輪るピングドラム (Mawaru Penguindrum)
What’s odd is that I have traveled to India in an effort to reconnect to some memory that I left long ago. When this tiger gained human intelligence, he made a decisive break with the world of nature. It is not a total or uncomplicated break, as I am, from the tinge of my fur to the centre of my marrow, still a feline. More to the point, I still inspire a primal fear in all the people I meet. Airport security is unforgiving at best, and food vendors and train conductors tend to tense up and lose their charity when a six-foot-long striped cat is trying to get some service. All this trouble I have endured is all for the sake of my own selfish reasons. The people here are a blur. To be honest, most people travel to see rocks and water, artfully arranged steel towers, oil paintings and abstract sculpture, historical sites. Dead things. Nonliving things. Tourists put their hosts in the awkward position of being parasites, obstacles and poorly-paid gatekeepers designed to drain as much money out of visitors as they walk from one dead thing to the next. They may as well be automated toll booths. The whole of France would be nothing but a precisely automated moving walkway with automatic toll gates and a tendency to burst into violent riots.
Mawaru Penguindrum, referred to hereafter as Penguindrum, is a show about fate, sharing, and the [dis]connections people share. Our main characters move about Tokyo’s many wards in a sanitized elevated train system, navigating a maze of abstract inhabitants. All of them look alike. None were chosen by the show’s creators to be intriguing to us. We know nothing of them and they, protected by the diegetic umbrella, are blissfully ignorant of us. They, like the teeming masses of India through which I push and barge, trying to reach the open jungles, are the inhuman ones. Of course, the Indian people I have met all have their own stories, personalities, families, networks of relations personal and economic and political. But to be honest neither you nor I care about any of them. Penguindrum makes the stylistic choice to forgo background characters, to render the vast majority of the humans who ever appear onscreen as nothing more than bathroom-sign figures. Stand-ins for real human beings. Before going any further, I should give a paragraph about how special this show is in the world of animation, and why people who are interested in television and especially in animated television as a medium should seek out anime whether it’s your cup of tea or not.
Animation is far from an artistically impoverished medium in the West. This is especially true in the world of television and shorts, where great talents seem to pop up in big lumps or clusters and produce a hot streak of great work before either diminishing into creators of loopy mediocrity (see Don Bluth and to a lesser extent Ralph Bakshi) or moving onto the hopefully greater prestige and financial reward of live-action work (see Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton). Today, American children’s television can claim a handful of artistic triumphs including Regular Show, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls, all of which make the most of their medium while telling intelligent, visually engaging stories. I regret that the animated feature film landscape in the West is so starved of variety at the moment, but it’s a relatively healthy medium. With that written, there is a way in which the ghettoization of animation into either pure children’s fare or adult comedy deprives the West of a more nuanced and varied output from its animation industry.
All of that to-do was for the purpose of setting up just how singular Penguindrum is, and how it would be impossible to imagine it being produced anywhere other than Japan. Truth be told, this is a weird show, and I try to keep the w-word out of my normal lexicon because weirdness has a more specific meaning for me than I suspect it does for most people. Weirdness is often bandied about as a synonym for artistic ambition, stylization, “personal” projects, and surrealism. There is no doubt that all of those attributes could also be constituent parts of a weird film or television show. They are not, however, the same as weirdness. Weirdness is a quality of work that is going its own way, that is relatively uninterested in the audience, that operates on a logic one could not find in the real world. Weirdness connotes a certain amount of mystery and the allure of the different. But weirdness is not comforting. It tends to be more alienating in a way that will make it either laughable, disquieting, or both.
To get at the distinction, let’s have an example. Adventure Time is frequently surreal, but rarely does it find itself in the realm of weirdness as I define it. The Graybles episodes certainly do, along with “Finn the Human,” but these are exceptions to the rule. This is mainly because most of its episodes have fairly standard plot structures and have a relatively kid-friendly edge. Similarly, the film Yellow Submarine is free-form in terms of plot, psychedelic, and surreal. But I wouldn’t call it weird in this more specific sense, because it’s ultimately comforting and leaves my view of the world mostly undisturbed, thank you very much. Penguindrum is weird because it’s a serialized show that is continually upending itself, distancing itself from formula, reveling in plot complications, visual flourishes, and characters with everything to hide. It’s weird in a fully fleshed-out and subversive way, a show that deals in symbolism, dream logic, and magic with a subtle but mounting density that threatens to overwhelm but mostly enhances what is a truly unique twenty-four episodes of animation.
The premise of the show revolves around a small family of young people, 16-year-olds Kanba (red hair) and Shouma (blue) as well as their younger sister Himari. Their apparently mostly happy situation is disturbed when Himari falls ill and dies. This is far from the end, however, as she is revived by the penguin-shaped headdress you see in the picture above. Through it, Himari channels the spirit of the Princess of the Crystal, a brash and demanding figure who promises to keep Himari alive if her two brothers can retrieve the Penguin Drum, an enigmatic object of unknown significance. Other characters become entangled in their mission, including fellow high school student Ringo, who is initially obsessed with her teacher/stalking victim Tabuki, and Masako, an incredibly wealthy CEO of the Natsume Corporation with some kind of connection to Kanba.
The show, from the first episode, is constantly ruminating on the interaction of fate and free will, as well as how the destinies of various characters intertwine. At around the midpoint of the show, the tone shifts, and what was previously a mostly lighthearted affair with some heavier undertones flips the script and becomes bleaker. This turn is handled well, as are most of the ever-accelerating twists that pile on toward the final episodes. Characterization is strong, and despite the narrative gymnastics the viewer is never wholly mired or driven to cry “what the hell?” Careful attention, as always, is beneficial to fully appreciating the show, but the relationships between the characters evolve and are depicted in believable ways, which means that you can ignore some of the denser mythological or thematic aspects of the story and still have a solid core. That said, you would be missing out on what makes the narrative of Penguindrum so fascinating. The show continually ramps up the stakes and complicates our understanding of the characters, and in the end neither exonerates its characters for their past misdeeds nor frees them from fate, but finds a way to affirm their humanity nonetheless. Might be worth another post or two later on.
I’ve already mentioned the visual abstraction of the show. I should mention that, despite the relative sterility of the environments here, there is also a good deal of fireworks in the vein of the dazzling Cybody sequences from Star Driver. When the show delves into thematic abstractions, it is visually fearless. Its narrative is pinned irrevocably to its often astonishing visuals, which lean heavily on pure whites and primary colours. It also perfectly manifests the alienation its characters experience in the world. I’ve found that the stories that work best for me in animation are either low-key and naturalistic (think Grave of the Fireflies or Watership Down) or visually expressionistic and daring. This is one of the latter, though the story’s setting in contemporary Tokyo means that it’s not always being visually strange or surreal. Rather, it has an unsettling and uncertain relationship to magic and fantasy, which is part of its appeal both visually and at a more contemplative level.
Penguindrum is emotionally affecting, intelligent, and weird, truly and gloriously weird. What makes it all work is that it is not at all clunky or alienating, at least a good majority of the time. Knit together by the strength of its characters, its narrative is able to endure all kinds of tweaks and outright revolutions without losing its spirit. Few shows evolve so much over their run as Penguindrum, and it represents a masterful addition to creator Kunihiko Ikuhara’s body of work.
Oh, yes. There are three or four adorable penguins who get into all kinds of hijinks and personify the word “adorable.” Just in case you were wondering. One even reads dirty magazines all the time. ❤