November 24, 2021
By Andrew Osmond.
In Penguindrum, a dorky penguin hat – that’s a hat that looks like a penguin, not one made out of penguins – brings a beautiful girl back to life. This miracle starts an adventure that’s insanely odd even by the standards of anime. The girl is Himari Takakura, the angelic sister of brothers Shoma and Kanba, who are devoted to her with alarming intensity. They’re devastated by her death – she collapses at a Tokyo aquarium – elated by her miracle recovery, and dumbfounded by what happens next.
Himari wears the penguin hat, and turns into the sexy dominatrix-goddess of a psychedelic dimension, mercilessly ordering the boys to discover the fabled Penguindrum. Remember, she’s their little sister. Only anime could envisage an incestuous Yellow Submarine fantasy quite so blithely.
Like many anime, Penguindrum starts from an utterly silly premise and slowly gets you to take it seriously. It begins as an absurd comedy, then twists into a lethally sharp corkscrew. Like other anime, it has extreme lurches from lowbrow slapstick to operatic melodrama; it uses arch spoofs of anime classics and clichés, before transcending them. Then there’s the psycho-thriller sit-com strand. Another of the main characters is a worryingly obsessive-psychotic schoolgirl who fixates on an older man, tunnelling under his house and snuggling beneath his floorboards. Brrr…
Penguindrum initially has you watching just for the scene-stealing magic penguins – what, I didn’t mention them? – as they lark around the screen. However, the show is addictive in the long term because you never know what it’ll turn into next. For example, for a long time it looks like Himari will be a girly cipher when she’s not in Fearsome Goddess mode. But then a whole Alice-style fantasy episode fills out her character and suggests steel under her cutesy exterior.
Hardcore anime fans will be lured in by Penguindrum’s director, Kunihiko Ikuhara, sometime director of Sailor Moon and creator of Revolutionary Girl Utena. The same fans will appreciate the running gags about yesteryear anime like Sailor Moon – Himari gets her own once-an-episode magic girl transformation! – and Rose of Versailles, re-envisioned as a cardboard fantasy of the schoolgirl psycho.
There are allusions to Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad, a classic Japanese fantasy, written as a requiem for its author’s dead sister, and discussed in more detail elsewhere on this blog. There’s also an overt reference to a more recent fantasy fable, “Super Frog Saves Tokyo” by Haruki Murakami – you could imagine Penguindrum taking place in its world. The story can be read in its entirety here.
The Brain’s Base studio gives the anime its own identity through stylised running motifs. The crowds of ‘extras’ on Tokyo’s streets are faceless stick-figures. Subway stations are abstracted to signboards and mechanised ticket barriers. Scary cherubs scamper through neon screens like Powerpuff Girls.
(Minor spoilers follow.) The series also has a direct reference to a traumatic event in Japan’s postwar history, revealed at the midway point. For Japanese viewers, it would have had an impact comparable to that halfway reveal in Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name… which was also, of course, reflecting on a trauma in Japanese history.
Like Your Name, the second half of Penguindrum is very different from the first. There’s non-consenting bondage, really nasty things done to kids, and more heavy-duty allusions to fairy-tales, Miyazawa mixed with Hans Christian Andersen. Among other things, you’ll find out why Penguindrum is probably the only work apart from Fight Club to have cute cartoon penguins and an ‘18’ from the BBFC. Okay, it’s probably the bondage.
Eventually, it becomes impossible to draw lines between the characters’ “reality” and the realm of dreams and symbols. The finale starts as an action-movie climax, packed with bombs and bullets; then it segues into a bucket of viscous cartoon symbolism. But beneath all that, there’s a fairy story rooted in reality, a moving tale of lost children.
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Penguindrum will be released in the UK by Anime Limited.