Rewatches can be a strange thing. Armed with a bit of extra context and some breathing room, a show you’ve already seen once before can seem entirely new. First impressions are not the ones that hold in the long run and even if a second watch does nothing but confirm your first, it’s rarely time wasted. I can think of no better candidate for a rewatch than Mawaru Penguindrum: not only is a new Ikuhara show on the way and a nuanced reaction to his previous can only help us set expectations accordingly, but the nature of the show’s release and Ikuhara’s theatrical sensibilities made MPD uniquely prone to crackpot theorizing and polemical backlash. It’s worth noting that the initial reception of Utena was just as divisive and the drip by drip release of television can sometimes prevent us from the seeing a work as a completed entity.
My initial response to Penguindrum was the common one: the show is great in individual doses but fails as a cohesive whole, the narrative thrust aimless, ultimately succumbing to Ikuhara’s worst tendencies. Even the show’s defenders often conceded that the show was best experienced as a ‘ride’ and not that structurally dense, so I had little reason to reconsider this view. Upon rewatch, however, I’ve found my position completely reversed: Penguindrum is a show that is thematically well-conceived, rich in detail, but fails in the execution of the particulars. Its failures are micro, not macro, but the former are sometimes so numerous that it prevents the latter from properly functioning. Its flaws are more crippling than Utena’s: the pacing of the side characters has a detrimental effect on the rest of the show, the middle episodes (13-17) are wildly inconsistent in terms of storyboarding, and, considering the other attendant issues, the signature Dezakian melodrama makes the abstract, elliptical second half feel unearned (or worse, clichéd). However, I contend that on a purely thematic level Penguindrum is solidly built. In addition to defending that, this essay will be a balanced reevaluation of every major aspect of the show. I imagine the eyes of most sane readers are glazing over at the thought of a lengthy Exegesis on Ikuhara’s Anime but I can assure you that this essay deals with the facts and is purely analytical. I will be justifying my interpretation using solely what the show and Ikuhara himself have provided for us. Those that have taken a firm stance on MPD likely won’t be convinced but those like me, who had mixed feelings about the show that never congealed into outright distaste and who have always wanted to return to it at a later date with an open mind, will probably find most of what I’m about to say to be reasonable.
The Main Arc (The Takakuras)
Ikuhara’s two TV anime preceding Penguindrum had a similar macrostructure for their narrative, one continued in Penguindrum, in which a fantastical world functions as an emotional allegory of their characters’ psychological issues. In both Utena and Sailor Moon S it’s at least partially implied that their fantasy worlds aren’t real and serve as an emotional retreat for the show’s characters (Professor Tomoe in S, the entire cast in Utena). That isn’t to say Utena and S are purely abstract, but the implied reality behind the shows, Utena et al’s backstories, would be relatively simple to explain in narrative terms. Penguindrum seems to follow a similar structure, where the comprehensible beginning is progressively abstracted until every element of the story is a symbol of some kind for the less fantastical, real traumas of the main cast. However, though some of the complaints following the show’s airing were amusingly literal (“Where did Sanetoshi get all his powers from?”, “Why did the main brothers appear in cages in the last episode?”, “What was the deal with the diary?”), this explanation wouldn’t be an excuse if the show’s symbolism was meaningless. We might permit Ikuhara to get evocative from time to time, but the reason he’s acclaimed comes from his ability to ground abstract images in genuine experience.
Ikuhara has always been fascinated by the effect of the Lost Decade on the younger generation and the sarin gas attacks by Aum Shinrikyo cult. This is a fascination he and close comrade Hideaki Anno share, but before Penguindrum only Anno had broached it directly (it’s hard not to see the Antarctic expedition in MPD as a shoutout to Evangelion for this reason). The Lost Decade, for those that don’t know, was both an actual economic event (a decade long recession that arguably lasted for two) and a term to describe the sociological state of Japan in the 90s. A common refrain in discussions of the Lost Decade was the dissolution of the family structure, something of a long-storied institution in Japan. With the economy worse, layoffs, divorces, and the suicide rate greatly increased. On a more personal level, children who grew up during this era felt isolated and abandoned; Anno’s Evangelion was largely a reaction to those sentiments. A loss in faith in traditional institutions meant that some were eager to submit to alternative institutions like radical political organizations, cults, and (as Ikuhara and Anno have brought up in interview together) otaku junk (“like with things like the Aum incident, I can understand the feelings of the people who want to reorganize the world”, rest of interview here: http://ohtori.nu/creators/a_avant.html). The stereotypical protagonist of Lost Decade fiction is the Kafkaesque schmuck mechanically performing their role in society. Muraki’s Underground, which briefly appears in MPD, features interviews with salaryman who despite being poisoned by the sarin gas still went in to work that day. Those that weren’t cynical latched on to what little authority family, business, and state still held. This is the stereotype, mind you. Sociological realities are often more complex than this, but the cultural response to the Aum Shinrikyo attacks by intellectuals tended to view these changes in Japanese society as the cause (and not without good reason).
Almost all of the symbolism in MPD ties into the above in some way. Ikuhara chose the penguin, an animal with an intermediate identity between bird and sea animal, to represent his adolescent characters with uncertain identity. References to the sarin gas attacks appear in the red ’95 logos, the constant presence of trains, and the shadowy terrorist cell Penguin Group. It’s also crucial to understanding the concept of ‘fate’, something nearly every line of dialogue refers to in some way. Fate in MPD is almost always presented as some kind of familial obligation: Ringo acting out her dead sister’s wishes, Natsume trying to reunite with her estranged father and brother, Keiju’s and Yuri’s obligation to their lover, and so on. There’s an inherited quality to the character motivations in MPD (just as we might say Shinji’s neuroses are inherited from the mistreatment he receives from his father) that reflects the jaundiced view on traditional institutions found in the literature Penguindrum takes as inspiration (“My former comrades are going to pass down my will to their children.” -Sanetoshi [ep21]). The opposite view, that fate is something to escape, is less cleanly defined but one the show epitomizes in the Takakuras who, though not related by blood, still choose to exist as a family by their own free will. This concept of fate and free will is very cleverly integrated into the visuals, especially in the ubiquitous arrowed ring (“Fate must be shaped like a gigantic ring” –Ringo [ep5]) and the swinging pendulum (“Mawaru Penguindrum”) that would bisect it at random angles. The Marunouchi Line itself is a giant red thread of fate uniting all of the show’s characters. If the equivalence of fate=family here seems simplistic, it should be noted that these aren’t Ikuhara’s own ideas. Postmodern fiction (and Murakami’s specifically) have explored the idea of social forces, not only of family but of state, of medicine, of economics, and so on, as being the equivalent of godly or supernatural caprice to the modern man. The idea is that in modernity the average person has as little control over their life as they might in a medieval society, where social class was everything and where Fortune was as omnipresent as God. The difference here is that Ikuhara has stripped away everything else and left ‘family’ as the only explanation, emphasizing the human element. It’s remarkable on rewatch how singleminded the focus really was. The line that “Penguindrum is a mess” is true in a sense (organizationally, dramatically, etc.) but fails to address to what extent its ideas permeate the narrative from beginning to end. In that respect, Penguindrum cannot be considered a mess.
As with Utena, where the initial invocation “Revolutionize the world” radically changes meaning by the end of the show as Utena breaks away from Akio’s games and truly attempts to “Revolutionize the world”, Penguindrum’s “Find the Penguindrum” takes on different connotations towards the show’s conclusion (although I do think they could’ve done a better job spelling it out). The conceptual problem that MPD is dealing with is whether one can form an alternative family structure to the one that seemingly died in the 90s. ‘Can family exist without fate?’, to use the show’s own terms, with the ideal family as the ‘penguindrum’ (pendulum) cutting across the restrictions of one’s upbringing. This is where the Night on the Galactic Railroad allusions are instructive. Many have noted the references both to the original children’s novel and Gisaburo Sugii’s adaptation, including the emphasis on trains, sharing apples, and similarities between the characters (Shouma=blue hair=Giovanni, Kanba=red hair=Campanella), but little is brought out regarding the significance of these allusions. The central philosophy of Miyazawa’s novel, encapsulated best by the Parable of the Scorpion (also explicitly alluded to in MPD), is of ennobling self-sacrifice. Ikuhara’s solution to the problem of selfish isolation versus selfless devotion is in the deliberate, freely-willed act of self-sacrifice (“Wouldn’t it be easier if they weren’t your family?” –Sanetoshi to Kanba [ep15]). Think of it as a less individualized version of Shinji leaving his shell.
Once we have this key, the rest of MPD’s more convoluted imagery becomes accessible. For instance, the child broiler is often cited as a meaningless piece of magical realism, but it’s not hard to see what Ikuhara was going for: the children subject to it become ‘invisible entities’, ‘indistinguishable from one another’, and the site is itself “The destination of children abandoned by society” (Shouma’s dad [ep 20]). Moreover, Himari is saved from the child broiler only when she’s integrated into the Takakura family. The cages have a similar reading behind them, as both are overt metaphors for the abandonment and hopelessness Ikuhara believes is endemic to the ‘95 generation. Sanetoshi and Momoka, who in even the most generous interpretation were mishandled, factor into this reading as well. Sanetoshi was a member of Shouma’s and Kanba’s parents’ generation. He is the closest thing to fate/familial obligation that the main trio encounter and it’s even implied he doesn’t actually exist, but is instead a ghostly representation of Kanba’s motivations. Though wholly opposed to the materialist, disaffected, and unengaged society that created the conditions for society’s anxieties, he’s just as repressive as the past generation, illustrating that the alternative order that cults and terrorism might provide can be just as pernicious as the old one (“I’m getting out of my box. I’m one of the chosen” -Sanetoshi [ep23]). Momoka, on the other hand, believes in the collective unmei but also in the possibility of changing it through physical sacrifice. The end moral of MPD is that the only assurance for happiness and agency is in the happiness and agency of others, a matyr philosophy central to many of Kenji Miyazawa’s books.
Of course, none of this considers the effectiveness of these ideas in the Takakura arc. While I think the main problems with the Takakura arc will be better summarized in the sections below, it should be emphasized that Ikuhara wasn’t phoning it in. There’s a loose association between Shouma/Momoka and Kanba/Sanetoshi that largely satisfies the above interpretation, and in the end they both end up sacrificing for Himari. There’s a poetic completeness here that would be more evident had other issues (the pacing, the flow, et cetera) not intervened.
The Side Characters
While it’s hard to gauge the consensus on anything relating to Penguindrum, in general I’ve found that most enjoyed the Takakuras’ arc, or at least how it concluded. What causes a wider range of reactions are the side characters, whose arcs are usually described as pointless, tangential, messy, ineffectual, and (rarely) entertaining. Before getting into those complaints, I want to first refute an idea that got traded around a lot during MPD’s airing. This is the idea that stories, especially mystery stories, should “tie everything together” in the end. I can think of nothing more boring than a novel which siphons all its narrative strands into a single, undeviating conclusion. If everything is neatly packaged by the end, there’s little for the audience to grapple with, little left to think about. Again, this isn’t focused on any particular MPD complaint, but it reflects a mindset that might be unable to deal with other Ikuhara shows, not just MPD.
The reason I think it doesn’t apply to MPD, however, is that the secondary character arcs do tie into the themes of unmei and such above and weren’t just random nonsense added for flavor. That the individual side-stories don’t culminate in some grand teleological conclusion shouldn’t be held against them. What can and should be held against them is how badly the pacing is botched during these arcs. The flow from one character to the next is janky and uneven, and the weakest section of the show (episodes 13-17) is marked by its unwavering focus on the secondary characters to the detriment of the main cast. That being said, I don’t think the side characters were irredeemable:
Ringo: either the most beloved or most hated of the secondary characters, she’s the first one whose dedication to fate is challenged by a chance encounter with the Takakuras. Once she was freed from unmei (by falling in love with Shouma), her importance in the narrative greatly diminishes and that upset many people who thought that her large presence in the first half meant that she would be utilized later. I don’t disagree with this complaint, but it’s worth noting that 1.) the Ringo arc is funny, a good contrast to the angst that follows and 2.) Ringo’s episodes didn’t just feature her. Natsume appears fairly prominently, and the personalities of Tabuki and Yuri are very subtly hinted at. Additionally, though MPD doesn’t go this route, there’s nothing wrong with having independent side-stories which are largely irrelevant to the main narrative.
Natsume: of all the arcs, Natsume’s was the one where my opinion changed the most upon rewatch. Early on her focus on manipulating memory establishes a precedent for the later revelations about Kanba’s heredity, and her assumption that biological ties ought to be stronger than the ‘fake’ ones he has with Himari and Shouma works well within the show’s central ideas. She’s the feminine parallel to Kanba, intent on maintaining her family, saving her sick Penguin-hatted brother, just as Ringo is something of a parallel to Shouma (the ‘forgotten’ to Kanba’s/Natsume’s ‘chosen’, second-born to first-born, and so on). She’s also something of a stalker too, making her arc consonant with Ringo’s. That she’s emotionally flat and doesn’t inspire much affect in the viewer is a more general problem with how the show handles characterization, not just with her arc alone.
Yuri and Keiju: the weakest character arcs, limited mainly to one episode each and extremely rushed. It’s interesting to note that, being of the older generation, their stories deal with actively repressive parents while the younger generation’s deal with absent ones. The success of their arcs is unusually dependent on execution: Keiju’s is great because of Yamauchi’s presence, while Yuri’s is only good for the flashback episode 15, her role as a heel prior feeling contrived and ill-explained. The S&M scene midway through feels like the show’s cheapest trick in retrospect because they could’ve easily redeemed it by just the slightest elaboration on Yuri’s motives.
It’s worth noting that Ikuhara’s two previous shows were 3 cour long procedural mahou shoujos. Utena could ping pong between character centric episodes and plot episodes, but Penguindrum was attempting to sustain one continuous narrative. Falling back on old habits, Ikuhara condensed the secondary character-specific episodes into one highly uneven chunk. Anecdotal but I noticed it was during this section of the story that most people (understandably) checked out.
Here I find a lot more to love about Penguindrum, but even then this love is qualified.
In terms of world-building Penguindrum is amazingly well-realized, both in its own right and as a followup to Utena. Outside of a few fairy tale sequences, the bourgeois European influence in Utena is completely purged, a smart choice given that the disembodied world of Ohtori couldn’t properly engage with the social realities MPD wants to tackle. Ikuhara opted for minimalist urban iconography, cousin to the type of modified Ikuhara-isms Nobuyuki Takeuchi and Tatsuya Oishi developed at SHAFT, enlivened with the whimsical, vibrant background art of Chieko Nakamura. This mixture of minimalist visual organization and vibrant coloration is a trend in anime I’ve noticed in recent years, making MPD still feel contemporary the second time around. Ikuhara’s eccentricities in the setting never feel derivative either: the Triple-H train advertisements analogue to Utena’s silhouette girls, visual gags like the penguins and Shouma’s friend who never shows his face, verbal tics like “Fabulous Max!”, all are imaginative while still remaining distinctively ‘Ikuhara’. Even when Ikuhara’s dozes off, the world of Penguindrum never really feels in doubt.
The storyboarding is a different matter, although I’ll say that generally Penguindrum is on point in this regard. The Yamauchi, Hayashi, and Takeuchi episodes are fantastic, but even the less pivotal episodes by Mitsue Yamazaki and Shouko Nakamura keep up the quality. Hell, even the Keiji Gotoh episodes, which are ugly as sin from an animation viewpoint, still have some striking compositions here and there. The weakest storyboards are in the middle episodes and it’s hard to tell who is to blame given the number of co-co-co-storyboarders (Shingo Kaneko undoubtedly did the kamishibai Rose of Versailles sequences outside of his episode 4 but I had difficulty identifying anyone else). Episodes like 14 and 17 are drab and uninvolved for the most part, never obstructive but providing little in terms of visual interest. Still, taken together, Penguindrum’s consistency in visual direction is admirable given that it was produced at Brain’s Base. This isn’t a Kill la Kill situation where there were rough sketches of ideas but little attempt was made to fill them in. On a moment to moment basis Penguindrum can be surprisingly engaging. There’s a strongly visual intent behind the show, sometimes superseding all other concerns: people joke about the nonsensical pulley in Yamauchi’s episode but the imagery, of the lifeline between Kanba and Himari, is certainly more striking than the conventional alternative. Upon rewatch I feel the biggest problem is in the character art. Terumi Nishii’s shoujo throwback designs are great, but their use in others’ episodes is inconsistent. It’s not just that it looks ugly; it’s that we get less movement, less subtle details packed in on screen. The early episodes of Penguindrum are the most enjoyable because there’s always something to entertain the eye and the shots carry a surprising dynamism.
On the other hand, the connective tissue between Ikuhara’s direction and the narrative itself is a little more fraught. The Dezaki influence is more strongly felt here than in Utena: if you think the melodrama in Penguindrum’s latter half is grueling I suggest you never watch Oniisama e…. Moreover, Ikuhara has a tendency (which I’ve always considered a bit Brechtian) of interrupting melodramatic seriousness with wacky gags. This is a sense of humor issue and I can totally understand why someone, for instance, would find the fakeout knifing in episode 22 infuriating even though I personally laughed my ass off. I think a bigger stylistic problem is how the show transitions into its final arc. I’ve seen MPD compared to LOST in that both shows use flashbacks, plot twists, and melodrama while failing to clear up their uncertainties in the end but upon rewatch I find this comparison inaccurate. MPD was clearly not intended to be a mystery show in the vein of LOST and if anyone was eager for a ‘grand reveal’ at the end they wanted a show that would have been less interesting that what MPD was trying (unsuccessfully) to achieve. That an Ikuhara show starts out with a clear, comprehensible narrative causality and transitions into the highly abstract isn’t new (and is in fact the central conceit of its sister show Evangelion), but Penguindrum’s awkward organization of its subplots in the second act make this transition incomplete. After the Ringo arc, the jumps in time progressively lengthen to such an extent that they can feel both confusing and overly convenient. Most of the character development the Takakuras receive in the later episodes occur in contextless train rides and what worked in Utena with excellent pacing and direction by Mamoru Hosoda doesn’t always work here. Shouma, Kanba, and Himari are never fully sold to us as characters so that when we enter the depths of their psychology we find ourselves lost. That, I think, is the most devastating and accurate critique of Penguindrum, that despite a firm bedrock of ideas it’s ultimately an exercise in formalism, that unlike Evangelion it doesn’t affect us emotionally and thus has difficulty affecting us at all.
Despite the overwhelmingly cynical tone of much of the above, I do like Penguindrum. But it’s an odd affection. Up close Penguindrum is rather ugly. Though I binged through the episodes on rewatch, it wasn’t an entirely pleasant experience. Arguably, knowing Ikuhara’s intentions made the missed potential in the end feel even more frustrating. It’s as if Ikuhara had spent so much time designing the sets, getting every last detail right, he forgot to pay any attention to the actors. Or alternatively, Ikuhara didn’t make the right judgement calls about what to cut. It’s easy to imagine a hypothetical three cour MPD where the subplots are as evenly dispersed and well-balanced as they are in Utena. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ikuhara originally intended for the show to be longer (he was toying with the ideas behind the show for nearly a decade) but 3 cour shows are rare and I imagine it unlikely that Brain’s Base would gamble on an unproven property. However, instead of carving out all the fat and focusing in on the Takakura storyline, Ikuhara wanted to have his cake and eat it too. That’s the thing with MPD: it’s a masterpiece on paper. Interesting to read about, tedious to experience firsthand.
By the same token, at a distance Penguindrum has nothing but my respect. It exploits the novelistic qualities of the two cour format better than the majority of shows out there and its ideas are surprisingly relevant for a story whose pre-history is obsessively focused on the year 1995 (it must be a stroke of unmei that the show aired in the wake of the Fukushima earthquakes). It’s also a step forward for Ikuhara as a director. He challenged himself, ditching his cartoonish view of masculinity and wrote a story starring two young men trying to preserve their family. That’s why I can’t curtly dismiss the show, throw up my hands and call it all nonsense. The kernel of the story, of familial self-sacrifice, is incredibly powerful and I understand why the finale evoked such strong reactions. It’s a type of show I wish there were more of. I would take twenty failed Penguindrums over one successful Bahamut any day, because at least the former made me think.
None of this really explains Yuri Storm, which from the promo material seems to be on the other side of the planet as Penguindrum, steeped in bourgeois escapism and lesbian sex. Ikuhara won’t have the excuse of being ‘rusty’ as he did with Penguindrum and I’m sure the MPD detractors are already sharpening their hatchets. Still, even if Yuri Storm ends up as another disappointment I can only welcome a more active Ikuhara. Very few people in the industry attempt this level of conceptual ambition.
Edit: I recently wrote my impressions to YKA’s first episode here and considering both YKA’s and MPD’s production history it’s becoming clear that these aren’t the shows Ikuhara envisioned. Hell, you can plainly see it in the difference between the original Penguinbear concept art and the final moefied designs. I think Ikuhara knows his prospects for getting projects off the ground are meager, so he takes every opportunity he can get even if it means massive concessions have to be made. It’s sad, and it highlights the importance of the studio system. Shigeyasu Yamauchi has complained in interview that he’s faced similar problems in getting his solo projects realized too. It’s a shame; those that got burned on MPD will likely see YKA and inflame into full-time Ikuhara haters based on the principle that having ambition but failing to realize it is somehow worse than not having it at all.