Penguindrum Volume 1
“Listen, you lowlifes, who will never amount to anything…”
Penguindrum is directed and co-written by Kunihiko Ikuhara, who is best known for his work on Sailor Moon and creating the critically acclaimed Revolutionary Girl Utena. Penguindrum is also the first anime series Kunihiko Ikuhara has been actively involved in since he wrapped up work on the Utena movie back in 1999. I reviewed said movie for Anime UK News back in 2010, and have been intrigued into checking out more of his work, especially the Utena TV series, ever since. Sadly I’ve yet to do so (admittedly I’m holding out for a UK release) but until then let’s dive into the strange world of Penguindrum, and believe me, it is very peculiar.
The series follows two brothers Kanba and Shouma, who look after their terminally ill sister, Himari Takakura, until she suddenly collapses during a trip to the Aquarium and dies. Fate intervenes however when Himari becomes possessed by a strange God-like spirit via a magical penguin-shaped hat they bought at the Aquarium gift shop. The spirit proclaims she has extended their sister’s life in exchange for their help in finding the Penguindrum. What the Penguindrum is, the boys have no idea, and aren’t given much to work on. However they are given 3 penguin helpers only they can see to help track the Penguindrum down. This eventually leads to following Ringo, a high school girl who happens to be the stalker of their science teacher, Mr Tabuki.
You’ve probably read my synopsis above and now have very confused expressions on your faces, and the opening episodes will do little to settle the bewilderment. At face value it’s easy to just assume that the series is all colourful visuals, comic relief and crazy behaviour. You have the constant clowning around of the penguins swinging from knitting to looking up girls skirts, the brothers are thrust into a task they know next to nothing on how to go about it, and even the stalker behaviour of Ringo is played for giggles at first. Then you have the utterly overblown and ridiculous Penguin Spirit who flaunts around with her flowing hair and outfit; telling the boys how worthless they are whilst demanding the Penguindrum.
The series ploughs through at a rapid pace with its unusual concept and strange characters. However from the start there’s an underlining feeling of drama and a sinister tone that comes in full bloom towards the end of the first half. No amount of penguins running around is enough to hide the disturbing behaviour of Ringo, the cruelty of Himari’s fortune or Kanba’s slow discovery of how the Penguindrum is affecting others. The themes of fate, destiny and sacrifice are easy to grasp from the start but Penguindrum is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll first have to get past the first few sluggish episodes that unravel Ringo’s character motivation; there’s a great pay off eventually but you need to indulge the plot progression to get there. This is on top of Kanba’s scenes during the course of the first 2 discs which are a frustrating watch at times; he’s clearly aiming for the bigger picture, getting close to multiple side characters that are full of mystery but the scenes are so short and cryptic that it feels like we’re only getting very tiny glimpses into the real story before being yanked out of it once more. The fact that you want to know more obviously works in favour of the series, but Penguindrum is not going to hold your hand or hand over the mystery on a plate, it’ll get to it when it gets to it. I can’t say much more without giving too much away; it’s full of multiple layers and demands your complete attention from the get-go, even if the cute penguins are a distraction from it all.
The series is visually stunning; lots of bright colours, fluid movements and bold imagery to marvel at. Any short cuts taken are done purposely for the comedic factor; for example they use stick men to represent a generic crowd and one of Shouma’s friends doesn’t even have a face, just hair and arms. One annoying recycled animation is the template of a train station sign to illustrate a change in scene or going into a flashback, it’s used frequently in each episode so it feels like filler. The show also makes several visual references to other anime series such as Sailor Moon and Death Note which are enjoyable in their own right, so keep an eye out.
DVD extras include the opening & closing, promotional video and English/Japanese with subtitles. If you’re watching in English be cautious of the iffy subtitles; none of the songs are subtitled, that includes several songs within episodes that are specific to the narrative. Plus several important Japanese messaging is often not translated or it flashes up so quickly you’ll miss it.
Penguindrum is an odd series to describe or review because of its surreal concept and a lot of the development is meant to be discovered yourself. Twelve episodes in and it’s impossible to tell right now how it’ll all unfold or to what end, there’s many unanswered questions but too much intrigue built up over that time to ignore. The wait for the second half will be a long one. If you’re a fan of Kunihiko Ikuhara’s work, looking for something completely original, or have a special soft spot for penguins, pick this up.