Mawaru Penguindrum – Nothing but love itself is as it seems

At its core, Mawaru Penguindrum is a story of love. Twisted love, romantic love, the crushing terribleness felt by unloved children – and the love shared between a struggling family trying their best to remain together.

Synopsis: Himari Takakura dies – and is brought back to life by a mysterious spirit living inside a souvenir emperor penguin hat her brothers Shouma and Kanba got for her at the local aquarium. The spirit grants Himari a second chance at life, provided the two brothers can bring her a special item: the Penguindrum.

I suppose it’s rather timely that I’m reviewing this decade-old show now, since a crowdfunding campaign for a ten-year anniversary movie for this series hit its goal Friday night. And it’s a well-loved series, too, with the campaign smashing past its goal in an unbelievable three minutes. As someone who only just finished watching it, I can honestly see why.

Mawaru Penguindrum is freaking great.

It’s important I preface this review with some trigger warnings. This is a very dark show. Certain things happen in Mawaru Penguindrum that are quite dangerous to have on camera, so I’ll put the warnings down now for the sake of those interested in getting into it: Attempted rape, attempted rape against minors, attempted rape by a minor, and violence against minors. Please be advised going in. Also there are pervert penguins for some strange reason. Easily my least favourite aspect of this show.

Mawaru Penguindrum is rife with imaginative setpieces and sequences, like the magical-girl-esque, techno-buzz-Mamoru-Hosoda-esque dream-sequence-esque idol-esque sequence that plays in almost every episode when main girl Himari puts on the emperor penguin hat.

That being said and despite going into very controversial territory every now and then, Mawaru Penguindrum does a fantastic job achieving what it sets out to do. This is a mystery anime. Good mysteries keep you guessing as you progress through the story, and with Mawaru Penguindrum absolutely nothing is as it first seems, from tone and setting to the very characters themselves and the relationships they share with one another. We’re introduced in the first episode to a struggling, but happy family – Himari, Shouma and Kanba Takakura are parentless youths who very much love one another, and who do what they can to support one another. This cuddly family setting is quickly thrown out the window halfway through the first episode alone when Himari outright dies – and is brought back to life by a mysterious spirit dwelling in a souvenir emperor penguin hat who, in possession of their sisters’ body, tasks Shouma and Kanba with the role of retrieving the eponymous Penguindrum if they want to save their sister from certain doom. And thus the cogs start turning, and the survival strategy is set in motion.

The same goes for all the characters that enter this story. We meet Ringo Oginome, cutesy, normal, who within the span of two episodes is revealed to be very, very disturbed; Yuri Tokago and Keiju Tabuki, two adults in a warm and loving relationship, are revealed down the line to be driven by dark motivations; even the Takakura parents, pictured at first to be sweet and strangely absent in the lives of their kids, turn out to be monsters in their own right. Stalker-hitwoman Masako Natsume and the shady doctor Sanetoshi Watase are the most consistently off-the-wall members of the main cast, but even they factor in twists I never saw coming, not from a million miles away and not when they were set to happen literally in the next episode.

Nothing is as it seems in Mawaru Penguindrum. Cutesy Ringo harbors her own twisted secrets, just like the skeletons the main cast keeps tucked away in their respective closets.

Despite the many turns it takes, the story of Mawaru Penguindrum is expertly woven together. As otherworldly as its plot points may get I never found myself questioning any of it. This is in part thanks to how zany the animation gets. Let me be clear here, the animation is absurd – almost every episode, for example, features a segment where HImari’s body is taken over by the spirit living in the emperor penguin hat wherein she and her companions are thrown through the gates of a train station and into this techno-poppy-electronica otherworld where from within a giant mechanical teddy bear she appears, dressed in what is essentially an idol outfit, all while JPop music and English lyrics that go Welcome to rock n’ roll niiiight blare in the background, and – yeah. It is completely absurd. Such is the case for much of the animation, which is rife with the zany energy of a Studio Trigger series and which features the kinds of surreal, non-sequitur settings and 2D cut-out crowd stand-ins you’d find in the Monogatari Series. As otherwordly as the animation gets, it really helped me buy into the expectation that literally anything could happen in this world that the animators have created for us.

So what’s it about, at the end of the day? This is ultimately a story about love. Not romantic love – in fact Mawaru Penguindrum gets pretty critical on the notion of romantic love in its treatment of Ringo, who for the first half of the show is more stuck in a state of manic lust until Shouma figuratively slaps her out of it. Rather, this is an examination of love and its effects – the crushing terribleness felt by unloved children in a world that demands that they be exceptional; the desperate, burning love felt by those who want to protect their special someone from harm; the endless love shared by a family whose members are willing to give up their lives for the sake of their loved ones. Mawaru Penguindrum is twisting and winding and absurd in its animation and its story beats that leave us full of questions at the end of each twenty-minute episode, but because it never lets go of this central thread of powerful love that runs throughout the series, it never fails to be compelling. 

I binged this show so hard. I couldn’t put it down at all. I guarantee you won’t either. Burn up and let yourself be taken away as you chase this show right along down to the Penguindrum.

Mawaru Penguindrum will lead you on the most winding, twisted, unexpected of journeys, but I urge you – follow it down to the Destination of Fate, and see what it has in store for you.

In Summary:

(+) An unbelievably gripping mystery story that’ll keep you hooked at the end of every episode

(+) Incredibly imaginative animation – one of the rare shows in which I can buy the overdesign

(+) Both OPs totally snap

(-) CW: Attempted rape of a minor, attempted rape by a minor… Guys, come on

(-) Could have done without the randomly inserted pervert penguins…

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