So. Penguindrum. One of the thorniest, richest anime of recent years, a show that draws on classic tales and modern traumas to craft a story full of weird textural inferences and strangely poignant moments. Penguindrum is many things, but before anything else, it is a clear reflection of the style of Kunihiko Ikuhara. Ikuhara’s only directed three original anime over the past twenty years, and in spite of that, he is one of the most lauded and influential creators in the medium. He’s also as close as a medium as collaborative as anime can get to an auteur – famously difficult to work with, his shows share a common identity that mark them as indelibly his (even when they’re lifted by contributions from his often brilliant collaborators). Penguindrum exhibits all of his core qualities, so before I get into this show specifically, let’s talk a bit about what makes Ikuhara tick.
Ikuhara has no interest in making his works easy – not only do his stories draw on a complex and deeply specific/personal set of literary/historical/cultural touchstones, but he also intentionally obfuscates his works. He is an artist who clearly believes that a crucial element of art is its ambiguity, which he expresses through wild digressions and ostentatious flourishes with no clear meaning. It’s actually through his weakest original production, Yurikuma, that he demonstrates the strength of this approach in inverse – lacking either the ambiguity or the individual humanity of his other works, Yurikuma feels almost strictly didactic.
Through ambiguity, Ikuhara’s greatest works challenge the audience to invest of themselves in his stories, to fill in the holes with their own experiences, and through doing so find something rich and not wholly describable, the synthesis of emotional meaning that elevates message art over the clarity of a simple essay. Great message art makes the way of the world not a problem affixed to a clear solution, but a lived experience full of irreducibly interwoven and emotionally charged obstacles.
Penguindrum is a sprawling, ambiguous treatise on fate, family, terrorism, and much else besides. Its wandering threads and loose ends are challenging and evocative even when they fail to wholly cohere. It is a deeply broken work, and I’m not sure I’d want it any other way.
Its first episode is a pretty clear indication of the rich and murky journey we’ve got ahead of us. The episode is constructed as a meditation on the unfairness of fate, as we’re introduced to the family of Kanba, Shoma, and their sister Himari. Himari is sickly, and in fact, their doctor says she at best has months to live. There’s no reason for Himari to suffer like this – in fact, if she were just meant to die so young, it seems unfair for her and her brothers to have been born at all.
As the episode opens, Shoma speaks of how he hates the word ‘fate,’ because it implies not only that no one has any free will, but that God has cruelly decided to let terrible things happen to good people. Kanba searches for meaning in the fate of his sister, grasping at the idea that they are being “punished” for something, but in truth, he can find no meaning in the cruelty of fortune. “Ever since that day, none of us had a future,” Shoma says. “The only thing we knew was that we’d never amount to anything.”
The warm relationship between these three siblings is established both through their self-consciously upbeat conversations and through the design of their wonderful home. The house of the three feels like a fairy tale cottage – it’s in truth a small and somewhat shabby building, but it’s full of rich details that bring it great personality. The bedroom of Himari is the design highlight; seemingly designed to evoke the home of a sleeping princess, it embraces the kind of fairy tale aesthetic Ikuhara always returns to. These siblings may scorn the idea of fate, but they still seem to believe in fairy tales.
The sense of this story being a kind of bitter fairy tale is evoked consistently throughout this episode. Hearing of his sister’s fate, Kanba declares that he will “pay the price, no matter how high” – a declaration of intent framed like a deal with the devil. And by the end of the episode, it seems like he truly has struck some kind of terrible bargain, as the “survival strategy” of the personality that inhabits his sister seems to involve dragging the very life out of his body. “The apple is a reward for those who choose to die for love” say a pair of mysterious boys passing their house, a pair we won’t come to know for a very long time. Their conversation even directly evokes another fairy tale, as they speak of the choices of Campanella, one of the principle characters of Night on the Galactic Railroad.
That story’s significance won’t become clear for a long while, but hints already abound, like the girl who disappears into a burst of flame in the show’s opening song. That opening sequence also features one more hint – the number 95. You’d have to be quite the sleuth to puzzle that one out, but one of this episode’s other obsessions does offer some context. The image of the subway train is omnipresent here, from the turnstile transitions and announcements that help place this show in Ikuhara’s intentionally theatrical wheelhouse to the mid-episode break, depicted through the show’s title shifting from one subway stop to the next. Even this episode’s magical girl transformation sequence adopts a train-based theme, as the person occupying Himari’s body charges down a mystical rail line towards her brothers.
Beyond the charming character writing, oddball humor, and thematic ambiguity, Penguindrum’s first episode is also just an effective narrative in its own right. The bond of the siblings is established quickly, and Kanba’s feelings on fate are understandable even if we don’t have the full context of their situation. The contrast between Shoma’s bubbly personality and Kanba’s resolute anger is clear early on – while Shoma handles daily tasks and seems a little insecure in a very relatable way, Kanba seems mysterious and textured, his response to Himari’s “death” implying a boy who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. And Himari lies between them, the object of their love stranded between her own identity and her captor, blissful childishness and motherly understanding.
The episode is also gorgeous. Penguindrum is rich in overt visual motifs, which unsurprisingly mirror the subway and penguin aesthetic, but the shot framing and backgrounds are even more impressive. The attention to detail that makes the family’s home so welcoming is echoed in many of the other environments, and the unease of the brothers is visually evoked through frames that leave the audience off-kilter or compress characters into corners and behind foreground devices. The detailed backgrounds give the world a sense of lived-in permanence, while the theatrical framing keeps things beautiful and emotionally heightened throughout. It’s a dynamic and consistently appealing visual experience.
In the end, the brothers are tasked with a strange mission – “obtain the Penguindrum.” In payment for their sister’s life, they must seek a prize as ambiguous as fate itself, all while Kanba mulls and sacrifices and looms suspiciously over his sister’s body. There are secrets in this world, and secrets in these people. There is much to be learned and much to be lost. If there is really fate in this universe, then God must be a cruel being indeed, but these siblings have no time to lament the whims of prophecy. The hunt for the Penguindrum has begun.
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