Mawaru Penguindrum: Surreal and heartwarming

Posted on June 13, 2013

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Mawaru Penguindrum came to my knowledge not so long ago. This 2011 anime is produced by Brain’s Base, which also produced the more well-known Durarara!!. At first glance, the anime might just be like those good ol’ “magical girl” shows like Sailor Moon. But the proverb holds true: don’t judge the book by its cover. True enough, after watching Penguindrum, the show actually proved to be much deeper than what one would expect.

Plot: 9.5/10 (Warning: possible spoilers ahead)

A strong point in the anime’s plot is the way magic is incorporated into the story. Magic in anime like Fairy Tail can be discussed quite easily; in that particular universe, magic exists. You can also easily point out exactly when magic is being employed in the show. In Penguindrum, however, it’s not always the case. Sure, we know that there is an element of magic present in the show’s story line, but it can be quite challenging to determine whether the scene is magical in nature, or merely in the characters’ dreams, or merely allegorical to begin with. Given the setup of some scenes in the anime, it could even be a mix of two. This makes interpreting the happenings in Penguindrum a nice mental exercise, alongside actually watching the show itself.

The story focuses on three siblings: Himari, Kanba and Shoma Takakura, as they cope with Himari’s frail condition and the preservation of the family bond. Himari actually dies, but is then revived by a mysterious, sentient penguin hat who then orders Kanba and Shoma to find the elusive Penguindrum, as Himari’s recovery is only temporary: such attempts to recover the Penguindrum is referred to as “Survival Strategies.”

The pacing of the story is optimal for establishing an emotional link between the characters and the viewers. The story kicks off with relatively harmless conflicts besetting the characters (reconciling reality with the existence of magical elements, helping Ringo deal with her obsession with her professor, etc.). At the second half of series, however, the show becomes darker as the main characters discover hidden intentions from the people they have interacted with, the answer as to why that penguin hat exists, and a terrorist threat that can destroy the whole town. It may sound exaggerated and forced when you hear it this way, but everything will certainly fall into place once you watch the show. Couple this with the blurred distinction between reality, dreams, and allegory, and then you have a very unique experience of feeling your way through the show as you try to wrap your head around the magical misfortunes that afflict the characters.

The show also have no qualms with black comedy, most notably the depiction of the Child Broiler, where children “unneeded” by society are shredded to pieces to become “invisible” (don’t worry, no gore in this anime), Masako’s dreams of killing her own grandfather, and her grandfather’s actual death caricatured, among others. The anime also touches on sex, existentialism, justice, even incest, but most importantly, the question of fate, which is the central idea of the anime to begin with. As such, despite the childlike artwork of Penguindrum, the series is actually attuned to an older audience.

All in all, the very unique plot structure of Penguindrum, together with its magical components and allusions to philosophical ideas, will surely give the audience the sense of adventure and wonder (sometimes, just plain bewilderment) they crave for. It is no exaggeration to compare this to Alice in Wonderland by C.S. Lewis. Both are seemingly childlike at face value, but are deceptively deep when you immerse yourself in them.

Character Setup: 10/10

The cast of characters are memorable due to its diversity. It is also noteworthy how vibrant the interactions between the characters are, so that they do not feel forced to the viewer’s eyes. The show also boasts a solid character development among their characters, as they steadily adjust to the changes in the plot development. These will arouse certain emotions from the viewers; anger at Kanba’s decisions, pity for Ringo and Himari, sympathy/annoyance for Yuri and Tabuki’s bitterness, fear for the lives of the main characters, and just plain love for the mains as they try to preserve their bond as family. Character development is an integral part of any anime, and Penguindrum nailed it for me.

Art: 10/10

Despite the plot’s dark and serious nature, the art is really bright and colorful, which makes it really comparable with the likes of Alice in Wonderland. The anime showcases strong colors and thick lines that give the overall artwork considerable depth, which makes the anime an eye-candy as a whole. To balance this strong effect, the show employs the minimalist approach to the background “people.” To my amusement, the artists made use of those figures you see in male and female restrooms as templates for such “people,” which makes watching the whole thing kind of weird but entertaining at the same time. The anime certainly is bold for introducing new art styles like that, and guess what, I really liked it. Two thumbs up.

Sound: 8/10

There isn’t really much that stands out here, except that catchy song during the initiation of Survival Strategies, and the background music at the end of the anime which will make you want to give the main characters a big virtual hug. These two pretty much make up the score I gave Penguindrum in this regard.

Replayable? Maybe.

I guess Penguindrum warrants some degree of “replayability,” if you want to fully understand just how the plot worked throughout the show, or if you want to serve as some sort of a guide to your friends as you watch Penguindrum with them. Just remind them not to get swayed too easily by implicit sex scenes and hints of incest; they’re missing the real gems of Penguindrum.

Overall: 9.5/10

Penguindrum makes you do two things: appreciate its cute and colorful art, and ask yourself the questions that have plagued humanity since forever: does fate really exist? Is there something wrong with the world? How do we set about changing it? What makes a family?

Penguindrum guarantees a fun and ultimately heartwarming experience for viewers. Coupled with its uniqueness, Penguindrum really stands out for me despite being a non-mainstream anime like One Piece and Fairy Tail. Watch this show, fellas, and “let us share the fruit of fate.”

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Posted in: Anime