Anime Reviews

I couldn't help myself: Mawaru Penguindrum and a feast for the eyes

It’s time to be an anime fan again.

Much has already been written about the first episode of Mawaru Penguindrum, the latest from Kunihiko Ikuhara (he of Revolutionary Girl Utena.) Like most, I really liked this first episode, but I’ve never been one to bother discussing plot details, rather, I just want to talk about art and post some pretty pictures, and like Madoka, Panty & Stocking and The Tatami Galaxy before it, Mawaru Penguindrum is an intricately-drawn feast for the eyes. I just couldn’t help myself.

It has a fascinating clash of tones. When I look at the above, I see the echoes of anime like Fruits Basket. So, this is a shoujo anime, then? A heart-warming tale of friendship?

Maybe not! Just like with Utena, it will suddenly lift its candy-coloured veil of happy families to reveal itself as something entirely different.
Note the body language in the images above, and how differently they contrast with the others. I particularly love the way they’ve drawn Kanba above, with him facing the wall, hands in pockets. It’s such a theatrical, emotive pose, and it’s also so Ikuhara, recalling moments like Jury in the pouring rain, resigned to her destiny, letting Utena win.

Faces writhed in shadow, enigmatic expressions and eyes half closed. Mawaru Penguindrum is pregnant with questions of fate and destiny. If something is forbidden, can it ever be realised? Indeed, should it be realised? If I may be so bold, what we’re set for here is another play on taboo and unrequited love, expressed again on a stage of sweeping, crazy glory.
It’s time to be an anime fan again.

13 replies on “I couldn't help myself: Mawaru Penguindrum and a feast for the eyes”

Yeah, visually, Mawaru Penguindrum is glorious. It’s also very different from Utena in terms of aesthetic; Utena was so firmly wedded to its shoujo craziness that to see Penguindrum take such a different tack is a bit of a shock. It probably bodes well that Ikuhara isn’t going for a blind reproduction of Utena, though. There’s a couple of similar ideas and visual techniques, but so far it appears to be a very different beast.
Seriously, though: it took me two watches in order to absorb everything in the first episode. There’s more going on in the background of Penguindrum then just about any show I’ve seen for a long time. Even Madoka Magica wasn’t this dense! Hopefully the level of detail indicates that Ikuhara knows exactly what he’s doing.

I’m sure that he does, Ikuhara seems like the kind of guy that’s quite obsessive about detail, so I’m convinced he has a grand plan for it. Regardless, it’s just brilliant to see a series like this again. I’ve missed watching anime this beautifully drawn.

For me it’s not only that Penguindrum is great to look at, though you’re right, it is, it’s when the strange stuff kicks in. It escalates. (SPOILERS) Minami rises from the dead was interesting enough, but then the penguins show up, and just when I was getting used to that, all hell breaks loose and it practically turns into a music video. I must remember that this is episode one, that many series like to flex a bit of muscle early in the series to get you interested (though I was interested already), and that if they try to top that every week it’ll just get dull. But it’s fun as hell to sit back and watch something visually delightful for a change.
However, the forbidden love bit at the end felt out of place. I know this isn’t Utena, but if I remember that show took its time bringing out the controversial themes, instead letting them simmer underneath for a while.

It’s interesting how differently people have reacted to the incestual scene at the end of this episode. For me, it felt almost like a stylistic thing, like he kissed her just because.
It didn’t hit me on that raw emotional level and I wasn’t offended by it, yet I wasn’t impressed by it either. I guess I just need to see more of this series before deciding what that scene was trying to convey.
As an aside, it’s weird to me that people are talking about the kiss as if it’s such an anime stereotype, because, to me, nothing in Peguindrum felt like a response/comment on contemporary anime, but more embedded within the late 90’s/early 00’s school of anime.

I am definitely excited about this anime. I am especially excited about the discussions and dissection it will bring from fans. I hope I won’t be too disappointed.
First episode was confusing but definitely intriguing. I loved the contrast between the lighter and darker moments. And just what are those cute penguins lol.
I also loved the design of their house. It was so colorful and unique with so much going on.

I took 300 images of this first episode before whittling the number down to the 6 you see in this post. Such a beautiful series.
And yeah, already there’s been an explosion in blogging on it, lots of good writing 🙂

What strikes me as completely different from most shows in general is how well Ikuhara understands visual language. He builds moods into scenes with colors, shading, and framing alone without extra lines of dialogue, but it still feels as explicitly tangible as if he did use words to describe it. It’s been established that Penguindrum is the show to watch, but now I’m looking for how the differences between now and when he made Utena will impact the final work. A bigger budget and proven production company, the attitude of the modern industry to prefer shorter, more concise series, and 14 years away from the director’s chair; does Ikuhara still have the Midas touch? I almost always want creators to succeed, but moreso in this case because his abilities seems so limitless.

Indeed, I couldn’t agree more. It’s going to be a fascinating journey, and I really hope I find more to blog about as the series goes on.

I particularly like the fourth image, and I really agree about the theatrical quality. It feels a lot like it could be on a stage.
I’m one of those odd people who really didn’t click with Utena in the way a lot of Anime fans seem to. I can understand why many people find it interesting, mind you — the imagery and symbolism are perfect for analysis and discussion. I mainly watch or read for characters, though, and I never really felt a strong emotional connection to any of them. It’s probably no coincidence that my favourite episode — out of the handful I saw — was episode seven, as I felt that Juri and her situation/behaviour felt more convincingly human than was usual for the show. (I never saw past the first season, so maybe I would have liked it more if I had done so.)
I actually prefer this opening of Penguindrum to the first episode of Utena — even though this seems to be sticking with the emphasis on ‘visual language’, to use Kadian’s fitting term, I feel more rooted in the characters and their situation, despite the melodrama at points. I like the way it doesn’t make the audience wait around — the very first line of the episode is an introduction to the mentality of the character and probably one of the biggest themes of the series as a whole: ‘I hate the word “fate.”‘ Nice opening. The ‘incest’ moment was…strange, for lack of a better word. It felt a bit random. I just hope that there is a good dramatic justification for it that works — I don’t like the idea of having it there just for the sake of sensationalism. If there is real emotion and thought put into it, that would be great.

You probably gave up on Utena slightly too early, because the second season (Black Rose arc) is where it really seems to find its feet and became a generally darker series. However, you shouldn’t feel like you need to battle through any series, so maybe it’s just not for you? I’ll be interested to see if Penguindrum is more up your street as it goes on, since it seems to be treading a lot of the same ground as Utena (even with the incest theme!)
(Jury’s the best character in Utena, glad you agree! 🙂 )

I like how that last scene cuts away like two frames after we’ve gotten enough visual information to tell for sure that he’s going for her lips and not her left cheek. (Look at his bottom lip — frame-by-frame didn’t work on my VLC, so I slowed it to 0.25x.)
Honestly, though, the whole “forbidden love” thing is completely beside the point. That’s just a phrase used to glamorize it. The important question is, why is it “forbidden”? I’m no expert, but I know there are reasons for it. Incest happens in the real world, and it has real consequences. Which, by the way, are almost completely unrelated to blood relation. Not to mention the fact that Kanba appears to be the closest thing Himari has to a parent.
(My Utena V1 box set’s still wrapped BTW.)

The kiss scene felt (to me, at least) to be quite of the blue, so I’m particularly interested to see how their feelings manifest in the next episode. I think it airs tonight, actually! 🙂 (Also, interesting that you’d slow down the scene. Watching at that speed, I bet you can divine more of the director’s intent when every movement appears that much more calculated.)

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