Himari Takakura passes away after going out on a trip with her brothers, twins Kanba and Shoma. She was, however, miraculously saved by a spirit in a penguin-shaped hat. In return for her extended life, the twins must search for an item known as the Penguin Drum with the aid of three penguins, which are visible only to the siblings.
I jumped on Mawaru Penguindrum after hearing it was directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, the same person who directed Revolutionary Girl Utena, possibly my favourite anime series of all time. In fact, this is the only anime series he's directed since. That's over ten years! So that would get any fan curious, right?
We are introduced to three siblings, the younger sister Himari and her two older brothers, Shoma and Kanba. Himari is an absolute darling, anyone would love to have a Himari as a little sister. Her brother Shoma is kind-hearted and as innocent as they come. In contrast is her other brother Kanba, who is anything but innocent when it comes to his ladies. All three love and care for each other lots, and live in a small house together on the corner of Japan's suburbs.
Sadly, Himari has been diagnosed with a condition that leaves her terminally ill, with death possible at any time. One day, she suggests going to the aquarium to see the penguins. It's a lovely day, until the moment her brothers turn their back, and she's found collapsed on the pavement. At the hospital, it's not long before Himari passes away.
However, miraculously she is brought back to life by a weird looking hat featuring the head of a penguin. Within this hat is a foreign entity, another voice. And it's not long before it demands (in a whimsical, sci-fi theatrical, choreographic fashion) that the two brothers acquire the 'Penguindrum', in exchange for Himari's resurrection. It's not determined exactly what or where the Penguindrum is, but each sibling does gain a kawaii penguin sidekick to help out. And so their random adventures begin!
Surprisingly, this has been most bizarre anime I've seen in a very long time, but sadly I don't mean this in an entirely good way. A lot of anime is strange, it's what we love about it. But there's a tipping point, and when a plot is so strange it doesn't hold itself together? Well, that can be quite bad.
I was enthusiastic about Mawaru Penguindrum, but as episodes passed I felt like I was being teased too much. Led on then let down, and repeat. With the premise summarised above, I'm sure anyone would have a lot of questions. But the plot seems to slow down and almost forget which way it's going, circling around itself a couple of times, until finally something happens and it tells you something, instead of just throwing penguins at you.
Don't get me wrong, this kind of narrative is fine when you have a firm protagonist to lead the way (e.g. Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena). But with Mawaru Penguindrum, the story seems to focus too much on Ringo and not enough on the siblings, who seemed more interesting to me. Under the house jokes aside, Ringo doesn't seem sure of what she's creeping into at all. I wasn't sure which was more confusing, her or the plot's pacing!
After wave after wave of melancholic stalking, theatrical dream vision puppetry, flashbacks, singing, signposts and obsessing over the meanings of fate, I got to a point where the plot's meandering ride left me a little too dizzy, sick and maybe wanting to jump off.
I suspect this may have been what series Director Ikuhara was going for. "Mawaru" does translate to "revolve", "rotate" or "turn" around in English..! Also "Penguindrum" probably derives from "conundrum", which means 'a confusing and difficult question, or a riddle or question asked for amusement'. Okay well it certainly does that, but maybe it goes on a little too long for my tastes?
Luckily, the series bears just enough plus points to warrant your stay, but maybe in an awkward 'just grin and bear it' kind of way. There are absolutely no complaints about the gorgeous animation, backdrops, character design, art direction and music - these are all excellent. It's those qualities that left me curious enough to watch on. The penguin sidekicks are also super cute, often found off-shot tied up with themselves. But still, there's no hiding that there's an elephant (or penguin?) in the room, and that questions are begging to be answered.
Patience thankfully, and finally turns out to be a virtue, as the series does eventually pick up and I can stop screaming at the TV, but then it was almost too late. It actually picked up so fast, it felt like my head had been dunked into a bucket of ice.
So apart from the plot taking way too much time to get moving, the production is top-notch and there's good laughs and character to be found here. But if you want the real answers, you'll need patience. I'm certainly curious enough to want to see the rest, and most of all to understand what Ikuhara is trying to say. But only just.