When my friend first told me to watch the “penguin hat anime” I was skeptical. I haven’t watched anime since I got to college. And really, penguin hats? He mentioned there were philosophical questions embedded within, but hmm…
Penguin hats and philosophy: an amazing combination
Then, I got bored during summer. And I thought, why not give that penguin hat anime a try? Might be worth some laughs, at the very least. What resulted was an insurmountable obstacle to my efficiency that I couldn’t overcome for a few days.
The most compelling part of Mawaru Penguindrum was the story telling. Apart from one or two moments of carelessness, every single scene existed for a reason. Unlike cinematography, where the director cannot fully control all the variables that are captured by the camera, the anime medium allows the director to control every scene down to the pixel.
While this characteristic of anime makes for really obvious flaws when the director is lazy, a well constructed work is able to genuinely represent the director’s vision. Kunihiko Ikuhara, who last revolutionized the anime genre with Magical Girl Utena in 1997, most certainly demonstrated his capability to manipulate the medium in his comeback. A large budget, one of the most consistent animation studios for large scale projects and Ikuhara resulted in one of the most amazing anime series to date: Mawaru Penguindrum.
Wait…really? A series about a Penguin Hat?
The story begins with the Takakura brothers Kanba and Shouma visiting the aquarium with their sister Himari. She collapses at the aquarium and is sent to the hospital. The doctor declares her to be finished, but the penguin hat they buy at the aquarium magically brings Himari back with an epic transformation scene…
And the story thus begins with a magical, life-saving penguin hat…
note: spoilers incoming. I try to minimize them, but they are unavoidable if you read on!
Finding simplicity through the cloud of philosophical themes, complicated narrative and cute little sisters
One of the largest challenges any director has to overcome in anime is the balance of elegant complexity and beautiful simplicity. Anything too needlessly complicated fun diminishes because it is too heavy or it is too easy for the director’s world to fall apart; anything overly simplified results in a meaningless, hollow show.
Ikuhara surpasses this constraint by creating a complex narrative full of metaphorical implications while still preserving a clean, simple message that brings out the beauty in the characters.
The simplicity and complexity comes from the themes of love and fate: both subjects that can be expressed in a very simple way or a very complex way. Ikuhara utilizes a wide variety of tools to express and tie his themes together in both simple and complex ways. The most dominant tool being that of the train.
The train acts as the intersection of all the characters, being the place where their fates were tied together in an incident 16 years ago, and where most of the important interactions occur. Ikuhara, overlays these interactions with flashbacks triggered by digital display boards seen in stations, as well as cuts to commercials of the train of fate moving forward.
Station signs: indicators that a flashback is beginning…
Symbols and themes are also consistently hidden throughout the train, such as the commercials that show the quote of the day, as presented by fictional pop idol group “Double H.”
From random to thematically significant, these billboards play a significant role in Ikakura’s storytelling.
Like in the anime, trains have a definitive importance in Japanese society. With more than 5 million people commuting to work daily, the trains in Tokyo tie together the entire city, like the trains tie together the story line in the anime.
This anime has one of the best transformation scene of all time, triggered by Himari screaming SEIZON SENRYAKU!!! (生存戦略, or survival strategy). Not only is it well crafted, it comes at the most random times ever. From the middle of dinner to the middle of the subway to being activated through a written note shown to a stalker hiding in a tree outside Himari’s hospital window, the timings of these transformations are obscure, and still a pleasure no matter how many times I watch the sequence.
The twists in this story are equally abrupt as the transformation scenes. And unlike the random twists and turns that have destroyed countless series (like a certain slice of life story involving bunnies), each twist seems well planned out and the story moves forward stably like the marunouchi line train.
Did I mention Himari is way too cute?
The animation quality of Mawaru Penguindrum did not disappoint. Not only were there no terrible errors that will end up in various compilations, Brain’s Base was able to help Ikuhara deliver on his vision.
On an absolute performance standpoint, apart from the great job on the transformation scenes, Penguindrum shone because of the excellently portrayed metaphorical scenes.
Hmmm…this could mean so many things
I’m usually very selective about character animation. Some animation companies simply don’t portray their characters in a way that represents their role and personality in the story. I thought the animators did a great job with the characters. Specifically Himari.
Her character allows Brain’s Base to depict her in a wide variety of emotions, from simple blank gazes, to deep soul searching ones.
Simple style, but still ridiculously cute
Especially with Himari switching between penguin hat form and regular form, it probably was a substantial animation challenge. I was very happy with the end results though.
Music: When you have money and passion, it all falls together
In the span of 24 episodes, this anime goes through 8 different ending credit sequences, and two opening credit sequences, all of which have songs custom tailor made by director’s orders.
While this certainly is an advantage exclusive to the legendary director of Utena, the care and thought in the opening and ending songs really touched me. I have, honestly, to this date, never seen an anime series with fully relevant lyrics that act as the director’s tool for foreshadowing future events as well.
All too often, hastily composed songs (like a certain school music club anime) or irrelevant songs are inserted in the opening and ending. The opening pieces themselves are both over six and a half minutes, and are amazing stand-alone pieces by themselves. The plethora of symbolic references in the opening animation sequence also helped. Etsuko Yakushimaru’s voice also complemented the atmosphere of the anime really well. Her clear yet slightly suppressed voice makes her style a perfect emotional fit into the anime.
Even the album cover is done with Ikuhara’s themes in mind!
The ending sequences were a different story. Though I unfortunately have to say that the voice actresses of Triple H are no where near as amazing a singer as Yakushimaru, the dynamic capabilities of 8 different endings really allowed for the themes to be carried from one episode to the next. Considering Double H’s role in the anime, I really couldn’t think of better representatives for the ending songs than Triple H. There were really only 2 distinct ending animations, but they were modified to fit the atmospheres of the different ending songs. The end result is a great transition to the next episode.
The costumes are key!
It’s really obvious Ikuhara was a graphic design major
In this long series, I’ve only really had two complaints. Both, two moments of minor corner cutting. The series was so amazing, I guess, I have nothing left but to pick at these small errors.
The slide show complaint is very simple. It is the most abusive tool an anime director could ever use. While Ikuhara only allowed it to slide for 10 seconds in one of his 24 episodes, I can’t help but be slightly bothered that this mechanism was included in such an amazing anime series.
The moment of terrible physics comes when Kanba is forced to save Himari who is currently on a cart tied to a pulley with plastic explosives tied to each of the ropes. All I can say is, as bad as I am in physics, I know those ropes don’t add up. The dilemma could not have existed with the pulley system, and even if it did, Kanba grabbed onto the wrong side!
Ah well, I’ll just ignore that for the touching scene where the protagonist and antagonist come to terms with…wait, what? Did Kanba just swing some 20 feet from the rope and did the antagonist just fly down 10 floors to save Himari and fly back up? Ah well, he’s a graphic design major, I’ll let it slide for how good this series is. I mean, what’s wrong if I just pretend it was all magic?
That magical feeling…
Wait, those pulleys don’t add up…and what, did you just fly like superman?!
When I was a kid, the first amazing anime I watched was Kiki’s Delivery Service. It was amazing then, and it is still amazing now. The reason is simple: it felt magical, and it was a simple, well told story.
Mawaru Penguindrum is exactly that: a simple, magical well told story (with many complicated implications and intricacies of course). At the end of the anime, you just feel this magical feeling of love; the feeling that this world is a good place after all. I guess that simple feeling I haven’t felt since watching Kiki is what made me enjoy Penguindrum so much.
At its core, it is merely a simple exposition about love, fate and magic, with smokes and mirrors to make the story interesting; a lot of directors have the ability to construct these types of expositions. Ikuhara, however, had that much more passion and talent to make a college student feel good about watching an anime about penguin hats.
Go watch mawaru penguindrum!