surreal lens. With Yuri's father, you question whether such a man could exist, but the answer is a bit more roundabout. Yuri's perspective, experience and memory are warped, but even if we take what we see of her father to be exaggerated and unreal, the *effect* he had on her is the main point of that scene. There really are terrible parents who are never satisfied with the children they have, and these children really do grow up feeling inadequate and ugly. Kanba and Shouma want to save their sister and their home, just like any brothers would. Ringo wants to bring her family together and live a happy life with the people who are important to her, just like any girl her age would. I think you get the idea. That's what makes the penguindrum ingenius: it comes with a promise just vague enough that every character can twist and interpret it as something that will help them toward their individual goals. From that angle, I found it emotionally fulfilling as well as intellectually.
    3) With the above two details clarified, the dark themes still work. It may be a challenge for the viewers, but why wouldn't it be? If it laid all its cards bare for us, that wouldn't feel true. The universe, both ours and the cruelly playful one portrayed by the story, are much more complicated than that, the answers don't come easily, but the opportunity to find our own answer is always there. Symbolism and abstractions don't constitute having your head up your ass, they're simply a different style of storytelling than literalism. The necessary details are all there for the audience to piece together. You were wondering whether to look at the story for its metaphors, for its literal meanings, or somewhere in between. The problem with that thinking is that you assume there's only one right answer, when there's actually something to gain from multiple different perspectives.

    That's my basic defense of the show and my advice for understanding it better, and hopefully it helps. I'm doing this out of love, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't get some lulz out of it too. Maybe I should go back to that other review next, you know which one XD
    My recent post Glass Fleet Review

  • Yippy says:

    I watched it midway (I think), but I dropped it unconsciously due to other shows and commitments. From what I've glimpsed in aniblogs and reviews, I agree that you need a certain kind of mindset to fully enjoy the show. Heck, even in the FIRST episode, I already missed a ton of references hidden in the background and dialogue.

    Now that you've brought this show back into my view, maybe I'll give it another try…

  • Zabi says:

    Why the no on Now and Then, Here and There?

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