Review: Mawaru Penguindrum

In lieu of another Christmas themed show, I’ve decided to review the recently finished Mawaru Penguindrum. Why? Because it’s relevant. Anyway, I hope everyone’s holidays are going great, because then they’ll have ample time to watch Penguindrum.

Though not the point of this review, I often find it hard to tell who the art style caters to.

Mawaru Penguindrum is famous director’s Kunihiko Ikuhara’s newest anime (he’s famous for the various Sailor Moon anime and Revolutionary Girl Utena), and it’s animated by Brain’s Base. If you’ve watched Utena, you very much know what to expect. If not, then Penguindrum is an anime that’s laden with tons of symbolism that seek to mask the inner workings of the plot. Does Penguindrum come out to be a truly deep anime that has multiple plot and character levels, or is the symbolism too heavy handed and just there to mask a simple plot? As this just happens to be my most interesting opening question asked, you’ll get an interesting answer as well.

Unfortunately, I can't find a good embed for the first opening. Instead, you'll get the Utena reject THE MOST FABULOUS MAX MAN EVER.

Penguindrum’s story involves a family of two guys and one girl. Sounds normal enough right? Wrong.  The sister is pretty ill, and she soon becomes possessed by a mysterious penguin hat.  The two boys are tasked by their possessed sister to find this object called the Penguindrum, which will heal her. If you’re confused by this, I hope you still have those Remember11 screwdrivers. From there, the plot is a rollercoaster ride full of comedy, tearjerkers, heartwarming moments, interesting themes, and oceans of symbolism and metaphors. I can’t begin to mention how much symbolism you’ll find in the show. However, what’s really interesting is that the symbolism, metaphors, and themes all go hand in hand: it’s impossible to understand one without looking at the others. Now, before I get to some of the controversial stuff, I have to say that the themes are generally quite thought provoking. One of the main themes is a topic that’s seemingly very simple, but the level of depth is quite astounding. Plus, they’re quite relevant, as many of them tackle society and its norms in intriguing ways. The themes in general are, dare I say, brilliant. The surface plot in general is also very emotional, as all the comedy, drama, and tears come at all the right moments; I’d consider the surface plot pretty great, standalone, though a few pieces are missing. Plus, there’s a ton of very valid literary allusions, though we Westerners, unfortunately, will not get that (I only know because someone pointed it out to me).

Now the most controversial aspect is the symbolism (and the metaphors, less so). While some would praise the symbolism for adding multiple dimensions to the plot, some would swear that the symbolism is only there to hide a simple plot. While I’ve already said the standalone plot is pretty great (minus the spots that only make sense through symbolism/metaphor), I feel as if sometimes, the symbolism can be a bit heavy-handed. The show smacks you all over the face with symbolism, so you know it’s definitely there. However, the symbolism doesn’t give you much in the way of hints. Similarly, the metaphors make confusing topics even more confusing. It’s all very frustrating for the watcher, but it’s important to note that the symbolism fills in for all the missing pieces quite well: in fact, deciphering the symbolism not only makes the plot entirely satisfying, but also ties the themes in quite well.

Here's some food for thought: Mawaru in the show's title translates to spinning, and guess what's probably going on here?

Funnily enough, though the plot is the most memorable part of the show, the characters are also quite likable, endearing, and generally memorable too. While the characters are seemingly shades of outrageously crazy, they’re all really deep, and it’s hard to not care for them though (with one exception, whose motivations are surprisingly simple and to the point for Penguindrum). One thing that’s interesting is that through all the symbolism, metaphors, and straight forward events, never are there any contradicting elements to any of the characters: they’re all very well written. What’s also ridiculously amazing about the characters is that they’re all connected in ways you’ll never imagine: some of the actual connections are generally mindblowing (and foreshadowed, nonetheless). One small gripe I had is that some characters don’t get much development at all: one particularly annoying example belongs with a character who you think would be pretty important, all the same. Still though, the characters not only are perfectly capable of standing well on their own, but they take advantage of the multiple layers of plot by being layered themselves, existing as deep characters that make for fascinating analysis.

Penguindrum's characters are also really fun, and they have some amazingly crazy moments, like SEIZON SENRYAKUUUUUUUUUU.

The art style is actually fairly unique. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but Penguindrum’s art seems sort of like a shoujou’s style. While it’s obvious at points, it’s not so much regularly. The designs are also rather weird, as they’re both outrageous and not outrageous at the same time. The clash can, at times, be insanely jarring. Though weird, I found myself liking the art a decent amount. The animation is rather above average, as it does use its budget quite well often enough (like the Seizon Senryaku parts mentioned above), but normal scenes are animated, well, normally. They don’t stand out, but the scenes that need good animation get good animation. Overall, the animation does its job, and does its job well at times, but never truly stands out.

Some of the scenes have some really cool color schemes, as well.

The OST has some really great music. I really loved a lot of the BGM, and some of them have even almost moved me to tears alone. On the technical side of things, Penguindrum’s OST has heavy classical influences: what’s really striking is that, aside from all the piano pieces, there’s a considerably large focus on the organ and woodwind instruments. As someone who’s played a woodwind for a few years, I found myself drawn to many of the songs. Even so, the soundtrack is still going to appeal to someone who has no particular inclinations towards those two instruments, as it makes for some great listening. Hell, the music is used so well in the show, that I adored most moments that had music playing. In terms of vocal themes, I liked the two opening songs, but I couldn’t really care for the in-universe band’s songs (aka covers of real songs). I know a lot of people do though, so it’s likely that you’ll derive some enjoyment from them. The voice acting was pretty great, if unique, and is full of convincing emotion. It’s amazing that the voice actors did great jobs when considering that some of them don’t have that much experience under their belts. All in all, the sound was definitely pretty great.

Rating Breakdown
While the surface plot, themes, and references are very solid, the symbolism is definitely not for everyone. Though the symbolism fills in many of the gaps in the plot, and connects all the various aspects well, it can be seen as too heavy handed.
Though not the most memorable part of the show, the characters are all very interesting, endearing, and deep, save for very few exceptions.
The art style is pretty interesting, as it employs a shoujo-esque style, while also introducing jarring designs that work well.
Though the animation is pretty high in some scenes, it's par for the course in most others.
The OST is extremely pleasant, having a classical focus with emphasis on the piano, organ, and woodwinds, of all things, while the vocal themes are good for most people. The voice acting is also great across the board, with tons of convincing emotion.
While Mawaru Penguindrum tells a really interesting tale in a convoluted manner that's not for everyone, those that can appreciate the symbolism and can see what it means and how it links the emotional surface plot, thought-provoking themes, and complex metaphors are in for an amazing experience.
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A mad scientist who's so cool!


A mad scientist who's so cool!

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