Episode 18 of Mawaru Penguindrum, “So, I want you to be there for my sake,” is among my all-time favourite anime episodes. The cards are laid out on the table, the backstories mostly told and the motivation of each character brought to the fore as events began charging toward their final – or should I say, fated – destination. At this point I found myself pausing from a night of binge-watching to take stock on the story thus far, since I’d been downing the show at a rate of three episodes a night (usually I limit myself to a single episode at a time for any series I’m following, to allow myself to sink into the story.) As I looked back on the previous seventeen episodes, though, a single thought came to me: What the hell just happened – and why the hell do I care so much?
There are so many elements to Mawaru Penguindrum that defy understanding. I’m not just talking about the visual aesthetics of the show, though the art direction is also completely off-the-wall as we’re bombarded with over-designed fantasy-sci-fi backgrounds and features and set pieces straight out of the Monogatari Series. It’s the story beats themselves that are absurd. What’s up with all the bears? Why is Kanba kissing his sister? Who is this red-haired girl blasting the memories out of the girls in Kanba’s life, and why can she even do that? What’s the goal of the Takakura parents as the leaders of a terrorist organization? Who the hell is Satoshi? What’s with this idol sequence every time Himari’s possessed by the emperor penguin hat? What’s the deal with Ringo, and why can her deceased sisters’ diary change fate? What is the Child Broiler? What is the Destination of Fate? What the hell is the Penguindrum? I find it fascinating how Mawaru Penguindrum poses a new set of mind-blowing questions each and every episode – and somehow gets away with answering barely any of them.
It shouldn’t work. This show should be impenetrable. By the second episode I half expected myself to give up in frustration and quit. And yet I didn’t. I followed the series all the way down.
Right out the door you’ll find that Mawaru Penguindrum is totally liberal in its use of cliffhangers and episode hooks. The first episode ends in one, with brother – sorry, “brother” – Kanba leaning down to kiss his sister. At the end of the next episode we learn that cutesy high school darling Ringo is in fact a horrifyingly creepy stalker who goes so far as to camp out beneath the home of her victim, mysterious diary in hand. You can’t stop watching with endings like that. Every single ending – heck, every single moment – has you by the neck throughout. The pacing rarely ever lets up, either. Just like how the opening songs feature the main cast running and running and running and running, so too does it feel like the story is running with us, pulling us along into the next episode of insane happenings, rarely giving us time to stop and catch our breath. In the few times I got to take stock of the story thus far, I found myself too deep in, too invested in each character and their breathlessly unwinding backstories for me to stop.
In never letting up, Mawaru Penguindrum drags you along to the very last episode. But that shouldn’t be enough to keep you invested. Any bad show so incessant with its storytelling would confuse and ultimately lose its viewership pretty quickly, but that isn’t the case with this series. Despite all the craziness, it’s hard not to root for the main cast.
The thing with Mawaru Penguindrum is that it just doesn’t care whether or not its story beats make sense. I noticed while watching that there is essentially zero exposition in this show. I appreciate that – I don’t really like it when anime info-dumps on us. Rather, this is a story that’s driven more by theme than by its central narrative (though I will say that, being the mystery series it is, that narrative was still a joy to follow all the way down). These insane set pieces and the crazy places our characters wind up in are almost stand-ins for what they feel inside. What’s the Child Broiler? Doesn’t matter! Point is, these kids feel alone and abandoned. Why can some kids smash through the Child Broiler? Who cares? Point is, they’re trying their best to help the unloved feel loved. What in the heck is the deal with Ringo’s diary? What’s the Destination of Fate, and why can fates be transferred? Don’t stress about it. Point is, these characters will go whatever length to protect the people they love. Everything, from the dazzling fantasy aesthetic to the marathon pacing to the absolute ridiculousness of the situations the plot puts forth – everything is the way that is so that we, the audience, can feel what the cast feels deep inside.
There’s a fantastic sequence in Episode 18 that unpacks the one, terrible event in which all of Mawaru Penguindrum is anchored. The Takakura’s – parents of Shouma, Kanba and Himari – detonate a bomb in the Tokyo Metro, killing Ringo’s older sister the day that she’s born. Ringo’s sister, childhood friends to Yuki and Tabuki, who we learn saved them both from the cold unloving blades of the Child Broiler. The two will do anything to bring her back, and to exact revenge on the family that took her away. Ringo was the same – until all at once they come to terms with the fact that, run all they want, rage all they want, try all they might, there’s no coming back for the loved one they’ve lost. In this moment I felt I finally got the show, without actually getting any of it – these people are in pain. They want to be loved. They want their loved ones back more than anything in the world. They know it’s impossible to bring them back but they don’t care, and they would race to the Destination of Fate if it meant bringing them back. The desperate, blistering pace of the story matched their own desperation, the coldness of the Child Broiler matched the pain they felt inside, the spell hidden in Ringo’s sister’s notebook matched their wish to bring their loved one back. All these came together, sense or no sense, to hammer these emotions hard into my soul by the time the credits rolled.
Mawaru Penguindrum is a trip. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you’re the type who likes a narrative that makes logical, coherent sense. But if you can allow yourself to be taken up in the racing maelstrom of unhinged emotion that is Mawaru Penguindrum, I guarantee you’ll find something worthwhile for you to cry about, too.